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A Conversation with Slow Food’s Josh Viertel

From The Faster Times:

When Josh Viertel took the helm at Slow Food USA in 2008, the organization had a reputation—at least in this country—as a club for foodies. Under Viertel’s leadership, though, the organization has dispelled this image with an increasing focus on food justice issues such as improving the abysmal quality of cafeteria food and fighting “ag-gag” bills that would’ve made it illegal to take photos or videos of farms. Last month, Slow Food organized its members to “take back the happy meal” by showing that it’s possible to cook a nutritious meal for less than $5 a person. Over 30,000 people came together at over 5,500 events to participate in Slow Food’s $5 challenge.

When I spoke to Viertel a few weeks ago, he had just returned from a board meeting in Portland, Oregon, and was full of praise for both Andy Ricker’s Thai restaurant Pok-Pok and Portland’s energetic food justice scene. As I talked to him, I came to the happy realization that Slow Food is a flourishing network of people from all backgrounds and socioeconomic levels—from advocates of Native American fishing methods to radical kimchee makers in Indianapolis. All these members are coming together to overthrow the industrial food system and buy and make food that is good, clean, and fair.

Mark Bittman had an op-ed in the Times a few weeks ago in which he argued that, despite subsidies, junk food can actually be more expensive than cooking meals from scratch. You have said in the past that we live in a country where it’s cheaper to feed  our children Froot Loops than it is to feed them fruit. So, which is it?

We live in a country where it’s easier—to feed our kids Froot Loops than it is to feed them fruit. Sometimes that’s price but a lot of times that’s access and a lot of times it’s knowledge, too. Price, access, and knowledge come together as this set of three factors, which can make it really hard to do the right thing when it comes to food.

Take potato chips. To buy a pound of potatoes in the form of potato chips, you are probably spending $11 or $12 a pound for potatoes. And potatoes, even the fanciest organic fingerlings, are never more than $2.75 or $3 pound, which is obscenely expensive. (Generally potatoes are $1 per pound.) So we’re talking ten or twelve times more for the junk food version.

Now the issue with that, though, is that it’s not just a matter of personal choice. It’s not that low-income people are making bad choices—it’s that they live in a food environment where making good choices is really really difficult. And so we need to change the structures that make that the case.

Bittman did acknowledge food deserts, but he implied that most people are lazy and opt to watch T.V. rather than cook. I think there’s some truth to these skewed values, but I also know there are many poor people who want to eat better but don’t because they’re pressed for time and are surrounded by fast food.

If we pretend that food is a democracy, you have to acknowledge that for a lot of people in a lot of neighborhoods, there are no polling stations and there’s only one candidate, and it’s the incumbent. And just saying “Well, if you just voted differently, we’d have a different food system,” verges on pathologizing poor people for bearing the traits of poverty. We can’t do that. We do have to talk about, “Hey, everyone needs to learn how to cook.” This should be something we value and the time should be valued, as well. Everyone should be engaged in building a world where it’s not easier to feed our kids Froot Loops than it is to feed them fruit. Whether that’s a matter of price, access, or knowledge.

Before you became the president of Slow Food USA, you were the co-director of the Yale Sustainable Food Project. Tell me a little about that project.

I was hired by Yale to get local, sustainable food into the dining halls and to build a farm on campus. And also to build curriculum and extra-curricular programs for undergraduates. It was a great adventure.

The idea was, “Let’s intervene with this incredibly intelligent—and for the most part very privileged—group of young people right before they catapult into the world.” Since ’72, every single presidential election at that time had a Yale graduate as one of the top two candidates. If you can intervene in that population you can create incredible change in the world.

At the same time, I was feeling a need to tap into the energy that was growing all over the country—particularly post-Omnivore’s Dilemma. I was seeing a lot of people—not just college students—either really angry or really inspired about food. They needed a place to put that energy. After Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring, you saw the Sierra Club and other environmental organizations take readers of the book—people who would be engaged in pushing for social change. So I thought, “Slow Food should be the vessel for all that energy.” I got asked to join the board and eventually got asked to take it over.

So was that your charge as president—to engage in movement building?

Exactly. Which takes organizational change. But we turned ourselves into an organization that’s built to do that work.

Every mom who drops her kid off at school for the first day and realizes, “My child may be eating something that’s going to make her sick”—that mom needs a path to do something about that concern. Everyone who reads Michael Pollan and complains about corn subsidies with a friend over a cup of Fair Trade coffee—they need something to do about it! And our job is to give them something to do about it. That’s what gets me up in the morning. I think it’s what gets all of our staff and volunteers up in the morning—how do we make sure that we take that energy and turn it into power to make change?

I noticed the shift in Slow Food’s mission right around Slow Food Nation, in August of 2008. After that, the popular perception started to change from the notion that Slow Food was a club for foodies (whether or not it was) to a social justice organization.

It wasn’t just me. It was a mood—a tone and tenor and culture of the movement that needed to change. We realized we needed to move in that direction.

But social justice has always been embedded in Slow Food’s overall mission, no?

Absolutely—and globally. Right now we have members in 150 countries. Slow Food has nothing to do with being a gourmet club in these countries. It has to do with changing the world, preserving traditions and maintaining the sovereignty of the people who are growing and eating in their countries. It has a lot to do with corporate power and the way globalization plays out.

Slow Food’s tag line has always been about making food good, clean, and fair.

At the very beginning it was a protest against McDonald’s on the Spanish Steps. And so it started with that sense of anti-corporate protest—it’s in its DNA. And I think some people forgot and thought it was good, clean, or fair. But the “and” is really important.

The latest e-mail I got expands on that: “Food that is good for those who eat it, good for the farmers and workers, and good for the planet.”

And that’s basically how I describe what Slow Food is. It’s the opposite of fast food—it’s all those things.

Read the rest of the interview over at The Faster Times.

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