Did You Go To An Eat-In?

By Corby Kummer
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Photo by Siv Lie

Josh Viertel and Gordon Jenkins have written about the huge organization efforts Slow Food USA put into gathering hundreds of people at open-air picnics on Labor Day to launch their school food initiative. It took a lot of work, I can report from having been present at the creation--just a year ago, as the climax of the first Slow Food Nation.

The gathering was at Dolores Park, in San Francisco's Mission district, which itself has a distinguished past for gatherings of youth who want to bring about change. And the day was idyllic, as Labor Day was this year throughout much of the Northeast. The students were mostly college and high-school age, and many of them had been on their feet and on buses for most of the past week, volunteering at City Hall Plaza and Fort Mason for Slow Food Nation, which was a great hit. This was their celebration and finale.

It had much of the sweetness and harmony so many people have recently written about in the endless Woodstock reminiscences, and I imagine that last year's and this year's will inspire their own hagiographic literature in a few years. Why not get a jump start?

I have to start with the food, because it was so good. The event was potluck, so students got together whatever equipment they could in the apartments they were staying at and put together pretty glorious salads, stews, huge pans of cornbread, with of course everything free-range and much of the produce from the farmer's market that had operated at City Hall Plaza during the festival. There were pies baked my students at the Mission High School baked with help from Mission Pie, and using ingredients grown at Pie Ranch, on California's San Mateo coast.

Then there were the speakers. The event was really a mellow rally--mellow but with inspirational speakers.

There was, as is de rigueuer at all large locavore and foodie events (I wouldn't be surprised at vegan ones, too) a pig roast. Everything was set out along an endless, serpentine table donated by the Outstanding In The Field, which organizes outdoor group events at just this sort of table, generally cooked with local ingredients; I've seldom seen such an inviting table, let alone such a long one. I typically brought bread, typically filched, I mean begged, from the ovens at Fort Mason (a photo that an SFN-goer randomly took because she was so amused I was trying to balance my bread struck me as so characteristic that I use it on my Facebook page).

Then there were the speakers. The event was really a mellow rally--mellow but with inspirational speakers. They spoke from a stage with a red dutch-roofed frame in the shape of a barn and hay bales. Jered Lawson, of Pie Ranch, exhorted students to grow their own wheat so the world "wouldn't be reliant on our green revolution," and called for not just gardens but farms at every school. His conclusion was perfectly appropriate to the setting: "We've got fast food. We're dealing with it. We've got slow food. Now lets have love food. We want people who grow and make it to love that food. We're proud initiators of the love food movement."

Bryant Terry, an "eco-chef" who wrote the book Grub& with Anna Lappe, did a call-and-response to remind people that the Black Panthers and Bobby Seale "said, 'Revolutionaries got to eat too'--can I get an amen or ashay about that?" Melina Shannon-DiPietro was already onto this year's campaign when she called for "an America where every student sits down to a good lunch." She added, "We need a president who can invest in young farmers the way Kennedy invested in science." (Recall that this was at the height of the campain, and about five minutes before the economic meltdown.) Josh Viertel, just starting his tenure as president of Slow Food USA with a brief to make it into a much more political and activist organization, told the young people, "You've got not just my ear, you've got my heart."

And then there was Sam Levin, a high-school sophomore who as a freshman began Project Sprout, an organic garden on an elementary-school soccer field and sustainable-dining program at his Monument Mountain High School in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, in the Berkshires. He and his fellow students donated vegetables they grew to the local WIC office several days a week, he later told me; at the start he worked with a junior, a senior, and a guidance counselor, and had soon built a core group of ten. They built support among other students and teachers, leaving a cherry tomato in every teacher's mailbox.

"We've produced tons of vegetables," he said. "Every Friday we've had a kindergarten class come and learn. Now I'm here preparing for next big hurdle--getting our food in our cafeteria. Every day I've felt more energized to get back to our garden and take that next step, which I know will happen." He addressed the younger students who might be afraid to propose starting a garden on, say, a soccer field: "Tell them, We have to do this. We're so young no one has noticed us. You have to be really ready to tell them it's not just the right thing, we have to do it. This is going to be the generation that will act--the generation that will go down in history."

If I haven't made it clear: Sam electrified the crowd (you can get a sense of it here). And he repeated the same astonishing performance six weeks later in Turin, where Josh and others clobbered Carlo Petrini, the founder of Slow Food, and the organizers of the international conference into letting Sam be the youngest plenary speaker ever.

"Project Sprout has given me sleepless nights," he told the 7,000 farmers, food producers, teachers, and students from all over the world, gathered in a stadium built for the 2006 winter Olympics. "I'd take a thousand more of those nights for more days like the ones I've had this year." He summarized some of what he and his fellow students had done in the garden and ended, "This is a message from our generation to all who came before us that says, 'We will be the generation that reunites mankind with Planet Earth." He got a standing ovation. It was all that Petrini, a master orator and crowd-rouser, could do to follow him.

I was in the hall when Barack Obama jolted the Democrats out of their lassitude at the 2004 convention. I said this was hagiography. I was there when Sam Levin woke up 250 students and then thousands of rural farmers.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2009/09/did-you-go-to-an-eat-in/24610/