Profile: Slow Food USA

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When Carlo Petrini began the Slow Food movement in 1986, there were just two community-supported agriculture programs (CSAs) in the United States, farmers’ markets were scarce, and few people had the opportunity to shop at health food stores. Today, Americans have much more access to local, organic, and natural foods, with more than 6,000 farmers’ markets in 2010 and thousands of CSA programs nationwide. But Americans are also more obese than ever, cook at home less than they did in 1986, and have a more frenetic pace of life. Petrini helped to found the Slow Food movement in his home country, Italy, in order to address that frenzy and the unhealthy, unsustainable fast and junk foods that go along with it. He also promoted a return to traditional foods and cooking methods, and the communal enjoyment of food. Those principles are even more relevant today than they were twenty years ago.

Slow Food USA carries the torch in this country, promoting the “amazing bounty of food” through the principles of Good, Clean, and Fair. These interconnected ideals, first introduced by Slow Food International, dictate that food should come from healthy animals and plants and should help bring community members together; should be nutritious and grown sustainably without damage to the environment; and should be accessible to everyone and cultivated fairly, protecting the dignity and safety of agricultural workers.

Seven domestic programs follow these principles and further the mission of Slow Food USA: US Ark of Taste, Renewing America’s Food Traditions, Slow Food in Schools, Slow Food on Campus, US Terra Madre Network, US Youth Food Movement, and US Presidia.

The Ark of Taste and Renewing America’s Food Traditions are both aimed at preserving food heritage and protecting foods that are rarely produced and grown any more. Slow Food in Schools, Slow Food on Campus, and US Youth Food Movement raise awareness, educate, and mobilize students and young people about eating local and sustainable food. The US Terra Madre network includes 1,000 American food producers, educators, and cooks who join upwards of 7,000 international delegates in working to protect sustainable agriculture and local food traditions around the world. US Food Presidia organizes and funds projects that protect agricultural biodiversity and local food traditions.

The organization has about 200 chapters in at least 45 states, each of which focuses on at least one Slow Food USA program or project. Slow Food Austin, for example, organizes farm tours to help Austinites connect with local food growers and learn to appreciate local foods. They also send delegates to the biennial Terra Madre festival to meet with food producers and chefs from around the world and learn about sustainable growing techniques and the protection of local food traditions.

Slow Food USA had its first major gathering in 2008 with the Slow Food Nation event. More than 3,000 people collaborated to create an outdoor “food pavilion,” a farmers’ market, a “victory garden” planted with vegetables that would be donated to local food banks, an outdoor concert, and lectures and classes in downtown San Francisco. According to the Slow Food Nation website, over 85,000 people attended the event, and Slow Food USA got media coverage and new supporters.

The organization does have its critics, however, most of whom say that the organization is elitist and out of touch with working-class Americans. After Slow Food Nation in San Francisco, Fast Food Nation author Eric Schlosser wrote an article in The Nation in which he claimed that the organization had met its “good” and “clean” goals, but had failed to deliver on “fair.” He pointed to the scarcity at the conference of “the workers who harvest, process and serve the food we eat,” and said that in order for Slow Food USA to really become a broad-based social movement, it would have to engage and include that group in a much more substantial way. There were a few labor activists whose speeches brought attention to the plight of farm workers and food processors, Schlosser says, but for the most part the event was more theory-based and less in touch with the people whose lives are most directly affected by our current agricultural system.

New York Times food writer Kim Severson has also raised the question of elitism. She suggested in a NYT article that the event was Slow Food USA’s opportunity “to prove that Slow Food, as a movement, is not just one big wine tasting with really hard to find cheeses that you weren’t invited to.” Severson said that the traditional Slow Food philosophy created in Europe didn’t translate as well to the United States. For one thing, many Americans were alienated by the anti-technology, back-to-the-earth ideals of the European Slow Food model. Slow Food USA was attempting to reinvent itself, in a sense, for Slow Food Nation, by becoming more inclusive, inviting people to speak about food justice, and appointing a justice director to increase diversity at the event.

At Slow Food Nation, activist Vandana Shiva was quoted in the Wall Street Journal saying that Slow Food USA needed to combine cultural and policy ideals to bring about real change, and to garner more support from Americans. Shiva argued that the movement should make broader goals for itself, to help  Mexican agricultural workers as well as farmers in India and Africa, for example.

It’s been two-and-a-half years since Slow Food Nation, and about a month after the event Slow Food USA appointed its first president: Josh Viertel. Formerly co-founder and co-director of the Yale Sustainable Food Project, Viertel gained national attention when his question for President Obama was selected for a Q&A session after the State of the Union address this January. Viertel asked the president why it’s cheaper to feed kids froot loops than real fruit, and what the president was going to do to change that. Obama’s answer disappointed Viertel, because instead of addressing the problems of agricultural subsidies and industrialized agriculture, the president talked about how Michelle Obama worked with Walmart to create better product labeling.

President Obama did say that his administration was trying to make connections between grocery stores and local food producers. He also touted the child nutrition bill that will help bring healthier foods into schools. But that wasn’t enough, according to Viertel. He argued that, since the President wasn’t willing to take decisive action in food policy, then it is up to Americans to act and to bring about change.

Viertel showed that he could walk the walk when he represented Slow Food USA in a march late last month demanding better working conditions and higher pay for Florida agricultural workers. As he put it, “I am here today because the food movement cannot be separate from the farm workers movement.” Meghan Cohorst, a staff member of the Student/Farmworker Alliance, helped to organize the event, and she said that Slow Food USA’s involvement in the march had a positive effect on the outcome. Slow Food on Campus groups as well as Slow Food USA mobilized members and brought them out to the rally, and Viertel’s speech helped attract media attention. In the end, over 900 people participated. Cohorst said that Slow Food USA has “been committed to farm worker justice” for the past several years, and that the two organizations have been on several panels together. “We value the partnership,” Cohorst said.

Jenny Best, the Chief of Staff of Slow Food USA, said by email that “working to advance the rights and wages of farmers and farm workers is a top priority of Slow Food USA.” The organization is expanding its “focus on building a movement for change, and ensuring that social justice issues are an integral part of our efforts.”

There seems to be more of a focus on the “fair” part of the mission statement than there was even two-and-a-half years ago at Slow Food Nation. Slow Food USA aims to help the workers who grow our food as well as protect the land and food crops from pesticides, preserve rare foods, and promote the communal aspect of breaking bread. With the increasing presence of GMOs, rising rates of obesity, ever growing factory farms, fast food reliance and many other food related issues that our country faces, Slow Food USA has its work cut out for it.

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About Hannah Carney

Hannah has edited local history, written educational materials, and worked for labor justice. She is now focusing on her writing career, specializing in food, policy, and labor issues. Hannah was introduced to local, organic food when she moved to San Francisco in 2006 and tasted her first farmers' market tomato. Now a proud resident of Austin, TX, Hannah gardens in her free time and revels in the year-round growing season.

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