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Friday, February 26, 2010

Dispatch from the 13th annual Georgia Organics conference

click to enlarge Carlo Petrini discusses the movement he founded
  • Carlo Petrini discusses the movement he founded

"I had a wonderful thing yesterday, something that I had never tasted before," Carlo Petrini says through a translator. Petrini, the founder of the Slow Food movement, speaks in Italian in a deliberate, declarative tone, and he leans forward towards me, his eyes full of excitement for his new found gastronomic discovery. "A collard green! Bellissimo!"

Petrini and I were sitting in the lobby of the Indigo hotel in Athens a few hours prior to his delivering the keynote address for Georgia Organics' 13th annual conference. I had just asked him whether he thought the South in particular had latched onto Slow Food so enthusiastically because our region has a distinct historical food culture, more so than the rest of the country. Petrini didn't know much about Southern food culture, but he sure remembered that collard green. Which underlines a point made earlier that day during one of the conference sessions - a woman in the audience said, "We're not going to win this argument with politics, we're going to win it with flavor."

It was the second time we'd met, the first being a North Carolina Slow Food picnic in 2007. In the intervening three years, Petrini has become more practical and nuanced in his answers about the challenges facing the movement. Back then, I asked him about the perceived elitism of a movement that was primarily occurring in the white tablecloth restaurants and upscale markets of the country, when the folks who are most at risk for diet-based disease - the poor - had barely been touched by Slow Food. His answer then basically came down to a platitude about how if we eat less, better food wouldn't cost much more. Since then, the question of elitism is obviously one Petrini has come across repeatedly, and a large part of his keynote address that evening was devoted to addressing it.

At the day's first education session in the "Slow Food culture" track, Slow Food: From Education to Activism, the question of elitism came up almost as soon as the session's moderator, Julie Shaffer, opened the floor for questions. Participants worried that the politicizing of the movement would drive away the very people they most hoped to reach. A young man sitting in the front row asked how Slow Food could combat the perception of elitism. It occurred to me that it wasn't so much a question of perception - apart from right wing pundits who label every progressive thought as elitist, there aren't a whole lot of folks accusing the organics movement of shunning the working class. In fact, this is an accusation that comes mainly from within. Slow Foodists worry about elitism because they themselves see the limitations of the movement. There's a lot of frustration that Slow Food hasn't figured out how to reach  the people who need it most. Organic food, especially in a state like Georgia where demand vastly outweighs supply and the State is less than supportive of small farmers, is expensive. No one wants to suggest that these small farmers ought to devalue their merchandise - small-scale farming is hardly a recipe for wealth under the best circumstances. But it's obvious that food is an issue that traverses so many serious societal issues, from environmentalism to health, there has to be a way for the Slow Food movement to have a positive impact, beyond wine tastings and gorgeous veggie plates at high end restaurants.

In the midst of the session, I was struck by the anxiety about politicizing the movement. I raised my hand and asked about that dichotomy, when big agriculture has one of the best-funded and most active lobby machines in Washington. Surely to make a difference to the Farm Bill, or major policies on the national level that contribute to empty, harmful calories being the cheapest and most accessible, we needed to get over our anxiety and form a strong political arm? The response I got, from Joel Kimmons, who led the discussion later that afternoon on policy, was all about how as a society, we needed to learn how to taste. Then the discussion veered into America's puritan roots. It's clear that, in a mainly white, mainly affluent movement, there are significant concerns about how to reach out and become more effective. But there's also the tendency, when these tough questions arise, to go back to what we're comfortable with, which is waxing poetic about philosophy.

When I asked Petrini if he thought it was fair to hope that Slow Food could combat so many issues, he replied that it could play a part, but that the issues are so complex and vast, it would never be enough. When I raised the question of elitism, he spoke about value versus price. "Price can not be our only reference point," he said. "The low price of food implies a high societal cost." He spoke about reducing waste, and going back to a time when people cooked with leftovers. Later that night, during his keynote address, around 1,000 guests sat at long communal tables, having just finished the "farmer's feast." 25 of the region's best chefs cooked a family-style meal to end the conference. Petrini spoke of his grandfather, who would scoop up crumbs that fell from the table and kiss them. On my Twitter account, @rogueapron tweeted "Petrini speaks about respecting food; kissing crumbs that fall out of reverence; while we sit at tables laden with leftovers."

In the afternoon's policy session, different folks from the CDC spoke about the work they're doing regarding food, disease, and local agriculture. The charts and studies had impact, but I still yearned for someone to speak who had more tangible solutions. Then chef Michel Nischan got up to speak. His tone was immediately different - here was a guy who had a model that worked, and he was fired up about it.

Nischan was there representing the Wholesome Wave Foundation, which, among other things, works to get fresh, local produce into low income communities. One way they're doing that is by getting the funds to support a program that makes food stamps double their face value at farmer's markets. The success of that program has been huge, and is expanding rapidly. Here, for the first time that day, was someone with a plan that worked, that's being put into action. It was the most refreshing and exciting thing I heard at the conference.

The issues surrounding supporting local food systems are limitless. And Petrini is right - no one movement or group is going to solve even a fraction of the food-related problems the world faces. But Nischan reminded me that we should probably limit our self-critical hand wringing, take a step towards true advocacy, and get down to work.

(photo by Michael Wall)

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