Slow Food Nation

We came, we saw, we tasted Slow Food Nation.

Photos: P. Leonard,

It was a truly amazing weekend, full of energy and creativity and the spirit of collaboration, and it has certainly left us with a lot to chew on. We weren’t able to see or taste everything, but here are a few highlights…

Panel: A New, Fair Food System. This was not a panel so much as a series of speeches about worker justice including words from Jose Padilla, Director of California Rural Legal Assistance, Farm worker Lucas Benitez, and Greg Asbed, both from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, Augustin Ramirez ILWU Northern California Lead Organizer, and Maricela Morales, Associate Executive Director for Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE). Moderator Eric Schlosser’s introduction set the tone, proclaiming, “we must put the workers at the table in the sustainable food movement.” Each member of the panel then spoke passionately about the plight of farmworkers and other food laborers and the stories and statistics were staggering.

Jose Padilla told the story of a young, pregnant farm worker who died this May of heat exhaustion. She had been working on a day in which the temperature registered 95 degrees – when she was taken to the clinic, her body registered 108 degrees. Lucas Benitez, through translation, spoke of the slave-like conditions prevalent in present-day Florida Agriculture, where some workers make as little as $40 a week. Augustin Ramirez relayed the struggles of workers in the almond industry, who, while the industry thrives, still work for shockingly low wages, without benefits.

Thankfully, there were a few glimmers of hope, embodied in the incredible work that labor activists and worker’s rights organizations are accomplishing. The Coalition of Immokalee workers have been successful in convincing fast food chains, such as Burger King, to sign agreements to pay a penny-per-pound more for tomatoes (thereby giving the pickers, some of the lowest paid workers in America, a raise). At the time of the panel, CIW was on the verge of signing a similar agreement with Whole Foods, a Slow Food Nation sponsor.* And Maricela Morales ended the panel with words of encouragement and suggestions for action – these issues, she explained, “challenge our humanity,” but we must never underestimate the power of human solidarity.

The speakers focused mainly on California and Florida, two of the largest agricultural regions in the United States, but Oregon is certainly not without its own farm labor issues. One need only remember the flurry of articles this summer regarding food industry labor – the conflict between United Farm Workers and Beef Northwest Feeders over the rights of feedlot workers, the effect that crackdowns on immigration might have on Oregon’s economy, or the working conditions for farm workers in Oregon – to realize the importance and immediacy of this issue for Oregonians.

*We are happy to report that since Slow Food Nation, Whole Foods has signed the agreement to pay a penny-per-pound more for tomatoes grown in Florida.

The Best of Slow Food on Film and “The Price of Sugar.” While all three of the films – taken from the Slow Food on Film festival in Bolgna – were thought-provoking and powerful, “The Price of Sugar” is the film we are still talking about. Narrated by Paul Newman, the film documents the plight of Haitian workers who labor in the sugar plantations in neighboring Dominican Republic. Alone, the working conditions and stark inequality present in the sugar industry – conditions which are reinforced by US corporations that look the other way when importing – are shocking and demand action. When viewed in parallel with those which currently exist in the United States, what becomes clear is a global need for a restructured agricultural system that includes fair treatment of workers. As necessary participants in this system, we must consider not only where our food comes from and under what conditions it is grown, but also whose labor brings it to the table. A full list of films for 2008 can be found on the Slow Food on Film site. “The Price of Sugar,” will be released on DVD on November 25th of this year.

Marketplace. The site of many of the free events at Slow Food Nation, the marketplace buzzed with the sights, sounds and smells of people talking about, tasting and enjoying good food. It was our first stop upon arriving in San Francisco and we immediately got in line for some of the tasty lunchtime offerings. As we enjoyed our grass-fed beef hot dog and biscuits with country ham (courtesy of chef Scott Peacock), we listened to the poetry being read from the Soap Box stage inside the Victory Garden and to the hum of excitement from the farmer’s market nearby. When we returned to the market the following day, we sampled a small fraction of the wealth of produce and artisan products from farmers throughout California, all of which were selected for their commitment to good, clean and fair food.

One of us has a nearly overwhelming addiction to hot dogs, but an equally overwhelming aversion to the conditions behind the meat in most. Let’s Be Frank, a company that sources 100% grass fed beef for their dogs, helped to satisfy this blogger’s craving.

As it should have been, the weekend was a celebration of food as much as it was a rallying of the troops and a call to action. “Come to the table,” Slow Food Nation seemed to say, “because there is a lot of work yet to be done.” There was a sense that the weekend was a unifying moment of the energy that has been building over the past few years, with the growing appreciation of organics, national bestsellers about local food, and a new kind of food celebrity. The time seems ripe for the sustainable food movement to go forward, with all of the many people and organizations already knee deep in change-making, and with an army of informed supporters behind them. As was repeatedly pointed out during the weekend, Slow Food is just one among the many organizations working for lasting change to our food system. If anything, Slow Food Nation seemed to harness the building energy and to set it loose, embodied in those who will continue to work in their communities and who will form new partnerships to work for good, clean and fair food.

*Those of you who also made the trek to San Francisco, please use this forum to share your insights and experience.

For more on Slow Food Nation:

Slow Food Nation Flickr group

Slow Food Nation blog has continued to post summaries and photo galleries

New York Times coverage here, here, and here

Slow Food Nation YouTube channel

Washington Post coverage (Make sure to look at the “This Story” box on the left for more related content)

Summary by Tom Philpott of Grist of the criticism Slow Food was open to receiving at Slow Food Nation – this is the kind of criticism that could make the movement much stronger

Gristmill film interviews of Slow Food Nation participants, such as Raj Patel (search site for more interviews)

Thanks for sharing

  1. Peter de Garmo
    Peter de Garmo09-17-2008

    Once again, many thanks for the great photos and review of Slow Food Nation. As you indicate, there has been much discussion of the event(s), and much to take in and work on. Your comments on the labor issues discussed at Slow Food Nation can help the Portland Slow Food chapter shape its own forum (hopefully in conjunction with other organizations) on the “fair” component of “Good, clean and fair”.