If Thursday’s events were wearying, Friday’s were discouraging. The panel called “Food Policies 5—Laws, Rights and Policies” presented a sound philosophical and legal argument on the right to food and set the lofty goals of guaranteeing everyone access to healthful, fair, and sustainably produced food. But the comments from the audience made clear that the reality of the economic strength and political influence of agro-business stands in the way of small producers when it comes to land use, access to water, and food safety regulations. Moreover, in some cases agro-business is threatening traditional and/or small producers. Panel members were drafting a section of the Terra Madre report that will be presented to political leaders around the world. But many of us in the audience felt that they were ignoring realities on the ground.
So events at the meeting of the US delegation the following day came as a unexpected and most welcome surprise. Indeed, the meeting was both energizing and inspiring. I came away very excited with what Slow Food USA might achieve and some of the strategies we can use. There are many opportunities here for Slow Food DC to engage in important activities and expand membership.
Josh Viertel, President of Slow Food USA, is a dynamic leader, a skilled cheerleader, and a masterful meeting planner. (I’m giving him credit for the structure and content of the meeting.)
First, Josh had Alice Waters say a few words. Alice said that to put pressure on Congress and to show the American people the importance of farms, farmers, and locally produced food she wants to bring 10,000 farmers to Washington, DC, to plant gardens on the Mall in 2011. Alice showed a photo of a demonstration in Paris in which farmers closed down the Champs Elysée and filled it with gardens.
Next Josh spoke. He started out echoing the need to make real food a universal right. But instead of acknowledging the difficulty of achieving that goal in the face of agro-business, Josh called for a political movement to influence the farm bill that will be redrafted in 2012 and 2017. “We need to do more than vote with our forks.” he said. Invoking Ghandi, Josh continued, “We need to bring love and power together.” We need to fight back.
Josh then told the story of the delegation from Burkina Faso to the 2008 Terra Madre who were at the airport waiting for the bus to Turin. Since one person in the delegation spoke English, Josh was asked to tell them the bus would leave in one half hour. The people from Burkina Faso had traveled for four days already and Josh felt bad about their having to wait. But the bus could not leave at the appointed time. So Josh again told them it would be another half hour wait. After two and a half hour delay, Josh again had to tell the people from Burkina Faso the bus was delayed another half hour. Before Josh could open his mouth, the person in the delegation who spoke English said, “Stop! . . . They have the watches. We have the time!”
Josh made that a rallying cry for the meeting asking the audience several time to respond to his “They have the watches!” with “We have the time.” The effect on the audience was electrifying.
Next Josh had ten delegates who were advancing the cause of Slow Food tell their stories. Here are eight:
Andy Nowak [I’m not sure I’m spelling the names correctly] from Denver told of how his group started schools on planting gardens. There are now more than 35 schools in Denver with gardens and the schools are also buying from local farmers to supplement their needs. Andy’s group also taught school cafeteria workers how to cook from scratch because many did not know how to prepare fresh food. Denise O’Brien from Iowa created the Women, Food, and Agriculture network to mentor and support women who want to become farmers. Erin Swensen Clott, a student at Oberlin College vitalized her campus Slow Food chapter. She said young people are concerned about what they eat and about Slow Food ideas. Rag Patel from San Francisco told of how his group has set the goal of making Ronald MacDonald retire. His group is borrowing tactics from the Black Panthers who greatly advanced social justice in Oakland by making the provision of breakfast in schools a key activity. Clayton Brackcupe, a Native American from New Mexico is revitalizing his community by teaching people how to farm. Another person was a “fixer of grocery stores”. He teaches people who run or want to run grocery stores in poor neighborhoods (were there tend to be few places to buy healthful food) how to best serve patrons’ needs for nutritional and tasty food. He visits grocers around the world and brings their best practices back to the US. Wood Tasch has started a program called Slow Money. He is working to get one million investors to put one percent of their money into local food projects. Sam Levin, age 17, started and organic garden four years ago. Now it is four times the size. He feeds a school and sells produce in his neighborhood. Sam wants his generation to reunite mankind with the earth. Then Sam invoked the image of the snail which, he said, works slowly, but very hard. We need to work like snails. He echoed Alice Waters’ call to bring 10,000 farmers to Washington, DC.
With each story the crowd was getting more energized.
Next, Carlo Petrini, founder of Slow Food, spoke. His style was very calm; his approach, mostly intellectual. He even commented on how energetic Josh was, getting the audience to respond, to stand up, and to cheer. Italians, Petrini said, would not understand such a presentation. They would find it very strange. “But,” Petrini went on, “the world must love the USA, because the US [will/must] lead change in food systems.” And sharing information about how this is done is a good kind of globalization. To support the US in taking the lead, Petrini wants to have a Slow Food international congress in the US in 2011, and he asked us for support. He also would like the Slow Food USA to organized a Salone del Gusto of its own, bringing together the producers of the best foods, wines, and spirits the US has to offer.
Petrini urged us to make people hear our voices. “Politicians,” he said, “will have to listen to the snail.” He concluded by saying that “We need a little power, some intelligence, and a lot of taste.” “The great transformation has to start in the US.”
Finally, he asked that each US chapter support one garden in Africa.
Next Josh took the microphone and disagreed with Petrini (as did I). Josh said we need a LOT of power, intelligence, and taste. And we are going to mobilize to influence Congress. He then led a cheer, shouting “They have the watches…” and the delegates responded enthusiastically “and we have the time.”
The snails are on the march!
The following day I ran into Alice Waters when I was having lunch at Eataly. When I told her I was from Washington, DC, she said, “I’m bringing 10,000 farmers to Washington on the third weekend in October 2011. We need to find people who can help and who can put a farmer up in their homes.” I volunteered to do so.
The meeting of the US delegation greatly energized me and got me thinking about all the things the DC chapter might do. I don’t know if we have the resources, but here are some things we should consider:
- To what extent can we support Alice’s demonstration?
- To what extent can we support Slow Food USA’s lobbying effort on the farm bill?
- To what extent could we support a Slow Food world congress?
- Recruiting college (and maybe high school) students to Slow Food. Giving them support for planting gardens and getting their food services to use locally produced food.
- Expanding efforts with school gardens. Do cafeteria workers need to be taught how to cook from scratch?
- Coordinate efforts to build the infrastructure need to make locally produced food a reasonable option for restaurants, large institutions, and consumers. This probably would entail working with other groups such as Farmland USA, CASA/Local Harvest, leaders of farmers markets, USDA, state and local agricultural and health departments, etc. It would also entail assessing the state of the current infrastructure to identify where development would be most useful.
As you can see I did not have time to focus on good eating since Wednesday. And the food I did eat was good (except for one bad meal), but not great. More importantly, I have become very excited about the prospects for reshaping food systems in the US, even if it takes 60 to 100 years.