Slow Food USA Comes Of Age

Photo: NOAA Photo Library/Flickr

From January 2010 til late last summer, PRK readers heard monthly from Anastacia Marx de Salcedo, an active member of Slow Food Boston, who regaled us with food- and drink-related tips, musings, book reviews, local histories and the like. Anastacia expressed her own views, but the topics on which she wrote consistently aligned with the mission and meaning of Slow Food Boston and the mothership, Slow Food USA.

Today, the mantle is being passed. While Anastacia hunkers down to complete her first book, colleague Alex Loud, Chapter President of Slow Food Boston, will contribute to PRK each month in a similar vein.

In his first post, below, Alex writes about Slow Food National’s current controversies. What should, and what shouldn’t, this organization be in the current food age?

Alex Loud
Slow Food Boston 

Although more than a generation behind us, 1986 does not, in retrospect, seem particularly different from today. Yes, a Macintosh was a boxy little brown computer and vinyl records were still common. Hip-Hop didn’t exist, but Rap was booming. Madonna was as ubiquitous as ever.

Yet, compared to the monumental changes witnessed over the preceding two generations (air travel, highways, computers, the atomic bomb, etc.), the space between 2012 and 1986 seems rather dull.

The same cannot be said, however, for the global food system. The supermarket shelves of 2012 may resemble those of 1986, but the system underpinning the supermarket has changed as radically as anything witnessed by my grandparents. In the U.S., food imports have risen 400% since 1986. Food production has become highly concentrated in massive corporate operations that produce not thousands of pounds of any given product, but millions upon millions. Imports from China, alone, increased from 433,000 metric tons to more than 2.1 million from 1997 to 2008.

We’ve also seen an explosion of “engineered” food, including genetically-modified “Round-up Ready” crops, lab-produced growth hormones to promote milk production in cows and, the large-scale use of antibiotics in everything from pigs to chickens to salmon and even shrimp. There have even been successful experiments with “in-vitro” meat — which is to say meat grown in a lab, absent an animal. Despite (or, perhaps because of) all this innovation, childhood obesity rates in America have tripled, as has the number of cases of diabetes diagnosed each year.

Given these wholesale changes in the world’s food system, it is not entirely surprising that food-advocacy organizations are changing as well. Most notably, these days it is Slow Food USA which has been undergoing a wrenching, well-publicized and occasionally nasty transformation. A transformation from what, exactly? Let’s go back to 1986.

We don’t want fast food, we want slow food!
– Italian demonstrators, 1986

On March 22nd of that year, an extraordinary event occurred in Rome: a McDonald’s restaurant opened. As prosaic as this event might seem here in America, this was a very big deal in Italy. Graced with a food culture as sophisticated and cherished as any on the planet, Italy had long resisted the temptations of American industrial zeal. Indeed, the very notion that food should be “fast” was anathema to many Italians, particularly so to a group of intellectuals, led by Carlo Petrini, which had been meeting since the 1970s to revel in all the joys that perfect food and wine can bring.

Photo: AnnieGreenSprings/Flickr

For this group, the challenge posed by the opening of a McDonald’s just yards from the Spanish Steps could not go unanswered. So they did what all good revolutionaries do: they demonstrated. Of course, this was Italy. So they also cooked up pounds of pasta to hand out to passersby while they demonstrated. The chant they came up with that day went like this: “We don’t want fast food, we want slow food!” With that, a movement was born.

Despite its roots in revolution, little about Slow Food since then has involved out-and-out rebellion. Rather, the focus has been on the quiet resistance of returning pleasure to the table, of seeking out and championing extraordinary foods and revering the artisan who gives life to the perfect cheese, wine, salumi or peach. Everything that industrial food was becoming in 1986, Slow Food stood against, but it did so in the kitchen, not in the street. Two decades passed.

In 2008, Slow Food USA got a new president. A former market farmer, Josh Viertel no doubt seemed to many to be an excellent choice to lead the American chapter of Slow Food. Who better to promote notions of reverence for food and its producers than someone who had actually toiled in the fields raising the perfect radish?

Not long after his arrival, however, Viertel began to take the movement in a different direction than some people expected. Political advocacy began to creep into the picture. Membership dues were lowered, and the use of social media was expanded and emphasized as the primary means of communication. In September 2009, Slow Food USA sponsored “eat-ins” across the country to promote changes in the Child Nutrition Act which was then before Congress awaiting re-authorization. This push into issues of “food justice” was not typical Slow Food behavior, and it came at the expense of iconic programs such as the Ark of Taste, which were suddenly receiving less attention at the national level.

Photo: stevendepolo/Flickr

The proverbial camel-breaking straw, however, came in 2011 with Slow Food USA’s introduction of the $5 Challenge. Hearkening back to the movement’s birth moment, this was a direct swipe at the fast food industry’s stranglehold on the claim of being the only inexpensive food in town. Slow Food members were encouraged to organize potlucks featuring unprocessed home-cooked dishes that cost no more than $5 per serving. Gone were chicken breasts in favor of chicken thighs, organic was optional and tenderloin of Charolais? Right out.

For some long time supporters, this was simply too much. After decades spent supporting the idea of food as an almost spiritual medium, here was Slow Food racing McDonald’s to claim the “more calories for less money” throne. Angry letters were written, memberships were renounced, bad feelings ensued. In December a group of prominent Slow Food supporters, led by Gary Nabhan, published a wishlist of 10 changes they felt must be made in order for Slow Food USA to “right its course.”

In this moment, I would like to be able to write the happy ending to this story. But I can’t. The transformation of Slow Food USA and the disagreement it has engendered is on-going. I can tell you, however, that I and my fellow leaders of the Slow Food Boston chapter support Viertel’s move towards a broader-based and more politically active organization. While programs like the Ark of Taste should remain part of the core mission, so too should programs that foster a more socially-inclusive organization. That said, I find it lamentable that we’re even having this discussion. I was originally drawn to Slow Food years ago because of the movement’s intense belief that food enriches and enlivens our existence. But, like it or not, the world has changed.

The opening of that McDonald’s was significant. It was the telltale sign of a burgeoning industry beginning to flex its muscles on a global scale.

In 1986 the industrial food system was a Model T, trundling along at 35 mph — a speed that seemed quite fast at the time. Today, however, it is a Titan rocket screaming upwards towards the great unknown. The guidance systems are being designed as we fly. Back-up systems are non-existent. We don’t have even so much as a parachute in the event that things go wrong. Massive corporations are unilaterally making decisions that up-end literally thousands of years of human development and tradition. Perhaps Viertel’s critics are right: it isn’t really Slow Food’s job to force a discussion on issues like childhood obesity and food access. Yet somebody has to do it.

That demonstration in Rome 26 years ago may seem almost quaint today. But the fact remains that Carlo Petrini and his compatriots were on target. The opening of that McDonald’s was significant. It was the telltale sign of a burgeoning industry beginning to flex its muscles on a global scale. Then, it was Big Macs at the Spanish Steps. Tomorrow, it will be hamburgers grown in a lab solution.

Slow Food USA can try to hide itself away from this reality. It would be easier,  in fact, to just focus on finding a great heirloom turnip. The risk in that case, however, is that Slow Food becomes increasingly irrelevant, not unlike the French plantation owners in the “redux” version of Apocalypse Now, living out an indolent lifestyle of privilege while the jungle around them shakes with the sounds of war.

(author’s note: the opinions here are my own and do not reflect in anyway an official stance by either Slow Food USA or Slow Food International.)

7 thoughts on “Slow Food USA Comes Of Age

  1. Bob Drake

    Alex,

    Kudos for working to broaden Slow Foods important message.

    It is no accident that so many reform movements push off potential supporters in the name of ideological purity rather than actively work to spread the good news of safe healthy food.

    Real change comes from engaging the public in a democracy, not from building enclaves of well-off, pious people who take satisfaction about being right on the issues, but have given up on being successful in working for social change.

  2. Linda Hargrove

    Interesting food for thought. (pun intended) Nutritious food is abundant, yet difficult for people to select or even identify. Keep up the dialogue because it’s important!

  3. Steven Dunn

    Thanks for posting this informative piece, I had no idea there was such a struggle within SlowFood USA. I have to say that I come down on the side of more activism myself. Saving heritage breeds and seed sharing are wonderful pursuits, but they won’t feed a hungry planet or even start to correct the major flaws in our food system. I hope Slowfood USA continues to push beyond its original mission to help tackle the broader problems our food system faces.

  4. Mike Young

    Great stuff…my only critique is that it was paragraph 14 when I finally figured out the deal with the rocket photo :-)…).

    Personally, I just finished Hewitt’s “Town that Food Saved” and it really emphasized how agriculture (i.e., local food) can support community (and not just the other way around…CSA….). Seems to me that this is part of the allure of slow food(lower case “s”), which is not far from what Alex was drawn to, I think: “food enriches and enlivens our existence.”

    I don’t think slow food should “hide out” but potentially its strongest potential as a change agent is in helping people to see this power of food…a power that is exponentially more profound when enjoyed at a pace that respects our bodies and planet: slow…

    Looking forward to the next installment..

  5. David Sherman

    Great article. It’s clear that the multinationals are the radical, revolutionary element, overthrowing centuries of traditions of foodways, while Slow Foods is the force of conservation. It’s working for change by working for continuity, in the long historical sense.

  6. katherine Leiner

    It would be great to hear from more of those folks who were originally involved with Slow Foods. Tos ee how they have broadened their scope. I remember back in 1997 when I was first introduced to them at a Sonoma County Food Fair. I was impressed with their mission statement. Years later, I was impressed with how they had expanded that mission and I continue to be impressed with the work that Josh Viertel does. For some, Slow Food was becoming exclusive, a kind of club for those who could afford great artisanal food. The Ark of Taste still provides a place to actively debate the merits of old breeds, heirloom preservation. But we need every person, every organization we can gather, to look at the preservation of food without GMOs, food that is good, clean and affordable for everyone. And I applaud Slow Foods for getting into the action. And I thank them!

  7. Pingback: Your Sponge, In Context | Public Radio Kitchen

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