Slow Going at Slow Food (And That’s the Point)

A rift in slow food reveals big growing pains.

The foodiverse was all atwitter over this article from Chow last week. A rift has been forming between two factions within Slow Food USA, a non-profit organization that promotes the pleasures of the table, artisanal food production methods, sustainable agriculture, and direct connections between producers and consumers.

On one side is what we’ll call the Alice Waters faction that thinks food is too cheap to keep farmers who are doing the right thing in business and that people should prioritize food over consumer goods – and pay more for it. On the other side is some of the newer leadership of Slow Food that seeks to counter the charges of elitism that have continued to dog the organization, and to broaden its appeal to a younger, broker, and less well-connected demographic.

Think $20 pasture-raised chickens compared to Slow Food’s Recent $5 meal challenge. In some ways, switching its focus to value, rather than preciousness has helped Slow Food. Membership is up. But, according to the Chow article, donations are down from well-heeled donors who are unhappy with the organization’s new direction.

Critics insist that Slow Food must reach more people or risk being irrelevant to most of the population. Anna Smith Clark, The San Francisco Bay Area Governor of Slow Food agrees, but also thinks the laser-like focus in the media on higher profile elements around Slow Food do the organization a disservice. She points out that ordinary members within the organization are continually finding ways to disseminate the ideals behind Slow Food to different groups.  “There’s nothing written about the people who volunteer hours of their time planting the seeds of change in their communities among their friends and family members, or working with like-minded organizations,” says Smith Clark.

Discussions about Slow Food tend to focus on the need of reaching two specific groups: low income people and well-off foodies. For low income people the message is that it doesn’t have to be expensive or time-consuming to cook local, organic, real food, while the message for foodies is that when they fetishize taste, no matter the cost, they leave out a huge proportion of the population, for whom their message is useless.

As Slow Food grows up and the focus shifts away from its famous founders, there’s a third group that it will be crucial to reach: The enormous swath of the population with plenty of money to pay for good food, but who simply doesn’t care. This group doesn’t care about farmers, doesn’t care where food comes from, doesn’t care if it has additives, doesn’t care if it has too much packaging. Some probably doubt that organic is even healthier. Let’s call them the honey badgers of the consumer food market.  They really don’t give a sh*t.

If you’re a foodie living in a foodie bubble, you might forget these people exist. To remind yourself of the reality, go to a high-end conventional grocery store in any town in America, look at the cars in the parking lot, and watch what people put in their carts. It’s not a rarity to spot someone walking to a late model Mercedes or $70,000 Escalade with a grocery cart full of hundreds of dollars’ worth of processed, packaged food. Stacks of hot pockets, multiple giant boxes of Froot Loops, cases of Coca-Cola, jars of cheese dip, enormous bags of chips, and nary a fresh (or even frozen) vegetable in sight. Now go hang out around the parking lot of a fast food outlet in any well-off suburb, and notice how busy the drive-thru is.

So how does Slow Food reach those people? Smith Clark says people gravitate to the ideas of Slow Food around any number of issues, from concern for farm workers to childhood obesity. They get little tidbits of knowledge from community, news, friends, and family members, and at some point, the flashbulb lights up: “What are you going to do with the money in your pocket?” I ask if there isn’t some way to reach these people more quickly than these myriad individual conversations.

“I think that’s why it’s called Slow Food,” replies Smith Clark.

The honey badgers of the consumer food market vote. Changing the food system so that it is fair for both farmers and eaters is going to mean breaking the stranglehold the food industry has on food policy. Good food advocates need to reach the honey badgers and convince them that organic, sustainable food is not only better, but it’s also worth paying for, spending time cooking, and going to the polls for. Until then, you can pay all you want for chicken and heirloom vegetables at the farmers’ market, but the fast majority of food will still be processed, a lot of family farmers will still be impoverished, and those $20 chickens will continue to reach only a niche market. It’s going to take time. That’s why it’s a movement, not a revolution.


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This is the latest installment in Vanessa Barrington’s weekly column, The Green Plate,  on the environmental, social, and political issues related to what and how we eat.

Image: Lifesupercharger

Vanessa Barrington

Vanessa Barrington is a San Francisco based writer and communications consultant specializing in environmental, social, and political issues in the food system.