The Power of Eating Together

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Decatur GA Eat-In_post.jpg

Photo Courtesy of Josh Viertel


Letting go is hard for me. I want to touch everything. I have strong and specific opinions about the things I love: I have opinions about how fine to chop parsley and I am adamant about how close together to plant lettuce. Different varieties of head lettuce even get different spacing. I think it makes a difference. I like to think I'm right. But I'm learning to let go.

In my heart, I believe that a community's collective creativity is always more rich, more inspired, and more impactful than any one individual's. My mind sometimes gets in the way of my acting on that belief, but my experience keeps reinforcing the notion that large numbers of inspired people, on a mission, left to their own devices, will do brilliant and beautiful things. More and more, I am learning that my job at Slow Food USA is to create a context, offer some direction and support, and then get out of the way.

Nothing has taught me this more than the events that unfolded on Labor Day's National Day of Action launching the Time for Lunch campaign.

The more I learn about what happened on Labor Day, the more I'm struck by the unexpected results of inviting everyone to eat together, and push for change together.

The idea was simple: let's see if we can organize a series of demonstrations, part pot-luck, part sit-in, all over the country on one day, where people share food they believe in and demand legislation that gives kids real food in school. We will call the events Eat-Ins. If it works, it will be like a virtual march on Washington. The collective story will be told on the Internet and in the media.

We wanted to tell Congress that this is an issue that matters to a lot of Americans, and in the process we wanted to strengthen both the local communities where the events took place, and the national network of people working to change the way food and farming happen in America. We aimed for 100 demonstrations in 25 states. By the time Labor Day rolled around, we had 307 events confirmed, and we had demonstrations in every state in the nation.

And peoples' creativity, their understanding of their place, and their spirit blew me away. (Check out a slide show from across the country. We didn't tell people what to do, or what to bring. We wanted people to make events that fit their own community, their own place, and their own heart. People asked, "Are we required to have speakers?" Up to you. "Do we need to use tables, or can we have everyone bring picnic blankets?" Your call. "Can we do our event on the beach?" Yeah. Just invite me.

People asked, "Does all the food have to be organic?" "Will it all be local? Should it be produced within 50 miles, or 100 miles?" "Do we have to serve vegetarian food?" My inevitable response--"Just bring food you can believe in"--sometimes got blank stares. For those who didn't get it right off the bat I explained that all food has a story behind it. It is a story about the environment, about the economy, about people, and about community. I told them, "Just make sure it is a good story. One you like." They did.

This week people started posting their favorite food on our Facebook page. Together, over 20,000 people weaved together a story of an America that has a food culture, and it is a food culture we can believe in.

By asking local organizers to create their own terms, and participants to co-create the menu; the people became owners. This was their event. Our job was to be the thread that could weave these patches together into a national narrative. And to watch the stories unfold.

My mom is a great mom. She also happens to be a really effective organizer. So when she heard about the campaign, she went to work. I hope the fact that my mom co-organized one of the demonstrations doesn't lead folks to speculate that this campaign was Astroturf; that it wasn't truly grassroots. She is not a plant, nor is she a puppet for the movement. She is an honest-to-God community member in Tarrytown, N.Y. She just also happens to be my mom. And her event was fantastic. Politicians abounded (Representative Nita Lowey was there, as was New York State Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins, New York State Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, and the town mayor, Drew Fixell.) The setting--the steps of the public school, overlooking route 9 and the Hudson River--was perfect. And the food was great.

There were empanadas, and a piñata, all brought by community members from predominantly Hispanic sections of north Tarrytown. Gloria Cepin and Ana Lopez, who helped to organize the event, translated materials to Spanish, and made certain their community was represented. In a planning meeting with organizers, Gloria said, "I want you to know how much it means to us that we were asked to be here. In all the years we've been living and working in Tarrytown, it is the first time the white community really invited us in to work together, and to be a part of a community wide effort to make things better."

If, in 307 communities, all over the country, people got to know each other a little bit better because of this day--and people who may not have known each other at all, but may have lived in the same town, with children the same age, may now have kids playing together, and may work together to make their community more like the community they believe in--this campaign will have done something great. We could not possibly have anticipated these working relationships and the friendships being forged. And the more I learn about what happened on Labor Day, the more I'm struck by the unexpected results of inviting everyone to eat together, and push for change together.

One surprise stands out above all the rest for me. We had no idea the extent to which parents would bring their kids into their preparation for the Day of Action. In Charleston, North Carolina, Slow Food chapter leader Carole Addlestone organized parents to go with their kids to gather signatures at the local supermarket. They brought in over two thousand signatures! When I heard this story, I was blown away by how creative and effective Carole was, but I think I missed the real meaning of her actions. I would never have thought of it myself. A mom in Atlanta filled me in.

I was in Georgia for the Day of Action. She came up to me after an Eat-In I attended. "I want to thank you and Slow Food for starting this campaign," she stated. What she said next surprised me: "It helped me teach my kids how to engage in democracy."

"It helped me teach my kids how to engage in democracy." I got choked up.

It wasn't what we set out to do. But I can't think of anything more important.

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Josh Viertel is the president of Slow Food USA.

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