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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.

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"Terra Madre is a moment when people can realize that they're not alone. It profoundly changes how people live their lives afterward," said Josh Viertel, president of Slow Food USA.

A new program of Terra Madre, "A Thousand Gardens in Africa," was unveiled at this year's event. The plan will begin with work in countries that have an existing relationship with Terra Madre, including Kenya, Uganda, Ivory Coast, Mali, Morocco, Ethiopia, Senegal and Tanzania. Once established, the gardens will spread to other countries, expanding the Terra Madre network. The gardens will be cultivated with sustainable methods, and situated in schools and on community land in both urban and rural settings. "The final objective of this project is food sovereignty and helping local farmers recreate their farming traditions," explained Serena Milano, Secretary General of the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity, in a press release. "We do not give local farmers kits with seeds and fertilizers ... instead we help them recover certain local crop varieties that are more resistant and have less need for external inputs."

A big priority of the Thousand Gardens project is to restore prestige to small farmers, an occupation now often shunned by young people in Africa as in many other parts of the world. The program will promote educational activities in conjunction with the gardens, helping children learn to appreciate good food, and drawing on planting and cooking techniques from elders. The gardens will include fruit trees, vegetables and medicinal herbs, with priority given to local varieties. Slow Food chapters worldwide are invited to adopt one of these gardens. The cost is 900 Euro, which will cover equipment, training, coordination, educational material in local languages, technical assistance, a contribution toward scholarships for young Africans and financial assistance for representatives of these projects to attend the international Terra Madre meeting.

One morning, Viertel led an energetic gathering of more than 700 Terra Madre delegates from the U.S., and in that packed room the stereotypical Slow Food image of leisurely indulgence was nowhere to be found. What was found instead, were people on a mission. Invoking the work pace of Slow Food's mascot the snail, Viertel reminded the group that "It's only taken 60 years to screw up our food system. If it takes another 60 years to fix it, that's OK."

Petrini spoke next, emphasizing transformation, whereby old ideas that still work can be maintained, as preferable to revolution, where the good is sometimes tossed out with the bad. Nonetheless, the revolutionary spirit in the room was palpable. There was chanting, clapping and stomping, and the energy recalled that of other social movements.

The civil rights, anti-war, labor or feminist movements would not have been what they were without the input and passion of younger generations, and the same is true with Slow Food. Of all the subgroups at Terra Madre, the one called Youth Food was the most energetic. A mentoring workshop was arranged, in which elders of the sustainable farming movement were paired with aspiring farmers. The discussions included topics like how to buy land on a farmer's income, how to develop relationships with chefs, how to run a good CSA, how to set up a proper bee hive, or protect basil from the wind. Already, farmers in their early 20s are doing things like creating a program in South Africa that's trained thousands of teenagers in organic farming, or establishing a honey industry in Southern Brazil to provide economic incentive to save the local catinga forest. Hearing about this kind of activity inspired the other youth, and the elders as well.

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