Get Back on Track, Slow Food USA

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in: Soapbox

Poppy Tooker

A group of former Slow Food USA members, leaders and activists, led by Gary Paul Nabhan, founder of RAFT (Renewing America’s Food Traditions), came together this month to create a road map intended to help reverse a trajectory which has distanced the U.S. group from Slow Food’s founding principles. The suggestions, 10 Things Slow Food Can Do to See Its Way Into 2012, were sent to the president, Josh Viertel, and the current board and carried the hope that Slow Food USA would redirect it’s resources to restore and regain its former position as a leading voice in America’s food future.  

Founded in the 1980s by Italian visionary Carlo Petrini,  Slow Food’s original mission was to combat the effects of fast-food in our increasingly fast lives. Members were urged to slow down and enjoy the pleasures of the table while actively preserving and promoting heritage foods and the farmers who produce and safeguard them. Petrini’s idea caught fire; the Slow Food message took root and flourished in more than 150 countries, including the United States.

More members, less money

In 2008, thousands of Slow Food members gathered in San Francisco for the culinary equivalent of a love-in, dubbed “Slow Food Nation.” Viertel had just been named president of the U.S. organization and seemed poised to further invigorate an American audience primed for change in the existing food system. He inherited the message “Good, Clean and Fair,” and was tasked with increasing membership, particularly among the youth of America.

While Viertel has succeeded in increasing membership,  the ability of these new members to sustain an expensive Brooklyn office is in question, as evidenced by recent layoffs. The “pay what you want” membership campaign resulted in lots of dollars — single dollar bills, that is, in some cases from longtime members who had previously given at the $60 or $100 level. They were now making a statement about what a Slow Food membership’s true worth had become.

Endangered foods left behind

In November 2010, Viertel suspended the activities of Slow Food USA’s only standing committee focused on the Ark of Taste, an international project of Slow Food. Using Noah’s Ark as a metaphor, these committees — active in most countries where Slow Food is firmly entrenched — identify endangered foods with vital cultural ties to a place and, most importantly, are delicious to eat. After the findings pass a review by the national committee, Slow Food International’s foundation promotes these foods on their website and at the biannual Terra Madre and Salone del Gusto events in Turin, Italy. Today with the national committee disbanded; there is no way for U.S. foods to be added to the international Ark.

Over the past three years, Slow Food USA has lost touch with its grass-roots base, ignored its principle mission and become too focused on symbolic gestures, often political in nature, which lack any firm outcome.

Member publication discontinued

At one time, an online member publication called the Snail, was filled with reports of real work being done by members across America. It spread Slow Food news and highlights, such as the monumental coast-to-coast Ark of Taste Seed Grow Out, an initiative that helped mainstream near-extinct ingredients like the Jimmy Nardello Frying Pepper, which now frequently appears on restaurant menus. Under Viertel, the Snail ceased publication, and today, Slow Food USA relies almost exclusively on social media bytes centered on musings from the Brooklyn office, rarely mentioning the work of chapter members.

Over the last three years, the Brooklyn staff has experienced a near complete turnover, effectively erasing the cultural memory of the decade-old U.S. organization. New hires at Slow Food USA are eloquent in social justice-styled community activism. but do not speak the language of food or agriculture.

When asked about his accomplishments, Viertel touts the power of Slow Food USA’s tweets. Perhaps it’s time to put some feet on the street and listen to what the real buzz is all about. As evidenced by recent Slow Food USA’s IRS filings, it’s more about financial collapse than bee colony collapse. There’s a strange brew simmering in that Brooklyn slow cooker.


Zester Daily contributor Poppy Tooker is an author, culinary teacher and host of the weekly NPR radio show “Louisiana Eats.” The New Orleans native is a frequent guest on The Food Network and the History Channel and the author of “The Crescent City Farmers Market Cookbook.”Photo: Poppy Tooker. Credit: Chris Granger

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