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Revolution at a Snail's Pace: How the Slow Food Movement Is Tackling Our Biggest Food Problems

The organization is working to shed its image as a pleasure-based club of a privileged few who have the time to linger for hours at the dining table.

At the Slow Food organization's biennial convention in Turin, Italy last weekend, I joined food lovers from around the world as they perused a vast indoor market stocked with some of the tastiest morsels to be coaxed from the land anywhere. Samples were flowing in the great hall, dubbed the Salone del Gusto (Salon of Taste). Rows of stalls filled the 324,000-square-foot exhibition space, offering delicacies like prosciutto cured from the flesh of acorn-fed pigs, bread baked on maple leaves, blue-tinged Persian salt, brewed beans gathered from the wild coffee forests of Ethiopia, Sicilian spleen sandwiches, and countless other gastronomic treasures.

As wine glasses were swirled and sniffed and the souls of 10,000 cheeses were searched, a foodie encounter of a different sort was taking place in the building next door. There, 6,400 farmers, fishermen, cooks, food activists, teachers and students from 161 countries were engaged in three days of intense dialog. This was the other half of the Slow Food convention, called Terra Madre, Italian for Mother Earth.

The participants at Terra Madre came from dramatically different contexts, but the common ground they shared was solid. Each is working on his or her own piece of a larger puzzle: how to save the landscapes and cultures that produce the kind of delicacies so savored across the way at the Salone del Gusto.

In addition to talking shop on a variety of issues related to food production, Terra Madre participants gave presentations to their colleagues on many subjects. One, on the importance of the moringa tree in Kenya, might not seem relevant to, say, the Amazonian Guarani tribal members in attendance. But the Guarani's Juçara tree, which produces palm hearts and açaí, fills a similarly central role in their culture, and faces analogous threats from environmental destruction. Other presentations covered topics like sustainable seafood, seed patents and farming in arid climates.

Slow Food began in 1986 when Carlo Petrini, a journalist, staged a successful protest against plans to build a McDonald's on the Spanish Steps of Rome. Since then, the movement has turned into an organization that's been through many transformations, and is currently working to shed its image as a pleasure-based club of a privileged few who have the time and means to linger for hours at the dining table.

"I'm sick of masturbatory gourmets, people who smell a glass of Bordeaux for half an hour and speak divinely, as if they are priests, 'Oh, it has the wonderful smell of horse sweat,'" Petrini emphasized at a press conference during the 2008 Slow Food convention. He started Terra Madre in 2004 to help bring Slow Food in line with its mission of supporting food that's "good, clean, and fair."

Terra Madre can be chaotic, and at times difficult to grasp. One journalist I met complained that he wasn't learning anything he didn't already know. I wondered if he already knew how to prepare a wedding feast from moringa leaves, and suggested to him that Terra Madre isn't for food journalists; it's for people with calloused, dirty hands. It's a place for them to meet and share ideas for solutions to the obstacles they face in trying to produce good food on healthy land.

Unlike the Salone del Gusto, Terra Madre wasn't open to the public. The participants were selected via an application process, and those chosen as delegates had their expenses paid by Slow Food.

"Slow Food is building a movement of everyday people to make changes to the food system. These changes encompass everything from school gardens, supporting a generation of new farmers to running campaigns to impact national policy. Working from the grassroots, we hope to fundamentally change the story behind our food to one that we are proud of," Kate Walsh, Slow Food USA's director of communications, told me. And to this end, Terra Madre, by all accounts, is the most important program in Slow Food's portfolio of projects.

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