A Taste of Slow Food Nation

Like a really good lunch buffet, Slow Food Nation was enormous, a feast for the eyes, belly and mind. The four-day event in San Francisco drew a crowd of 60,000 over Labor Day weekend, according to organizers, who are calling it the largest celebration of food in America. It was also a first for parent organization Slow Food USA, the North American arm of the international Slow Food movement.

The entryway for Slow Food Nation, with San Francisco's City Hall in the background. (Kim O'Donnel)

The choices for what to see, taste, hear and discuss were many and varied, and my biggest challenge was in deciding what to do first. There were lectures with star-studded panels, smaller workshops with artisans and activists, a farmers' market, Victory garden and open-air food court, book signings, film screenings, a rock concert and a "Taste Pavilion," an indoor regional/artisanal foods expo.

As a member of the press, I cobbled together my wish list without worrying about what such an event-filled weekend would cost. The final tally of three lectures and an evening at the Taste Pavilion was $130, excluding the cost of eating lunch at the free and open-to-the-public marketplace at the Civic Center Plaza. (One blogger noted that she paid $6 for two peaches.) Had I attended as a paying member of the public, I would have probably narrowed my choices.

The cost of gastro-enlightenment and inspiration, unfortunately, is beyond the reach of most Americans trying to put food on the table -- slow, fast or a combination thereof.

SFN's Taste Pavilion. (Kim O'Donnel)

Ticket costs aside, SFN accomplished many things -- it got people talking, it got people excited, and going forward, it's got people thinking -- about what they're putting in their mouths. Mister MA, who joined me on the adventure, remarked how this event, by and large, has made him see and really understand just how intertwined food is with climate change, that it's not a separate issue that can be addressed and discussed independently. More than once I heard journalist Michael Pollan ("The Omnivore's Dilemma") say that there will be no progress in this country with regards to health care, the economy and the oil crisis without including food in the conversation. Food represents about one-fifth of the climate change equation, says Pollan, due to our extreme dependence on oil-based energy.

As much as I loved the Mexican huaraches (black bean-filled masa pouches) and watermelon agua fresca from El Huarache Loco in the open-air food court, I loved even more the tap water stations organized by Food & Water Watch, which served up 1,000 gallons of free filtered tap water each day of the event, eliminating the need for an estimated 100,000 plastic water bottles

As much as I loved the spectacular eye candy of the 50,000-square-foot Taste Pavilion, which served up food and nectars of the gods, I loved even more hearing New Delhi-based environmental activist Vandana Shiva declare that "We need every one of us to be the Rosa Parks of food" and author/academic Raj Patel argue that "We grow food not to eat it -- but to set it on fire" (referring to crops grown for ethanol). Patel also reminded the audience that one of every five calories eaten on earth is rice, the cost of which continues to soar.

I loved when Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini asked why food was excluded from Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama's nomination speech, urging that "food must regain the importance of being part of modern American discourse."

And I'm grateful for the opportunity to get an early look at Food, Inc., a powerful new documentary (premiering this week at Toronto Film Festival) about the industrialization of the food system, including montages about Monsanto's control of U.S. corn and soybean crops (70 and 90 percent respectively, according to the film) and Stoneyfield Farm yogurt's relationship with Wal-Mart.

Going forward, I'd like to see some representation of fruits and vegetables at the Taste Pavilion, more options for vegetarians and more of a visible presence of school groups, seniors and lower-income communities who otherwise would not be able to afford the cost of a ticket, let alone a Mexican huarache. But I'd reckon, after all the plates and cups are composted and the Victory Garden is harvested, this newborn nation is poised for greatness.

The Post's Jane Black has more SFN coverage.

By Kim ODonnel |  September 3, 2008; 1:40 PM ET Food Politics , Sustainability , Travel
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Sounds like a great time and a great event. But let's not be seduced by the 'eat locally' message. California has the most varied and robust agriculture of any region in the world. So close to the Central Valley, the leading supplier of non-tropical foods in the US, eating locally is a pleasure.

Most of the country is not so lucky. In New England, the growing season is so short and the soil so hard to work that farmers departed en masse as soon as the Ohio Valley was opened up. Here in Colorado, eating locally means fine squash and peaches for a few months of the year, with sagebrush and lizard tails the rest. We have one of the largest deer herds in the world, but the venison in the markets is all from New Zealand.

Certainly there's a lot more we can do to raise our own food in parts of the country not as arable and productive as California or, say, Pennsylvania. But we should not fool ourselves into thinking that this is a large-scale strategy to reduce our dependence on distant sources. At best it demonstrates Alice Waters' concept of The Perfect Carrot -- something that's not in itself worth the time and expense involved in raising it, but whose value resides in its ability to quicken our appreciation of the possibilities of fresh food.

Posted by: Bob | September 3, 2008 2:30 PM

Hi Bob,

"But we should not fool ourselves into thinking that this is a large-scale strategy to reduce our dependence on distant sources."

I understand where you are coming from; however, would you please define "distant." Were we, as a country, committed to focusing more on food at home (and by "home" I mean "domestic") do you think that it would make a difference overall? For instance, if our country were to tap into our deer herd in lieu of importing it from New Zealand?

Full disclosure: I live in rural PA and I have been seduced by the 100-mile local food challenge. For me, it has been more about learning where certain things are coming from, who and what and how they are available to me, and most importantly to keep my dollars in the local economy instead of to subsudize big, cheap food. Don't get me wrong, my entire diet does not consist of local foods (I make a weekly trip to the grocery store for things like coffee and other foodstuffs), but I've made changes in what I do and don't (can or can't) buy at the grocery store.

Posted by: Centre of Nowhere | September 4, 2008 9:01 AM

I'm usually a big fan of Kim's, but her obsession with eating locally really rubs me the wrong way, as it is not affordable for most families on a budget. I'm glad she highlighted the astronomical costs of this Slow Food Nation event. It shows me that the wealthy people behind this movement have no conception of the economic realities most Americans are facing. They need to stop trying to make the rest of us feel guilty for not spending $6 on two peaches--we can't afford it. Just because we don't all "eat locally" or "eat slow" or whatever their latest trendy lingo is, doesn't mean we don't care about our food, or our health, or our environment. The holier than thou attitude of the people behind this movement makes me lose my appetite.

Posted by: Amanda | September 4, 2008 12:53 PM

Kim O'D:
the comment about "growing food to burn it" has resonance for me. I refuse to buy ethanol gasoline because I have issues with burning up food. Nebraska has a lot of policies to promote ethanol, mostly as a way to prop up all the grain farmers. There are so many conflicting "scientific evidences" of whether it takes more or less energy to grow corn for ethanol than we get back in actual fuel.

Nebraska likes to say it "feeds the nation." But sometimes I feel what it feeds is "the nation's addition to cars." Oh and red meat.

I do drive a car and I've always been sensitive to good mileage, etc. So I know it's a hypocritical and conflicted stance.

And I agree with Bob and Centre of Nowhere. We have short growing seasons here, and there are some things we could NEVER have if we were limited to strictly local (coffee, olive oil, citrus fruit come to mind immediately) but yes, we can make changes in our food choices that support local farmers when we can.

BTW, glad to know you got across the USA safe and hearty. Enjoyed our visit in Lincoln.

Posted by: Lincoln NE Kim | September 4, 2008 12:55 PM


I sympathize with how you feel about the smug attitude that often accompanies the Eat Locally movement – when I worked at a health food co-op I called it the More Vegan Than Thou attitude. The problem with your response to this smugness is that you’re allowing others to define the issue for you. Since you know that you care about food, health and the environment, why worry about whether anyone else thinks so, too? Listen to the sense of the message, forget about the messengers and do what you can, within the constraints of your budget, to take care of your health and the environment. (For what it’s worth, I don’t pick up that smug attitude from Kim, though I have from many others.)

Americans in general could, without spending more money, easily eat more locally than they do. Most of us could quit buying grapes in March, for example, and only buy them in the fall when those fruits are ripe in our hemisphere. That would be more local. As Centre of Nowhere said, we could define local as domestic and if we ate only domestically produced food we would be more local. We could grow more food in our gardens, or we could grow one tomato plant on our tiny apartment balcony and that would be more local. If you make 100 food choices each week, and you consciously choose 2 local items each time, then you’ll be eating more locally.

I think in this country we are so readily polarized that we forget how much of the work is carried out in the middle ground. You don’t have to be “with us or against us;” be with us as far as you want to be, and that’s okay with me.

Posted by: Esleigh | September 4, 2008 2:42 PM

I am really fortunate to live in southeastern Pennsylvania where produce is plentiful from early spring to late fall. For my part, I try when time permits, to prepare for winter by canning locally grown fruits and vegetables. Opening a jar of peaches or red sauce in the middle of winter or uncorking a bottle of homemade wine is very satisfying. What a generation or two before us did, as a matter of course (and survival), is still a viable option for stretching the budget and supporting local farmers. Make a weekend of it! Have the kids put away their Gameboys and give them a basket of apples to peel. Everyone benefits from the effort.

Posted by: Winnie from Philley | September 4, 2008 9:21 PM

"It shows me that the wealthy people behind this movement have no conception of the economic realities most Americans are facing. They need to stop trying to make the rest of us feel guilty for not spending $6 on two peaches--we can't afford it."

Posted by: Amanda | September 4, 2008 12:53 PM

Hey Amanda, please try this link to The Allegheny Front (it's a program carried on some public radio stations). In it, interviewer Jennifer Szweda Jordan speaks with Slow Food Nation Executive Director Anya Fernald. If I recall correctly, this is the segment in which Fernald, in addition to giving some background on the whys and wherefores of SFN, also comment that there were options available that could feed lunch for four for $10, total.

Here is the link to the radio segment (if I have the wrong segment, you can try another segment at the home page):


Posted by: Centre of Nowhere | September 8, 2008 2:05 PM

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