Farmers market in Turin, Italy — Photo courtesy of Lisa Waterman Gray
You might have heard the phrase somewhere, and maybe you thought it had something to do with farm-to-table cuisine, or maybe you thought it was the antithesis of fast food. You would sort of be right on both counts, but slow food is so much more than that.
Slow Food International began with its precursor, Arcigola, in 1986, to protest a McDonald's restaurant opening near Rome's Spanish Steps. In December 1989, delegates from 15 countries signed founding documents for Slow Food International to promote "good, clean and fair" food for all.
According to the organization’s web site...
Good food means enjoying delicious food, created with care from healthy plants and animals. Sharing the pleasure of good food also helps build community while celebrating culture and regional diversity.
Clean food is nutritious while being as good for the planet as it is for our bodies; grown and harvested with methods that positively impact local ecosystems and promote biodiversity.
Fair food reflects a belief that quality food should be accessible to all, regardless of income, and produced by people who are treated with dignity and justly compensated for their labor.
Richard McCarthy at Terre Madre 2014 — Photo courtesy of Lisa Waterman Gray
"[Slow Food] is a global community of eaters who recognize the deep sense of joy that is found in food," says Richard McCarthy, Executive Director of Slow Food USA. "It's a creative and hopeful response to a food system that celebrates scale, speed and efficiency."
Today, the nonprofit Slow Food International includes more than 100,000 members from more than 150 countries and 1,300 chapters. Volunteer board members promote local farmers, food artisans and 'taste education' gatherings such as touring a family-owned dairy or learning to prepare Indian cuisine.
Roughly 150 Slow Food USA chapters raise approximately $1 million annually, reinvesting these resources – and their volunteer hours – throughout their communities.
Understanding Slow Food
The organization educates consumers about potential risks associated with fast food, commercial agribusiness and factory farms, as well as reliance on too few plant varieties in our diet. Supporters may create 'banks' for heirloom seeds, raise heirloom livestock and create small-scale food-processing initiatives.
Slow Food encourages buying food in local marketplaces, while lobbying to include organic farming issues as part of agricultural policy, reduce/eliminate pesticide use and halt government funding for genetic engineering in the food supply. The organization also promotes development of school, urban and rooftop farming, including 10,000 Gardens in Africa, a program that simultaneously grows leadership, pride and knowledge about self-sufficiency and traditional foodways.
"More and more people are beginning to ask, 'Do I have a point of view about food?'" says McCarthy, a Slow Food member since the 1990s. "An increasingly younger, more affluent, more diverse community is now joining Slow Food too, including the global south – Africa, Southeast Asia and Latin America."
Faces of Slow Food
Alice Waters — Photo courtesy of Amanda Marsalis
Alice Waters | Restaurateur and school gardens activist
Owner of the renowned Berkeley, Calif. restaurant enterprise, Chez Panisse, Alice Waters says she didn't know she was "doing Slow Food" until she met Carlo Petrini, Slow Food founder, 25 years ago.
"I think many people are Slow Food members and they don't know it," she says. Today, Chez Panisse has its own farm, a 30-year relationship with the farmer and 60-80 additional food suppliers that share the same values.
Approximately two decades ago, Waters initiated Edible Schoolyard Berkeley as a means for teaching students to grow, cook and eat their own food. The hugely successful Edible Schoolyard Project now includes more than 55,000 schools, and many Italian schools participate too.
"My passion is [for students] to make tortilla soup from Mexico – while speaking Spanish," she says. "We need to lift up the farmer and the teacher at the same time and once we value the food of another culture, we begin to value the people that create it."
Brian Pelletier of Kakao Chocolate — Photo courtesy of Lisa Waterman Gray
Brian Pelletier | Chocolate artist
Co-president of the board for Slow Food St. Louis and owner of Kakao Chocolate and Larder & Cupboard, Pelletier became involved with Slow Food because of his deep interest in ecological issues, and a love of cooking and eating.
"[At the] chocolate shop we have policies to only use natural ingredients, to support local as much as possible and to make sure we're sustainable in everything we do," he says. "Those are things we would do anyway, but they fall directly into the initiatives of Slow Food.
"...It's about high-quality ingredients, lovingly prepared. It's about diversity and not just monoculture, and it's about gardening and shopping at farmers markets instead of buying highly processed food...[Slow Food St. Louis'] Crop Sourcing program, which helps farmers and home gardeners grow a variety of garlic plants, supports the global biodiversity initiative of Slow Food, and brings it directly into your backyard."
Eleanor Leger — Photo courtesy of Eden Specialty Ciders
Eleanor Leger | Cider maker
Leger operates Eden Specialty Ciders in Newport, Vt., near the Canadian border. "All of the apples are grown by local orchards, are eco-apple certified and biodynamic," she says. "The youngest cider we have takes eight months and some take two years. We recycle, we don't use chemical additives or processing agents, and we pay way above minimum wage to employees.
"[Slow Food] is...good for you, tastes good and you're treating the land and people with dignity, fair wages and sustainability. I feel like Slow Food's Snail of Approval program (as opposed to USDA organic) is really important too. It's the only designation I know of that gets out and investigates. Those are my values and the fact that they validated it is great. [The program] also stands for how to treat workers and the environment."
Josiah Lockhart | Livestock and produce expert
Lockhart joined Slow Food because the charity also emphasizes enjoying food. In 2014, he was a Slow Food Richmond, Va. member and co-owned Lockhart Family Farm where they raised American Mulefoot hogs, the nation's most endangered hog breed.
Lockhart now manages Gorgie City Farm, Edinburgh, Scotland's last working inner city farm, and has helped establish Slow Food Scotland. The farm provides more than 9,000 hours of free training to youth and vulnerable adults, annually, and hosts over 200,000 visitors each year.
"I've worked in and around food and food poverty since the early 2000s and [Slow Food has] provided a platform to talk about types and varieties of food we've lost, while at the same time giving respect to communities and cultures, traditions and histories," he says. "It's a space to fight homogenization of food."
Slow Food's Ark of Taste
Ark of Taste area at Terre Madre 2014 — Photo courtesy of Lisa Waterman Gray
The Ark of Taste program catalogs foods that face extinction. During Terre Madre 2014, Slow Food International pledged to designate 10,000 Ark of Taste products from across the globe.
"I spend a lot of my time working with Ark of Taste," says Lockhart, "both in the U.S. and in Scotland where I was the Ark coordinator for a period. For me, it is not just a biodiversity project, but an initiative that works to preserve and tell the story of our food history.
"We are deceived into thinking there is choice when we go to the supermarket, when we are really only choosing between a handful of products, packaged in different ways. Historically, we had a huge variety of crops but, in the past 20-30 years, we've reduced [that variety] drastically."
"Unless we recognize our food assets, we will lose a lot of what describes us as people," McCarthy says. "It's [about] recognition of traditional foods and indigenous and immigrant foods [including] canning and brewing."
Believing the amounts of meat consumed – and the way we raise animals – are not sustainable, Slow Meat kicked off in Denver several summers ago. It encourages people to eat better meat while using it as flavor for meals, rather than serving it as the main focus.
The initiative unites animal welfare advocates, ranchers, butchers and eaters who want to improve animal welfare and reduce the environmental impact of eating meat.
"The right to cheap meat in the U.S. results in confinement of animals, wealth and palates, and obfuscates the true cost of food," McCarthy says.
Lockhart agrees. "The biggest financial challenge is the time involved in raising livestock sustainably – it takes twice the time of commercial industry," he says.
"The biggest compliment I ever received, as a farmer, was when I was sampling mulefoot pork (an Ark of Taste breed) at Ellwood Thompson's in Richmond, Va. An elderly Jamaican lady came in and got very excited, saying that it tasted like pork. It was the first time since she had moved to the U.S. when she had tasted pork that reminded her of her childhood."
While family farms still feed 75% of humanity, we're losing biodiversity in favor of cheap food. "We're trying to teach slow food values in a fast food world that doesn't think of food as precious, or about what season it is or what is happening on the other side of the world," Waters says.
"So much of our food chain is based on single varietals of vegetables and highly bred species of animals," Pelletier says. "We've gotten used to that, so we don't notice the difference until we taste an heirloom tomato and realize how much better it tastes than those from the grocery store. We don't understand the impact of factory farming, unless – maybe – we see how much more colorful and flavorful an egg yolk is when it comes from a free range chicken.
"We look at farmers market produce and wonder why it's so expensive. What folks really should do is look at grocery store food and ask why it's so cheap."
Waters says, "It all comes down to paying the farmer for the real cost of his work – but if you know how to cook and use a whole stem of chard, and make two or three meals out of an organic chicken, [it helps]."
Addressing Slow Food critics
For some people, time constraints and the cost of fresh ingredients preclude preparing 'slow food.' And Leger understands why they may consider Slow Food to be elitist. "I think it's sometimes associated with fancy dinners that cost a lot of money. [But farmers] need to make an income and we need to have people who can afford it, to support the organization."
Pelletier empathizes too. "You look at the grocery store shelf and see real orange juice at $4 a quart and some sort of orange-flavored sugar water for $2 a gallon. Not everyone has the luxury of seeing that as a real choice and we all need to work harder to find solutions to [this situation]."
Lockhart comprehends how people misinterpret Slow Food when higher-end chefs get involved, “but I don’t think it’s accurate,” he says. “There are many examples of major initiatives across the U.S., Europe and the world that are not aimed at elite foodies.
“At the forefront of the movement are projects like Friendship Gardens in Charlotte, N.C. which is an urban farm that produces food for Meals on Wheels and is managed by a Slow Food USA Board member; the national school garden program; the 10,000 Gardens in Africa project; or the Navajo-Churro Sheep project which helps indigenous communities preserve their culture…
“I could go on and on with examples, but none of those events are elitist, and meals at fancy restaurants are only a small part of what goes on. Slow Food believes in good, clean and fair food for everyone.”