Slow Food Nation Attracts 50,000 — Beneath The Surface

“Come to the table,” Slow Food Nation invited. And come to San Francisco over Labor Day weekend they did — around 50,000 people attending perhaps the largest food celebration in American history.

Tables and straw bales appeared in the heart of the city’s Civic Center around a victory garden on about a quarter of an acre that had replaced a lawn. It was surrounded by a huge marketplace, which was like an old-fashioned farmers’ market that gets food directly from the farm to the fork, bypassing corporate super-markets.

A couple of miles away by the Bay at Ft. Mason — inside an old military hangar stretching over the length of a couple of football field — people strolled down a long aisle to taste fresh seafood, chocolate, wine, olives, ice cream, Indian bread and other delightful options. They could also attend free film showings and rock concerts at the former military base transformed into a cultural center.

Meanwhile, inside large auditoriums and smaller meeting rooms people discussed the growing global food crisis, how to respond to it, and imagined possible futures for farming. The final panel included the following key voices in the growing world-wide sustainable agriculture movement: Italian Carlo Petri, the founder of Slow Food in l986, physicist Vandana Shiva from India, Kentucky poet and author Wendell Berry, UC Berkeley professor Michael Pollan, Alice Waters of Chez Panisse Restaurant, and Fast Food Nation author Eric Schloesser.

Petri emerged as a storytelling organizer, Shiva as a radical scientist, Berry as an elder statesman, Pollan as a teacher with a broad theoretical frame, Waters as an inspiring chef, and Schloesser as a reporter from the field.

“Good, Clean, and Fair”

“Good, clean, and fair” are Slow Food Nation’s (SFN) goals, described in a panel as the “Triple Bottom Line.” Good means food that has a welcoming taste and fair means that the farmworkers and others are treated well. Clean is more difficult to describe, so a panel “Exploring the Meaning of Clean” was offered.

SFN was fortunate to be covered by more than a couple hundred daily newspapers and other corporate media. However, this coverage by the fast press gave little or not attention to the substance beneath the pleasurable, attractive surface. This article focuses more on the critique of our food system that many of SFN’s Food for Thought speakers articulated.

“We’re not the leaders,” the elder Berry asserted. “We’re the catalysts. More and more people are talking to each other and doing things for each other. This is the cooperation principle.” Berry focused on the importance of being thrifty, growing a local economy, and being a good neighbor.

“We’ve made terrible mistakes in this country in terms of exploitation,” Berry admitted, echoing one of SFN’s main themes of social justice. “We continue to do so with the migrant population of Mexico.”

“The themes here are the themes of the next century,” Petri declared, painting a larger picture in Italian, which was translated into English. “If they are not, there will not be a future. Sooner or later these issues will arrive on the tables of all politicians.”

“Lets get rid of the heavy coat of being consumers, which destroys our lives,” Petri continued. “It allows all the injustices we have been hearing about. Enough of being consumers. Try to consume less every day. Lets all start wasting less. Lets free ourselves from this consumptive disease.” Frequently waving his arms, the bearded, grandfatherly Petri often brought humor and laughs to serious matters with compelling stories.

“Food Matters”

“Food matters,” Pollan asserted. “It is about politics and our health. The food issue has gotten on the national agenda because of the world food crisis. Food prices are high and the era of cheap food is over. Yet politicians have not been talking about food; they need to deal with it. It involves all the issues — energy, the price of oil, climate change, and health.”

Pollan continued, “We have been eating oil for 30 years now. We don’t have the oil any more. Agriculture is the original solar energy. We can eat without oil. We need to return to a diet of contemporary sunlight.”

“Markets are being stolen from farmers,” the activist physicist Shiva asserted, indicting industrial agriculture corporations. “The Gates Foundation is doing everything wrong in India. It continues the obsolete paradigm of getting pesticides into Africa and elsewhere. I think that the Gates Foundation is criminal. Monsanto and Cargill are killing people. We need to enforce anti-trust laws against them.” Shiva described the large number of farmers in India who are committing suicide because they are being displaced and loosing meaning in life.

Wes Jackson of the Land Institute in Kansas echoed Shiva’s concerns, “What the Gates Foundation and Rockefeller Foundation are proposing is a new Green Revolution. The data is in about its (negative) consequences.”

“The U.S. shapes global appetites and is destroying our laws in India. GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) are being placed on fast forward. Your local solutions need global consciousness.”

“You cannot underestimate the powers of those who will resist change,” Schloesser commented. “We need to create and broaden a real movement. We need a Slow Food Nation in Des Moines, Iowa. Our policies and companies cause harm to thousands who have not had a seat at the table.”

In an earlier panel that he moderated with workers and their advocates, Schloesser noted, “The sustainable agriculture movement has been successful in the last ten years.” He pointed to the growth of farmers’ markets, organic food, animal rights, and “a renewed appreciation for the taste of food.”

“But something has been missing,” Schloesser contended, “human rights. The people who harvest, process and prepare the food” have not been given their fair share. Schloesser and other panelists described the slavery involved in the tomato industry in Florida and the particular difficulties of meatpackers. Farmworkers and restaurant workers are among the poorest paid in the U.S.

International activists such as Petri and Shiva and their U.S. colleagues help pull down the veil placed by the corporate fast media in this country. It conceals much of the deadly action of our food system (which one government official described as “acceptable risks”) that systematically exploits workers in the U.S and world-wide, drains natural resources from around the globe, and exports our deadly chemicals and practices that thwart traditional agriculture.

As such notables discussed food inside to sold out crowds sitting in comfortable chairs, a soap box was set up outside in the Victory Garden where farmers and others educated the tourists and casual observers who came there just by chance or deliberately and sat down on straw bales. The marketplace surrounding the garden on about a quarter of an acre often had long lines at booths where farmers from around California offered their diverse foods. One felt like they were in an old-fashioned village where people were enjoying themselves with slow conversations, bumping into each other in a crowded plaza.

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom strolled by the garden and explained, “Both Alice Waters and I got down and helped plant the garden. We plan to leave it up at least through Thanksgiving and the end of November. Then we will decide what to do.” Waters added, “I’ve been wanting a garden on the White House lawn for a long time.”

At the soapbox orchardist Peter Jacobson of Yountville, California, spoke about “Learning from Chefs.” He advocated and described the growing trend of chefs developing relationships with local farmers. Both farmers and chefs are under a lot of pressure — usually at different times of the day. Farmers often begin their work before sun-up and chefs often continue past sundown.

50 Million More Farmers Needed

“We need 50 million more farmers if we are going to be able to farm sustainably” in the U.S. Jacobson asserted, echoing a theme raised at SFN and by Wendell Berry in his l977 The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, published by Sierra Club Books.

SFN offered a specific panel on “Edible Education,” which focused on schools for children. The long weekend itself also became an educational process. People learned about food and agriculture by what they heard and saw, as well as by what they tasted. Musicians reminded participants that agriculture and the food that it produces is a basis of culture.

RSK Arts and Drumming played traditional Nigerian drums and told stories, including one about a native doctor who used food as medicine. They sang a ”A Farmer’s Song” and Rasaki Aladokun explained, “We mean real farmer’s labor, not mechanized.” The drums sent out a heart beat rhythm throughout the victory garden that could surely be heard in downtown offices and which inspired little blonde girls to dance among the vegetables. The drums themselves were made of plants and animal skins, which provide us nourishment in other ways as well.

“We all eat everyday,” master chef Waters noted. “There are consequences to the choices we make with respect to our health, environment, and culture. Edible education is to help children understand those consequences.”

African American Van Jones of Green for All in Oakland was one of the most applauded panelists at SFN. “The clean energy wave is what I focus on — replacing pollution-based energy,” Jones said. “We have a crisis in our public school system. The schools fail to teach kids about how to get jobs and how to eat. We need to change how we fuel our buildings, as well as our bodies. The green economy that we are building can pull everyone together. We need to put the hungry kids without resources at the center. We need a movement to go from diesel to soul.”

“The interests of big business is a big part of why agriculture is failing. We need to put the interests of big business to the side,” the chair of SFN’s board, Katrina Heron, noted. “Big likes to talk to big,” noted SFN Executive Director Anya Fernald. This makes it difficult for small family farmers to be selected to provide food to the massive school lunch programs.

The Climate Change and Food panel was opened by moderator and author Mark Hertsgaard as follows: “We are gathered here today three years and a day after Hurricane Katrina. Today Hurricane Gustav is roaring through the Caribbean and headed toward New Orleans. It reminds us of the enormous power weather events have on food. How do we feed the world as we look out over the next 25 to 50 years?” The deadly specter of famine was raised.

Hertsgaard continued, “The rising temperatures will have ominous impacts on our food production. Yields of corn and other staples are projected to decline 10-20 percent in the Mid-West.” He added that projections in Africa are up to a 50% decline in the next 20 years. He said that there are now 800 million people in water-stressed parts of the world, which is projected to rise to some three billion people in 25 years.

Carl Pope, Executive Director of the Sierra Club, noted that, “fossil fuel-based civilization is unsustainable. The uncertainty of climate change is what is problematic. The farm bill locks the U.S. into five years of unparalleled disaster. There is a profound denial about food in American politics. Politicians do not get it.”

“The thunderstorms that hit the Mid-West last year are creating soil erosion in Iowa and elsewhere,” the Land Institute’s Wes Jackson noted. “For future generations this could be more significant that Katrina. We have to get back to the stuff that we are made of, which is soil.”

“What scares me about this historical moment is that some of the big bio-technology and agribusiness corporations are presenting themselves as solutions to the problems,” revealed author Anna Lappe of the Small Planet Institute. “But biotechnology neither increases yields or diversity nor does it democratize the food system.” She later added, “Organic agriculture can match or pass the yield of chemical, industrial agriculture. Industrial-style agriculture depletes resources in ways that are not accounted for.”

Echoing what her mother Frances Moore Lappe wrote about in Diet for a Small Planet, her daughter asserted that “the problem today on the planet with respect to hunger is not a question of scarcity. We have enough food to feed us all. It is a crisis of democracy, as my mother wrote thirty years ago.”

The Food for Thought speakers’ series took a systems approach. It related food and agriculture to issues such as climate change, social justice, re-localizing food, and the policy and planning needed to replace our current food system with a more sustainable one. Food security, energy security, and climate security were approached as intimately linked.

“Food is a universal right, not a privilege,” declared Josh Verteil, the new president of Slow Food USA. He will coordinate the some 200 Slow Food chapters in the United States, which has around 16,000 members among the more than 80,000 members in the international organization.

Six hundred leaders in the food industry were invited to come to a Changemakers Day at the beginning of SFN to discuss key issues. At these sessions one could hear lively conversations between different groups of people, including farmers and government regulators.

Local, National, and International Implications

SFN’s agenda was local, national, and international. On the local level the intention was to turn people toward what they can eat from local farmers, especially at a time when gasoline prices are rising, which contributes to a rise in food prices. The average travel distance from field to fork in the U.S. is 1500 miles.

On the national level, the draft of a Declaration for Healthy Food and Agriculture of slightly over 500 distilled words was released. Six months in the writing, the intention is to gather some 300,000 endorsers and take the document to Washington, D.C., in the fall of 2009 to influence the next farm bill.

The author of Food Fight: The Citizen’s Guide to a Food and Farm Bill, Daniel Imhoff, was the originating author and primary editor of the Declaration. Among its editors and framers were Pollan, Berry, Waters, Former Deputy Secretary of the USDA Richard Rominger, and Michael Dimock, who is the president of Roots of Change, one of SFN’s co-sponsors. The Declaration is now posted on and seeks comments and endorsers before a final version appears.

“The driving force behind the Declaration,” explained Imhoff while at a Taste Pavilion at Ft. Mason, “was to describe what healthy food is. We want to make the link between health and food.” Imhoff seeks to involve the medical community more in drafting the U.S.’s next farm bill and making the connection between food and health clearer.

The active presence of the Italian Petri and the scientist Shiva helped place SFN within an international context. SFN was modeled after the Terra Madre and Salon de Gusto gatherings that happen regularly in Italy. SFN had a European flavor, especially as people walked down the promenade at Ft. Mason, as if they were on Las Ramblas in Barcelona, or similar strolls in European cities.

Slow Food Nation (SFN) was unlike the dozens of agricultural and food-related gatherings this reporter has attended for over a decade, such as the informative annual Eco-Farm and Bioneer conferences. Those tend to have a couple of thousand committed activists who pay and meet inside. Many of them were also at SFN, but they were joined by thousands of others, some of whom were merely curious, found themselves attracted, and dropped in to free events. Most of those attending SFN did so outside on sunny days in what is usually foggy San Francisco at this time of year. Sold-out SFN tours left for farms to the north and south, including to the Russian River in this reporter’s home county.

Walking through the victory garden were many parents with infants in their arms and strollers. It was a truly family event with people of all ages. The lines at the booths at the marketplace were often long where people could buy the kinds of food and lunches that the gathering advocated. Members of the Youth Food Movement delegation seemed to even out-number the gray-hairs at the Edible Education panel. Some of them planned to stay around for a gigantic Eat-In scheduled for Labor Day in a large San Francisco park.

SFN was a major networking event with so many people interested in food coming together. “Stop the Spray: Support Healthy Food Systems” flyers were passed out on the sidewalk to protest the Light Brown Apple Moth eradication program currently happening in parts of California. A flyer promoting the showing at a local theatre of the film The World According to Monsanto was distributed. It will be screened by Jeffrey M. Smith, author of the book Seeds of Deception: Exposing Industry and Government Lies about the Safety of Genetically Engineered Foods You’re Eating.

During the weekend both corporate leaders and anti-corporate activists were together in discussions. SFN’s most controversial partner is Whole Foods Market, which is criticized for its union-busting activities and running small local grocery stores and small farmers out of business. In contrast, among SFN’s media partners was the progressive Mother Jones magazine.

“Whole Foods does not live up to Slow Food’s standards of good, clean, and fair,” asserted Sebastopol Farmer’s Market manager Paula Downing. “I went to a panel where a Mexican worker reported that they had negotiated a one cent a pound raise for their tomato picking in Florida with corporations like Taco Bell and Wal-Mart. Yet Whole Foods has not agreed to that raise. The difference is $45 for a ten-hour day, rather than $40. Rather than partner with Whole Foods, Slow Found should confine itself to stores that do comply with its standards, like Berkeley Bowl and Olivers in Sonoma County.”

“The role of Slow Food Nation,” according to one of its organizers, Michael Dimock, president of Roots of Change, “was to convene people and be a convergence.” A test of its effectiveness will be what happens in coming months as endorsers of the Declaration are solicited and then when it is presented to Congress.

Some SFN organizers are already considering hosting another such gathering, either next year or the following year.

Shepherd Bliss ( is a retired college teacher who has contributed to 24 books. Read other articles by Shepherd, or visit Shepherd's website.

5 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Matt said on September 2nd, 2008 at 9:50am #

    I was deeply saddened to read this article. At the end of the day, comments from people like Peter Jacobson and Anna Lappe are so loaded with value-laden judgments of other people’s failures that they cross the line. You are neo-imperialists, Mr. Jacobson and Ms. Lappe. Your views are the fantasies of California liberals totally disconnected from what’s actually happening out here.

    Anna Lappe, you must be willfully ignorant to state that “biotechnology neither increases yields or diversity”.

    Record yields in cotton, soybean and other crops have been achieved in the last few years because of biotechnology. Perhaps you cannot afford the time to read news that does not reconcile with your myopic world view.

    USDA forecasting highest cotton yield in US history:

    Slightly more serious academic research says, “the global net economic benefits to biotech crop farmers in 2005 was $5.6 billion, and $27 billion ($13 billion for developing countries and $14 billion for industrial countries) for the accumulated benefits during the period 1996 to 2005.” If you care to actually look a little harder, that’s work done by PG Economics,

    Or you could just consider your water. Biotech is responsible for a reduction in pesticide usage by 224,300 metric tons in a decade. Those of you who drink from the Colorado River and California Aquaduct ought to appreciate that.

    Perhaps you’d just like to tell this woman she has no right to keep women and families working on their farms instead of suffering economic collapse from lack of productivity, with the alternative of being forced into the ghettos of Lagos or Nairobi.

    But then, you don’t care much for people having CHOICES to stay on the farm. They don’t appreciate much about your fantasy world either, I guess.

    In that world, serious research says there is not enough arable land on the planet to convert all farming to organic and still feed the world. Then again, my skepticism of your position is sent further to the opposite side of the field by the fact that you assert this agenda on behalf of a $15 billion corporate organic industry.

    Jacobson calls for 50 million more farmers in the US? What are you smoking out there? One-sixth of the US population should turn back the clock eight decades and be told they were wrong to make their way into cities and suburbs? This is not only sad, it completely misses centuries of social and cultural trends that carried civilization to this point.

    My family is one generation off the farm in southern Iowa. I have no opportunities in that lovely, familiar town. I, and my four siblings, have moved to cities from Minneapolis to Richmond, Virginia. Thanks for the invitation, Mr. Jacobson, but we are not going back – and, unfortunately for you, I enjoy free will and have my own eyes open to the economic realities of family farms in Iowa. You, clearly, do not, sir.

    Do any of you wear cotton? Ever? If you really believed this garbage, please donate your cotton garments to someone who actually needs clothing. 80% of the cotton in the US is biotech cotton.

    I’ll bet your tee shirts speak volumes about your hypocrisy.

    That’s what this is really all about. The wildly outrageous, hypocritical fantasies of a bunch of neo-imperialist, white, upper middle class spoiled Generation Xers who have never done any honest labor.

    Get your hands dirty a little. You might wake up to find the world has moved on without you.

  2. Robert B. Livingston said on September 2nd, 2008 at 11:33am #

    I am sorry– but I see this Slow Food Nation as just another elitist foray into identity politics– which requires– yes, periodic (distraction) organizing with the requisite t-shirts and politically correct commercial sponsorships.

  3. sadie said on September 2nd, 2008 at 11:52am #

    interesting that Van Jones is described as “african american” while other people discussed are not identified by race at all. why is that?

  4. Deadbeat said on September 2nd, 2008 at 11:59am #

    To answer sadie my guess is that the identification of Van Jones as an “African American” is to highlight the issue of environmental racism and that this Green movement is building alliances across racial boundaries. That is the type of coalition building that is very much needed on the Left.

  5. sadie said on September 2nd, 2008 at 12:15pm #

    well there are a lot of other ways to highlight those things than by making sure to identify the black dude by his race. Basically when you identify only the black guy by his race and not anyone else, you’re otherizing the black guy and over normalizing the white folks. Which isn’t the best strategy for building alliances across racial boundaries.