Slow Food Italy – A Perspective from Fruitland

Last May, I received word I had been selected to be a US delegate for Terra Madre and the Salon del Gusto, a.k.a. The Slow Food Conference, which just wrapped up in Torino, Italy a couple of weeks ago.  These two events – held for the first time together under one roof – are a massive international food justice/food policy conference and the largest international food and wine exposition in the world. For those not familiar with Slow Food, one of its best and often repeated mantras at Torino which also helps describe their ethos was: buy food without a bar code.  Slow Food’s grown to an international movement, with hundreds of chapters found on every continent, all trying to push back at the McDonalds-Monsanto-Walmart-ification of our world’s food system through grassroots engagement.

Slow Food participant from Calabria

Though I came back with plenty to mull over from the experience, the biggest ah-ha moment was simple: the realization that with out a doubt, food today is having its “moment.” I don’t mean the seemingly endless waves of “celebrity” chefs, or the billions being made satisfying the palettes of “foodies” (a patronizing term that should go away for good.) But F-O-O-D, including a deeper more visceral understanding of it and its vast impact on our lives through abundance and scarcity, has in the last few years arguably made it one of the most unifying and urgent topics being assessed on the planet no matter what culture you come from. Food is now getting a deeper understanding, appreciation, ritualization, and most importantly, coming together around its universal power, than it ever has in history.

It’s a time of change, sharing, reassessment, learning, preservation and new thought – all around this wonderfully democratizing activity we as humans all must do to survive. Simply put, it’s an incredibly exciting and important time to be involved working with food, and with questions coming from any direction about how we eat – as individuals, a community, a country, as a world. With an advertised 250,000 attendees this year, Terra Madre/Salone del Gusto became the launch pad for a million conversations around all these topics.

I am happy to report that Slow Food, an organization that just a few years ago, myself and many others had serious doubts about being more dedicated to elite palettes and well-stuffed pocketbooks, has matured into a vital and inspiring movement where many voices can be heard, including an impressive number of indigenous communities which are now at the table.

Carlo Petrini, the group’s charismatic founder, is at age 63 still the movement’s rock star (followed everywhere he went by a phalanx of paparazzi.) I had the good fortune of hearing him speak twice during the 5 day event, and he is deeply inspirational. As passionate as ever, he seems genuinely thrilled at the prospect of growing world food movement he helped father, as well as the place youth, biodiversity and human diversity have to play in its future. He is committed to the idea that four marginalized groups will lead the way to solving the world’s current food crises: women, the elderly, farmers and indigenous people. And as someone who has spent much of the last decade documenting many in these categories, I couldn’t agree more.

Slow Food Delegate from Ecuador

The scale of the week was staggering on virtually every level, and I am still marveling at how something so large and sprawling could be so well-coordinated, and for the most part remain a cohesive unit, not to mention, one never seeming to have been co-opted or compromised by corporate sponsorship. The recipe for the this happening: combine many dozen educational panels & conferences, mix in over a hundred international “Taste with the Masters” demos (all complete with multi-lingual simultaneous translation in up to 4 languages), fold in several hundred small scale food producers/vendors from every region of Italy, plus more from every continent on the globe, sprinkle with many thousand international delegates, invite in the general public, then simmer in a pot about twice the size of the LA Convention Center for five days.

The first day was spent just getting a grip on the layout of the five building plus a circus tent the events were held in, and mapping out what one might cover to make sure there was a balanced diet of education, networking, eating and discovery.

A citrus-inspired product at Salone del Gusto

Yes, there seemed a strong bias at times towards dry academic European voices on many panels, and overall little interest in including US voices on at the international stages, but then again this was held in Torino, Italy – and it was admittedly refreshing to see our country be part of something international rather than dominate it. Again, the planning it took to equip and staff nearly ten full-sized temporary kitchens erected in the demo pavilion, let alone finding funding and accommodations for delegates coming form nearly a hundred countries around the world had to be staggering. Equally impressive was the organizer’s and participants commitment to implementing sustainable ways to serve the many millions of calories that were ingested that week, with well-over 90% of the food served to us being presented on biodegradable plates, spoons, cups, etc.

I was honored to speak on the opening US delegate panel about documentary work around food and shared how The Migrant Project came about and ultimately inspired Food Forward. I was flanked by colleagues speaking about how they are preserving the stories of everything from seeds and historic early-American gardeners, to contemporary individuals dedicated to changing our food systems. Quite impressive.

Though there was frustratingly minimal conversation on the topic of food waste – with only one dedicated panel – there was a strong undercurrent overall honoring food and its place in our lives in its myriad forms, including a great only-in-Italy proverb take away: “When crumbs fall off the table, sweep them into your hands and kiss them.”

There were some extremely spirited presentations on the topics of climate change, the current state of the UN’s decades old resolution to Peoples Right to Food, and Slow Food Berlin’s work around food waste and large-scale public feeding actions. A few of the countless stats presented during the week that stuck with me include:

  • The number of obese people in the world currently equals the number of starving people in the world.
  • There are approx. 40,000 people dying every day in the world from starvation.
  • In a third-world country like Thailand, childhood malnutrition has been made a priority, and amazingly been reduced to less than 1%.
  • It is estimated that there is enough food in the world to feed 70% MORE THAN the world’s population.

It was nice to see/hear LA’s own Food Policy Task Force get multiple shout outs for the fine work they are doing. More so, seeing people’s ecstatic response to Food Forward’s innovative approach to urban gleaning was nice – and it gave me a perspective on the work we’ve been building for the last three-plus years.  It re-emphasized how blessed we are living here in Fruitland, with our decommissioned commercial citrus orchards, and twelve-month a year harvest cycles. Still, it was disappointing that there are few on the international landscape looking at gleaning as a major piece of the solution to urban and rural hunger that it is.

Yes, there was much eating. Be it chickpea flour pizza, faro-based microbrews, German lavender-infused jams and literally thousands of things beyond, I quickly dropped the guilt for indulging and just went with it. In between the panels, conversations, presentations and the overall go-go pace, I managed to take in a few Taste of the Masters events – and had my head turned completely around by the Nordic Food Lab (led by their head of R&D, Ben Reade – a Danish Jamie Oliver) seeing where the next wave of culinary inspiration is coming from: seaside and forest foraging, and a couple of days later learned about the current state of rose wines and Cognacs.

For the few problems that came up (minimal and spotty Wi-Fi, few dedicated networking events/opps to connect with US colleagues, seemingly endless 15-18 hours days caused by maddeningly thought out transportation for delegates) it was a fascinating and inspiring five days that I feel incredibly grateful for being invited to and for being a part of.

The take away, beyond jars of pistachio creme, honeyed grappa and citron-infused chocolate, was a feeling the world can come together – and must come together – to address the topics of food in our lives – both those of crisis and celebration. It allows us to not just share the countless solutions and inspiration that can be drawn from from every corner of the globe, but to an incredible way to learn about ourselves as human beings.

Me with Chef Ernest Miller of Master Food Preserver program at Terra Madre

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