The Soul of Slow Food

When my fiancée, Juliana, and I were farming, we grew the most beautiful produce I have ever seen. I do not mean to brag. It is sort of like being a parent, or a pet owner. Anyone who has grown food with love probably feels that way about the product of his or her labor. We grew 300 varieties of fruits, vegetables, herbs, and flowers, many heirloom varieties, and ingredients for cooking food from so many traditions. We sold them at a farmers’ market in a well-heeled neighborhood, and we charged a lot of money. We did not think twice about charging $16 per pound for salad greens. We knew what work went into it, we knew how good it was, and we knew it was worth it. We sold out. And we made $12,000 a year between the two of us. We thought we were doing pretty well.

When low-income people came to our stand with food stamps, we gave them two or three for the price of one. But something was broken. At $12,000, we had low incomes ourselves, and the only people we could feed had high incomes. I wanted to change the world, and I saw farming as a piece of that work. Fairness for the farmer seemed to mean injustice for the eater. Fairness for the eater seemed to mean injustice for the farmer. How could we simply choose to fight for one, with the knowledge that it undercut the other?

A few years later, I found myself standing in a room filled with about 300 extraordinary people — people working to take on the same paradox that had troubled me as a young farmer. Slow Food USA was putting on an enormous event in San Francisco in the fall of 2008 called Slow Food Nation. It brought the most inspiring artisan pickle makers, charcuterie curers, and bread bakers together with the most committed food activists and farmers. Alice Waters, Carlo Petrini, Wendell Berry, Eric Schlosser, Michael Pollan, Raj Patel, Van Jones, Vandana Shiva, Lucas Benitez, and many, many other heroes of mine were all in the same place, at the same time, to talk about food, farming, and the movement to transform both. Monsanto and Ronald McDonald would have done well to blow up the building.

But the room I am thinking of did not have any of these well-known leaders in it. It was filled with Slow Food’s unsung heroes — the people doing extraordinary work, day in, and day out, in their communities. This was a meeting for Slow Food USA’s chapter leaders to come together and talk about where to take the organization in the years that would follow.

People like Paula Shatkin, who was working to organize farmers to save the Gravenstein apple, which used to be a mainstay in northern California but had nearly disappeared because of rising property value for big wineries and real estate. People like Andy Nowak, and Gigia Kolouch and Krista Roberts, parents who would go on to organize over 500 parents and teachers to bring gardens and real food to the cafeterias of more than 60 percent of Denver’s public schools. People like Amanda Peden, from Portland, who would go on to bridge a gap between the committed farmers market shoppers in Portland and the farm workers that often picked the food that showed up on the table there.

We came together to commit to a common direction for the years that would follow. I had just been named Slow Food USA’s president, and had come there to meet and hear from the people I would be serving. I was impressed by what I heard. Some things did not surprise me. Leaders reaffirmed that the pleasure and power of the shared meal must continue to be central to the work Slow Food does. They talked about the importance of food traditions, biodiversity, and supporting food producers.

All were clear that this is deeply a part of who we are. But at the same time, there was a collective commitment to forwarding work that is explicitly about bettering the world — work that includes a commitment to justice, and that is serious about change. I heard statements like, “I don’t want to just be a part of a supper club. I want to change the way food and farming works in my community.”
That potential — the possibility of building a movement committed not only to the simple pleasure of the shared meal and paying the farmer fairly but to becoming a force for social change — is what first inspired me about Slow Food. It inspired all of us.

At this initial meeting, many leaders said that a move in this direction was simply becoming more true to Slow Food’s roots. After all, we were born at an anti-corporate protest: People gathered to shut down the opening of a McDonald’s on the Spanish Steps in Rome, chanting, “We don’t want Fast Food, we want Slow Food.” But they did so while serving penne pasta to the passersby. From the beginning, it was protest and pleasure, all in one.

Since Slow Food Nation, we have been doing the work and making the change. Most of this work has manifested itself at the local level, as chapters across the country have initiated projects and campaigns to make food in our communities more good, more clean, more fair. Much has happened at the national and state level as well, as we have mobilized initiatives to change school lunch policy, shut down Ag-Gag laws, reform food and farm policy, and to save the honey bee.

Just three years later, there are 1,200 leaders committed to that vision, leading that work. When we first met together, at Slow Food Nation, Slow Food USA had 14,000 members, and reached about 25,000 people on its mailing list. Today, we have 25,000 members and reach over 250,000 people on our mailing list. Together, we are working to build an alternative to the industrial food system. We are proving something better is possible.

This shift has prompted some important and difficult conversations. Lately it has bubbled over into controversy. Some people worry we are turning our backs on our roots. Some people say we are being more faithful to them. There are real, difficult questions at hand. What does it mean to promote paying the real cost of food while also promoting social justice and access? Is asking people to pay more for food elitist? Is exploring affordability an affront to farmers? Can you both fight for the farmer and fight for the eater, or do farmers and eaters have competing agendas? Can we fight for serious change without abandoning our commitment to the simple pleasure of a shared meal? What changes will we seek to make and who will we fight for? Access vs, food traditions and biodiversity. Farmers vs. eaters. Rural vs. urban. Youth vs. elders.

So far, the basic question has been about our identity: Should we be a movement that meets the interests of those who are naturally drawn to us and who can afford to take part, or should we be a movement that meets the needs of those who are most dependent on our being successful — and who are most vulnerable if we fail?

Underlying is a much deeper question, not just about our identity, but about our soul as an organization and as a movement: Do we have the foresight, the bravery, and the heart to be a movement that does both?

I believe we do, and I believe we must. Foresight, because if we choose one or the other, we lose. Bravery, because choosing both will sometimes make us uncomfortable as we face things that are difficult. And heart, because we need to be large-hearted enough to see that if we are only for one, and not for the other, we are not even for the one. That to love and support the farmer necessitates loving and supporting the person who should be able to be her customer.

One day, I want to grow and sell vegetables again. It may be the most satisfying work I have ever done. But we have a lot of work to do first. Because being a farmer should not mean earning a living that prices you out of eating the sort of food you grow. And people in your same income bracket should not be priced out of being your customer.

The only way we can get there is through building a movement that derives strength by being for both. For youth and elders; for food access and for food traditions; for farmers, workers, and eaters. One relies on and strengthens the other. We will come to see that preserving a food tradition, renewing a rare breed, and even just sharing a meal together can all be profound political acts — and that, in the end, good protest can start with a pot of good pasta.

Josh Viertel is the president of Slow Food USA.

Article first published in the Atlantic, January 23, 2012

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