Friday, August 29, 2008

Slow Food Nation - Day One

Victory Garden at the Civic Center
Slow Food Nation is in full swing, and I, for one am loving it. The garden is absolutely gorgeous, the design and set up of the Civic Center venue is genius, and the food and merchandise at the Marketplace and Slow on the Go are better than I'd dared hope. All of these are accessible to the public, and today, the public turned out. At lunchtime, some stalls had long lines, but it never became unmanageable - nobody ran out of food, and the venue handled the crowds well. All waste is compostable, water is being offered free of charge, people are reading poetry and speaking out on food politics at the Soapbox, and to answer the question I asked earlier - yes, the event does feel like a cohesive happening.

In addition to the public events, there have been two days of "by invitation" sessions - most notably the Congress of the Convivium representatives on Thursday, and todays' Changemakers Day - where the real work is taking place. I wasn't invited to attend either of those, but I did go to two of the Food for Thought sessions today, Food Systems: Policy and Planning, and Relocalizing Food. Both of these discussions focused on finding ways to repair the damage done to our culture and economy by the nationalized food systems we've developed post World War II. It's becoming increasingly clear that the current system (which depends on cheap labor and fossil fuels) is not sustainable and is not providing quality nutrition to the people who need it. Though I thought the discussion in the Food Systems session was better organized, I really enjoyed listening to some of the guests in the Relocalizing Food session. Michael Pollan of course is always great - but Dan Barber (Chef at Blue Hill at Stone Barns) was the surprise hit. He made some really some funny and incisive comments, and told great stories about growing 8 Row Flint Corn for polenta, trying to raise "volunteer" foie gras, and visiting a farm in France where the living conditions for the farmer's captive geese were so favorable, they actually called migrating geese down to stay.
City Hall and the Victory Garden
The discussions were thought provoking - and it's encouraging to see that so people are passionate about making changes to the dysfunctional systems we have in place for food production and delivery. Most of the discussion though, was about how we got in this mess, and though there seems to be alot of desire to get us out - it's not clear at all how that's going to happen. Given that agribusiness has a lot of money, while nature has none, it's kind of an unequal playing field. It needs to become such a hot political issue that elected officials are willing to defy the big $$ giants and change the law. If we don't - based on what I heard today - we're all in a mess of trouble.

Education of the public about these issues and the potential ramifications is essential to making changes - and to my mind, that's Slow Food's most important mission. Schools are a great place to start spreading the word - "get 'em while they're young!" - and that's what we're trying to do with projects like our school garden, etc. It's hard though, when the kids are so busy learning about the ridiculous subjects they test on now that they have no time to learn to grow food. You really wouldn't think that would be so far down on the totem pole, would you?? Here, have a GMO tater tot, kid, and get back to your four hours of algebra homework.

Some thoughts that have stuck in my mind today:

Why would anyone ever grow anything that doesn't produce food - especially given the rising cost of water? Are edible landscapes the wave of the future, and if not - why not?

Soil quality, fishing stocks, etc. are not improved by technology - technology only allows us to exhaust them ever more quickly.

What is the carrying capacity of California? How do we figure out a sustainable way to feed the population without confronting the limits of our ability to produce food?

The cost of transporting a case of broccoli from California to the East Coast has gone from $3.00 to $10.00 in the past year. Thus, the cost of fossil fuels have driven large sellers (Walmart, etc.) to look for ways to grow more food locally without any political will being exerted.

The current food production system rests on a foundation of cheap fossil fuels - used to transport food long distances without much added value. That is all coming to an end with the rise in the price of oil.

Our current food system depends on cheap labor in developing countries - we've bought large tracts from native populations, sent the people to the cities and farmed their land - exporting all the crops to the US. Though the rising cost of fossil fuels is making this impractical - we can't return the land to these people and expect them to resume farming it locally. In one generation that knowledge of farming has been lost.
We're currently producing over 3000 calories of food per day per person, which is nearly twice what most people need. We're stuffing those calories into people in the form of corn syrup and processed foods, which make the most money for the businesses who produce them. There's no economic incentive for corporations to promote fresh, healthy foods, because they can't add value to them through processing - which they then charge for in the form of a four dollar box of cereal that contains fifty cents worth (if that) of grains.


It sounds depressing and discouraging - but if people are going to care about these things, they have to know about them. This information needs to get out there, and these stories need to be told - that is what Slow Food is trying to do.

There are a lot of misconceptions out there about Slow Food - that it's about "super-awesome food for the happy few" rather than good food for all, etc. People who espouse these views either aren't really paying attention to the message (which has changed subtly over the past few years) or still believe in the puritanical notion that enjoyment of good food is unacceptably hedonistic. Really, there is room for the pursuit of both - enjoyment of good food, and fair food for all. Yes, there are events that cost money - they are fundraisers - it's a non-profit organization. Some people seem to feel excluded, or have a perception that Slow Food is not for or about them - but they've never joined, they've never added their voice or input to the group. Slow Food is "about" the people who take the time to be part of it, and put the energy into it - no one is excluded unless they choose to exclude themselves.
Tomatoes at the Marketplace
This is a little disjointed - but so are my thoughts right now. It's a little overwhelming, and I have to admit that the dual nature of the event - with the dire predictions on the one hand and the beautiful displays of delicious food on the other is a little hard to reconcile. If you want to see more of what I saw and ate (and thoroughly enjoyed!) here are the photos.

Tomorrow, I'm going on an all day excursion to Half Moon Bay, including visits to Pie Ranch and Hayley Farms - to see some goats. Sunday, I'm going to the Taste Pavilions for the morning session. Dinner tonight was at SPQR, which was very good and quite affordable - I will write more about it soon.

More Slow Food Nation commentary:
Open letter to Alice Waters from Ed of Serious Eats
Shuna's thoughts on the event
more of Shuna's thoughts
SF Gate Guide to the event
SF Gate Blog about the event (including this evening's Taste Pavilion preview)
The live Tweetstream
Still want more? Try this.


  1. Great post. Great pics. Great passion. Right on!

  2. Hi Alice, great photos and glad to know you are enjoying Slow Food Nation as much as I am. I have posted twice about it already and imagine there will be even more to say come tomorrow...

  3. Thanks for the recap. I've been "Reading the End of Food" by Paul Roberts and I's really difficult to reconcille with the issues. I'm looking forward to reading more...

  4. I attended the Mendocino County winery tour on Sunday -- it was amazing. We visited a bunch of biodynamic wineries and an olive mill. The heartening part about the wineries is that Fetzer is actually investing heavily in biodynamic (a corporation I would have assumed wouldn't bother). There are some good things happening.