What is Slow Food?

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Over the past few months, when I told people where I would be studying in Italy, I hesitated to say “The University of Gastronomic Sciences” — the University (founded in 2004) is too young to have international name recognition, and the “gastronomic” component, I found, led my friends, family, and acquaintances to believe that I would be attending culinary school. I got asked about lessons in knife skills and pastry making. Would I abandon academia for becoming a chef? No no, I would be learning how to taste food, how to talk about it, and how to promote it, not how to cook it.

So I started to tell people that I would be studying at the Slow Food university — surely, that would explain the multidisciplinary approach to food studies I would be taking. I found, though, that nearly every other person I talked to about Slow Food either hadn’t heard of it or was confused about its message. Here is the long form answer of what Slow Food means, both to its founder and leaders, whom I was lucky enough to meet at school these past two weeks, and to me.

I think that often, the name “Slow Food” gets confused with “Slow Cooking.” Case in point: at a Slow Food Philadelphia event in October, a visitor who hadn’t heard of the movement asked me if it was about long-simmering stews in crock pots. I admit that as a sophomore in college, when I first heard about Slow Food, I also assumed that it meant connecting with local producers, buying their goods, cooking them all day long, and luxuriating over the final meal, which would last several hours. Some of that — the connection with people who grow, raise, and make our food, the communal aspects of cuisine — holds true. The slow cooking part, not necessarily.

In reality, Slow Food rests on three seemingly simple tenets: that our food should be good (high in quality both nutritionally and from the perspective of pleasure), clean (environmentally friendly and sustainable) and fair (producers are properly compensated, consumers pay a just price). When meshed together, though, these principles create an ambitious vision for our food culture.

In our first days of classes at UniSG, Roberto Bordese, the President of Slow Food Italy, and Paolo DiCroce, the Secretary General of Slow Food International, and Carlo Petrini, Slow Food’s founder, explained the evolution of the movement and its ideals from its founding in the late 1980s to the present. When Slow Food got started, Italy, which is generally thought of as one of the richest food cultures in the world, was in a bit of crisis. After World War II, the Western diet began its slow creep into Italy: food sources became more homogeneous rather than biodiverse (i.e. fast food and non-seasonal, non-regional produce crept into the Italian diet), and local production of high-quality specialties started to fall to the wayside. People wanted to be able to get the same food everywhere and to pay little for it. Concretely, this meant that certain regional breeds of cows that produced milk for specialty cheeses were dropping out of production for want of a market, and that once-prized regionally distinct wines, like Barolo, were becoming bastardized.

For the founder of Slow Food, Carlo Petrini, a son of the once-great food-and-wine region Piedmont, this loss of food culture came to a head in 1986, when two events presented major blows to the Italy he knew: in March 1986, 19 people died after drinking Italian wine that was contaminated with methanol (added to increase alcohol content), and in the summer of 1986, McDonalds opened a franchise on the Spanish Steps in Rome. Petrini founded Slow Food in an attempt to save Italy’s traditional food and wine culture against scandal and globalization. Slow Food’s first tenet, then, became “good” — assuring that the food we eat and wine we drink is safe, pleasurable, and of guaranteed quality.

Slow Food expanded into an international movement a few years after its founding, and as it grew, it became more concerned with the sustainability of global food systems. A point that Bordese, DiCroce, and Petrini all harped on is that though though our global population is 6.9 billion, we currently produce enough food to feed 12 billion people. One would assume that with such a surplus of food, the issue of hunger would no longer exist, but about 1 billion people worldwide still do not have enough food to eat every day. Essentially, the green revolution — the focus on intensive agricultural production through the global spread of farming research and technology from the 1940s to 1970s — failed to face the issue of hunger, despite its mission to feed the world by sending the same food everywhere. Worse yet, according to Slow Food, the green revolution farming methods — sowing the same seeds worldwide the widespread use of pesticides, etc — have rendered our soils more and more infertile, jeopardizing our ability to produce food in the future. Therefore, Slow Food stands on the side of organic farming practices that focus on biodiversity and that treat the soil as a living organism.

With the start of the 21st century came the movement’s newest tenet: fair. Terra Madre, Slow Food’s network of “small-scale farmers, breeders, fishers and food artisans around the world whose approach to food production protects the environment and communities” embodies this tenet, as it works to promote the work of these artisans and to guarantee that they are well-treated and well-paid.

Slow Food’s projects strive to blend the good, clean and fair principles. Petrini, Bordese, and DiCroce are very proud of Slow Food’s push for gardens in schools and its goal to start 1,000 gardens in Africa. Other key efforts include the Arc of Taste and Slow Food Presidia; the former calls attention to quality food products that are in danger of extinction, the latter of which invests in those products (and their producers) and issues a guarantee of their quality. In the United States, one presidium is for raw milk cheeses.

I have been impressed with all that I’ve learned about Slow Food over the past two weeks, but though Carlo Petrini finds the American food situation hopeful (our percentage of farmers and farmer’s markets is growing) and thinks that Slow Food “has already won in rich countries,” I disagree. I think that in the United States, Slow Food has a long way to go to ensure that good, clean, and fair food is accessible to all. We must keep in mind the Americans who live in food deserts, and those that literally cannot afford fresh fruits and vegetables. We must also remember the fact that more Americans suffer from diet-related illnesses like diabetes and heart disease than do hunger. And what about the average American diet and food culture? I will continue to ask how Slow Food’s tenets can reach Americans during my time at the University of Gastronomic Sciences, and I hope to address the issue of accessibility.

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