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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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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.

"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.

At Youth Food's final meeting Petrini told the group, "...food and food culture [has] become an expression of power...[has] become a rediscovery of people's relationship with the landscape ... We're not just talking about food and agriculture, we're talking about spirituality."

The excitement generated, the information exchanged, and the networking that transpired at Terra Madre all conspired to invigorate a community that's driven to create real change. The snail may be the Slow Food mascot, but I left Terra Madre believing that what happened there will expedite the pace of real change in the food systems of the world.

Ari LeVaux writes a syndicated weekly food column, Flash in the Pan.
 
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