Bodega Global :: Is Slow Food for everyone?

This past fall, JJP from Bodega Chronicles traveled across the Mediterranean exploring food markets of every style and format as part of our Bodega Global Project.  Before hitting the road, he participated as a delegate at the Slow Food International Bi-annual Conference – Terra Madre – along with two colleagues from the States, Sarah Fleming from DEGC out of Detroit and Heather Wooten from PHLP in Oakland as part of the Food Justice delegation at the conference.

We ask Sarah and Heather to help launch the Bodega Global Project by providing their voices and perspective  to frame the issue of food access and healthy grocery vis-a-vis their experience at Terra Madre.  Sarah was first up to bat, now it’s Heather’s turn.  So…

What does Slow Food have to do with the corner market?

This October, I joined my Bodega Chronicles compatriots at Terra Madre, the international conference of Slow Food, held in Turin, Italy. Terra Madre brings together producers, chefs, activists and educators from around the world into a massive conversation about good food. I came to the conference as a participant-observer, hoping to learn more about how Slow Food intersects with healthy corner stores and food justice work.

In full disclosure, I’m not a member of Slow Food and hadn’t really participated in their activities in the U.S. I was also a bit of an odd duck for another reason: policy work has historically not been the center of Slow Food’s activities. As a city planner, my participation in the food system is entirely from the policy side: creating local incentives and regulations that support sustainable food systems and access to healthy food.  That means paperwork, not hot peppers.

After three days of eating, listening, and talking with a group of some of the most passionate food people I’ve ever met, I find the short answer to my titular question is: not much, yet.

I say that because I’m not sure if Slow Food as a movement (and specifically its iteration in the US) has figured out where retail generally, and underserved communities in particular, fit into their core activities. I realize that’s an unsatisfying answer to many of you out there, so allow me to elaborate:

Leadership. The most visible American voice for Slow Food is probably the Bay Area superchef Alice Waters, who helped launch a seasonal/sustainable cooking food revolution and now advocates for healthy, local, organic food in school lunch. Whatever you might think of her work, Alice Waters is most definitely not the face of the healthy corner store. Without strong leadership that sees, hears, and represents the urban retailer, I’m not sure they will ever find a home in the movement.

Heather Wooten (left) and Winona LaDuke (right)

Price, price, price. It’s a cliched argument between Slow Food advocates and Food Justice folks: fancy food (aka, Alice Waters’ food) will never be affordable to the poor, so even if makes a few farmers earn a decent living, it’s not a solution to the real hunger and public health challenges faced by many of the same neighborhoods where your friendly bodega sets up shop. There are some obvious structural fallacies going on in this argument, which ignores the role that federal food policy plays in making junk food cheap and good food expensive – and there are some hopeful signs that Slow Food will mobilize their base to get involved in the upcoming fight over the 2012 Farm Bill. All that said, small food retailers could have a bigger role in this story. Access to distribution networks, financial resources, and marketing know-how all impact the prices that food retailers charge their customers, which means that Slow Food should also be advocating for policies at the federal, state, and local level that help corner store owners offer better prices for better food.

A different kind of consumer. Slow Food often bills itself as a consumer movement – an everybody-eats-big-tent label. And for the corner store, consumers are a where it’s at! Yet, the Slow Food consumer is still thought of as the rich, white foodie. This may be the greatest challenge the organization faces if they want to make America’s corner stores Slow Food meccas: de-elitifying good food. (Terra Madre’s attendees are most certainly not just rich, white foodies, and the organization may be doing a better job of this internationally than they have in the US). A Slow Food membership and campaign strategy that engages communities of color and low-income consumers could be incredibly powerful: knocking on senator’s and bodega doors, asking for good food for everyone.

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