The Soul of Slow Food: Fighting for Both Farmers and Eaters

Slow Food USA's president says he is not turning his back on the organization's roots, but is instead trying to better understand its identity.

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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.

I want to grow and sell vegetables again. It may be the most satisfying work I have ever done. But we have work to do first.

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."

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Josh Viertel is the president of Slow Food USA.

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