Posts Tagged ‘slow food’


This article is cross-posted on the Slow Food USA Blog.  According to Slow Food USA, “Slow Food is an idea, a way of living and a way of eating. It is a global, grassroots movement with thousands of members around the world that links the pleasure of food with a commitment to community and the environment.”

Some projects are inspired by enthusiasm, some by curiosity, or morality, ambition, passion, friendship, or obligation.  The inspiration forRadishes and Rubbish was born out of such a combination of these emotions that Carla and I never doubted our ability to draw others into our work.  We are both novices and experts, both endlessly enthusiastic and quite stunningly naive.  We had no idea what times were in store.

2969234487_0f91296dd32Radishes and Rubbish is (in elevator speak) a series of field trips to food production and processing sites and waste management locations within the New York City region.   The Green Grant program of NYU’s Sustainability Task Force provides the funding for these trips, during which my friend Carla Fernandez and I offer participants an adventure, education, transportation, and a meal, all for free.  The transportation may be by foot, by subway, or by boat, by the occasional rented van, or the rare and appreciated large comfy bus.  The meal is always made with ingredients sourced as locally as can be, grown organically if possible, and always made or sold by people or shops that we know and support.  The participants are ideally freshmen in college, though they have ranged from librarians to chemistry professors, from film students to food distributors to the curious and unemployed.  The destinations are up to us.

radishes4Carla and I came at the idea of our trips from slightly different perspectives.  I study regional food systems; she studies socially responsible supply chains.  She wanted to learn about the large-scale waste management centers where our trash so misleadingly seems to disappear; I wanted to share my friendship with and knowledge of several innovative and small food producers and processors in the region.  As students at NYU’s Gallatin School, we both proposed parallel “field trip” projects in April 2008, without knowing of each other’s propositions.  The Green Grant committee told us we would receive funding if we combined forces.  And thus Radishes and Rubbish was born.



We have led our fellow students (and students at heart) to one recycling center, one artisan baker, two urban farms, two slaughterhouses, three cheese shops, three farms upstate (of which one composts NYU’s organic matter), one importer’s warehouse, and the second largest wholesale fish market in the world.  We’ve just finished up the school year with two trips in one weekend: to a commercial rooftop greenhouse on the Upper East Side, and to the Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island.


The trips have been glorious fun for us two.  We keep it simple.  No classrooms, no preaching.  We invite anyone to join us, ask no one for money, and let our destinations work their magic.  We’ve led city girls in kitty heels to meet the weeds of an urban farm.  College boys have shown up late night to see the wholesale source of the fish that’s sold throughout the city where they live.  A journalist for the Washington Square News noticed the piles of the school newspaper on the conveyer belt of the recycling facility where NYU sends its paper waste.  Two film students imagined a documentary staged in the compost heaps of Vassar’s composting facility.  One of our students has begun writing a book proposal about the meat industry, and suddenly some of our adventurers are having dinner 


parties where their cheese shop is a topic of conversation, and they can name the farm where the cheese was made.  One of our participants took the recipe for egg salad posted on our site and made her first meal from scratch in years.  This weekend, one of the students on our upstate trip, standing in the kill-room of a small-scale slaughterhouse, asked (clarified, really) that “this was the sort of place where the meat in the supermarket comes from?”  In response, Jake Dickson, the meat purveyor who’d accompanied us on the trip, explained the big differences between a local slaughterhouse and a factory operation, the price differential of the resulting meat, and the ways in which local vs. factory meat products are distributed.  I can’t measure the enthusiasm with which that girl scrawled her notes, but it is that sort of learning that makes our trips worth the work.  It is that pen on paper that means “field trips” are worth every penny. 


Carla and I hope Radishes and Rubbish might continue, of course, and that we might continue to have the privilege of introducing students (and ourselves!) to the small places where we produce good food, and the huge places where we send all our leftovers.  We are working on a funding arrangement for the coming year.  We are open to funding suggestions.  If all goes well, we promise another year of trips, and very much hope you will join us!!

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364 vs. 162.  Victory.                                                               1000 of 6000.  Youth. 

As of the results of Tuesday night, the spectacle and excitement of Terra Madre is no longer quite so awe-inspiring as it was at the time.  The election of Barack Obama struck me, and many of my friends, suddenly full of adrenaline, primarily with the knowledge that so much more than the majority of our nation is ready to opt for courage rather than fear.  Whether or not Obama will bring the future we seek, and the changes for which we hope, is hard to predict.  The true reason for celebration in him can only be in the racial barrier he has broken.  Our exuberance, to quote his latest speech, is not about him.  Considering the economy, the environment, our health, and our war, we can only anxiously trust him to act well.  Our excitement, the true source of our excitement, is the change that has taken place in us as a people.  We have proven ourselves ready to change course, and we have collectively made the first empowering political decision of my lifetime, with the choice of a young, black leader.

pict7827The results of the five-day gathering in Turin, Italy known as Terra Madre, are about as unpredictable and impossible to define as the future meaning of Obama’s election.  Like Tuesday’s TV screens, the event empowered participants with the knowledge of numbers.  The knowledge that this many people believe in something.  In this case: this many people consider themselves part of agricultural and food communities, and consider this identity important enough in their society to merit the dedication of their life’s work.  More specifically, in this first year that young people were invited to participate in Turin, we youth had an exhilarating chance to see the extent to which our group has grown, and to feel the height of the energy in the coalitions we have built. 

Terra Madre gathered 1650 food communities from 153 countries around the world.  Over 6000 delegates included 1000 cooks, 400 university representatives, 1000 youth under 30-years-old, and 250 musicians.  We came together in the name of Slow Food, for the sake of our work “towards a new food economy based on fairness and well-being.”

It was sort of like an enormous, celebratory vacation.  While workshops and informal discussions filled auditorium-size spaces and cubby-hole conference rooms throughout the building, one could not very well rush from one thing to another.  This was not an event for rushing.   It was a time to be jostled in crowds murmuring with the swelling satisfaction in their stomachs, to listen to snippets of hundreds of languages, to phrases of attempted Italian.  It was a time to speak to whomever you found at your side – the Thai farmer who had never been to Europe, with whom I found only the common language of hand gestures; the Californian couple who cultivated ¾ of an acre and that gave them reason to be in Italy; the young Scottish woman, a chef, who grumbled at the quality of the food in our hotel; the Irish boys whom I heard at night and never saw in the morning; the students studying gastronomic sciences in Bra and Colorno, still glowing with the newfound pleasures of Italian life.  We ate the meats and cheeses of the Salone, learned of and tasted the dozens of unique products presented by the Presidia, and listened to speeches by the names we know: Carlo Petrini, Vandana Shiva, Alice Waters, Will Allen, and now Josh Viertel.

pict7873While the repeated references to Obama and a general hope for his election may have struck some as inappropriate to a global gathering, many delegates expressed remarkable, positive surprise at the strength of the US presence in Turin.  Many of the young people, particularly those from Italy and the UK, voiced their fascination with, and admiration for (even jealousy of), the spirit and dedication of the youth delegates from the United States.  We were 600 in number.  And I would agree, that over the past five or ten years, we have learned well how to organize each other, how to run a discussion so that it’s productive, how to share the information we need most, how to identify where and how we can change policies and actions in our homes, our universities, our communities, our states, and our nation.  Many of us act upon the idea that our life, rather than a resume, is a tool belt, to be filled year after year with the skills, the experience, of our hands.  We consider carefully when to organize, and when to act.  We made an impression, in any case.  We are no longer a scraggly bunch of individuals acting each on our own, and I think we gave dozens of other young people hope in the community they seek to strengthen back home.

Terra Madre inspired us with its magnitude and its optimism.  Yet few of the speeches and workshops truly approached the grit of the future.  President of Slow Food USA Josh Viertel pronounced that the Slow Food movement is and will focus upon being: a movement for Social Justice.   Executive Director Erika Lesser said loud and clear, that Slow Food USA would get political.  All I can say is, it’s about time.  Terra Madre was a party, and well deserved by many of those who came.  But now we, particularly in the United States, have work to do: we have to become farmers, first and foremost.  We have policy to create, and we have a food system to rebuild.  Obama won’t do it.  We will.

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pecansa1.jpg Saturday night was about knowledge, straight up. Knowledge that could easily be lost. Valuable knowledge, that gave our sweet apples their crunch, and left salted, roasted pecans melting on our tongues.Equal Exchange and Fair Trade USA may parade their glossy pamphlets into a profitable niche market, and consumers might have their qualms about the economics of the minimum price and farmer premiums of Fair Trade in a Free Trade market. We could have talked about accountability, or economics, or about the process and cost of certification, or about exactly how much Barney and Chris pay their Jamaican employees on their 200-acre orchard in Vermont. Any of these topics would most likely have resulted in just as striking and informative an event. But speaking for myself, and Saturday’s Park Slope crowd, we’ve spent time on those topics before.parkslopecoop.jpg For me, Connecting Movements was different. We were in the upstairs, high ceilinged, dull-green back room of the Park Slope Food Coop, and no one needed a rehearsed sales pitch and a cheery encouragement to “Buy Fair Trade!” Four farmers sat at the front of the room, beside each other: Yocser Godoy Carranza from Coopetrabasur in Costa Rica, Diann Johnson from the Southern Alternatives Agricultural Cooperative in Georgia, and Barney and Chris Hodges from Sunrise Orchards in Vermont. They predictably tipped their hats to the organizations with which they work: Oké USA, the Domestic Fair Trade program of Equal Exchange, and Red Tomato. They credited these groups with finding good markets, and offering helpful assistance.But the elderly woman in the front row wanted to know if the color of the apple told her anything about it’s sweetness. The hoarse, bearded man in the corner wanted to know if global warming had affected the farmers in a tangible way. The little girl, already in full gypsy costume and braided brunette pigtails, wanted to be sure the chocolate she took, to do Equal Exchange’s “reverse trick-or-treating,” would still be good by Wednesday, on Halloween.The girl was not convinced by any reassurance about the chocolate, and announced she’d be putting it in the freezer as soon as she got home. But the elderly woman barneyhodges.jpg listened intently as Barney Hodges patiently explained the way different varieties of apples are different colors, how the apples change colors as they mature, though some may get sweet while staying green in the shade of thick branches. Barney, standing up, tall and lanky, a Johnny-Appleseed young father, said he could only guess what changes on the farm were the effects of global warming. What he knew? The nights were warmer this year. Macintosh apples require cool nights to mature into sweetness, and gain their red color, and this year they’d taken weeks longer than usual. It had been a record late harvest.Diann Johnson shared with us a step-by-step account of pecan farming. “How many of y’all know anything about pecan farms?!” she began, almost in a rallying cry, followed by a satisfied chuckle at the air above our heads, not a hand raised. dianejohnson.jpg She led us through: the shaker (which shakes the pecan trees), the blower, the sweeper, the harvester, the dump bucket, the assembly line where twigs, hulls, (and snakes!) are cleared away, and where the pecans are washed, baked dry, dumped into a dunlap bag, a holding bag, and then brought to her co-op, where they shell, crack, separate the halves and the pieces, package, and finally sell (!) to individual customers, as well as Equal Exchange. “But it wasn’t that easy!” Diann went on, “Limbs fall when you’re shakin’, and you gotta go and clear ‘em out, one by one. I mean, I haven’t even mentioned all the labor…” She explained how Equal Exchange helped her, especially as a black woman. She’s often blocked in the market, she said, or isn’t taken seriously. But her eyes only lit up again when the elderly woman in the front row asked her pecan question: How do you tell whether the pecans are roasted or salted or candied or raw? Diann smiled and went right ahead, describing every texture and difference, down to the slightly darker color of a roasted nut, and the feel of the salt on your fingers.Yocser Carranza scrunched his broad shoulders and twisted his arms, demonstrating what happens to his plants when there’s too much rain: the flowers stay closed, and the bananas are deformed. When it rains too little, he said, the plant can’t absorb nutrients, the fruit lacks calcium, and often turns a red color that won’t sell at the market. He explained how it would cost less to grow palms for palm oil on the land of his cooperative, rather than bananas, but it takes seven or eight people to work a hectare of bananas, while palms only require one or two. coopetrabasur.jpg Switching crops would leave 150 families in their community without a job. The social advantage of banana production is more important than the benefits of producing palm more cheaply. Bananas keep everyone in the cooperative employed. Iokser told us how Coopetrabasur decides upon how to use their premium from Oké ($1/box): as a community, with a democratic vote. The cooperative built a hospital for its members, and they’re working to capacitate microfinance enterprises. “In every new project or effort,” Yocser explained, “our goal is to increase community benefits.”Barney mentioned at one point in the evening, “If you buy an apple from Washington, you’re benefiting that farmer as much as you’re benefiting me. What I hope is for my customers to have an association with where their food’s coming from, who grew it, and how. You’re more likely to have that with something grown locally. It’s all about having a connection, with the place, and the people.” I’ll be the first to say, he could ask more of America’s customers. But like I mentioned, this night wasn’t about high-minded ideals and social solutions. It was about the red of an apple, the shake of a pecan tree, the dimensions of a well-grown banana. The event brought together two movements that we often separate – that of local food, and that of Fair Trade – and didn’t need to push the common point. These are people worth supporting, worth knowing, who love what they do, whose knowledge is invaluable. They’re passionate about their land, and they know how to work it. Let these small farms die, in a discriminating, subsidized, or exploitative market, and not only do they lose their land, but we lose their knowledge, and the tastes and relationships their occupation provides.LinksFaces of Fair Trade: Uniting the Global and Local (The Host)Park Slope Food Coop (The Location)Equal ExchangeRed Tomato (see EcoApples Program)Oké USASouthern Alternatives Agricultural Cooperative, Inc.Project Bona FideInterrupción

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Slow Dancing

Last Monday in Park Slope, Slow Food sponsored an evening featuring three important characters of the local food scene. Brooklyn Brewery Brewmaster Garrett Oliver assured those gathered that Slow Food USA is not just some “upper class eating club.” Yet his claim seemed predictably hard to back up. We all took a seat in the cozy restaurant location, our host Justin poured tastes of beers paired with our food, localone.jpg and the staff began to serve a meal of three delicate, delicious courses. We ate eggplant with spicy oil and olives, endives with blood sausage and a poached quail egg, and house-made pork bratwurst with apple compote and silver-dollar pumpernickel toast. The scene didn’t necessarily reflect obvious ideals of social justice or hard-working activism. Yet I learned to push my cynical criticisms aside: The gathering of distinct but similar-minded people was undeniably positive and productive, and when a meal is enjoyed with acknowledged pleasure, in the name of family farmers, seasonal awareness, and a strong local community…it’s silly to throw stones.Justin Phillips and his wife Trisha proved themselves admirable hosts, generously sharing the contents of Beer Table, their soon-to-open location on 7th Avenue. The couple designed and built the interior of the comfortably small space, and the visible kitchen served up fresh flavors, locally-sourced. The anti-obesity portions may not have filled our bellies, but the various brews did, and I left the easy familiarity and comfort of the setting feeling sure to return.Brian Halweil, founder and editor of Edible East End, and a Member of the Slow Food USA Advisory board, began the evening with an acknowledgement of the backlash against the local food movement recently initiated by mainstream media. Stories like that of Manny Howard’s failed attempt to feed his family from his Brooklyn backyard (New York Magazine, Sept. 2007) totally missed the point, Halweil said. “Eating local is the most encouraging change in our diet today.” Halweil highlighted eee-issue-11-cover.jpg the way buying locally prevents sprawl, keeps money in the local economy, saves oil, and prompts consumer curiosity about the source of non-local foods. He emphasized the importance of food systems in which the farmer captures the majority of the dollar paid for his products. He mentioned that even large corporations are showing appreciation of the benefits of local food, and dissatisfaction with today’s large, anonymous, long-distance food system. Kaiser-Permanente has started hosting farmers markets at its hospitals, SYSCO is offering regionally sourced meals at some universities, and King Kullen in Long Island spent $15 million this year on Long Island produce. Halweil concluded, “Even the Department of Homeland Security is playing games to predict and prevent agricultural terrorism,” and has apparently identified that the long-distance food system in the U.S. is our biggest Achillles’ heel, rendering us vulnerable to malicious or accidental crisis. The Department has therefore started a program to spread out the food system, and support regional food businesses. “This is a sure sign that the trend of buying local food isn’t going away,” Halweil concluded. “You certainly don’t have to worry that you’ve joined the wrong movement.”Ian Marvy, co-founder and director of Added Value and the Red Hook Community Farm, spoke on a more personal note. He initially informed the audience he would share with us a meditation on Cassandra the first grader, and her watermelon seed. The various years of elementary and high school addedvalue1.jpg cropped up several times while Ian spoke, as he told the stories of Cassandra growing a watermelon the size of her body, Timmy considering the business potential of an acre of dandelions, and the students of P.S. 15, summer helpers on the farm, voting, in a block, for green space at their school. Marvy mentioned he was grateful for Howard’s New York Magazine article, because it pointed out exactly what the local food movement is not about: isolationism. The movement is about building a stable, supportive community, especially at the Red Hook Farm, in a neighborhood with an average income of $15,000, where many customers pay for the farm’s produce with food stamps. “We serve restaurants owned by people who live in Red Hook.” Marvy said, “They’re buying food grown in Red Hook, where kids who live in Red Hook work. We’ve created an inter-community flow of money that is hard to find elsewhere.” It’s important to Marvy that much of Added Value’s work is with young people, for whom interacting with soil is often an utterly new experience. The impact is evident in the aforementioned students of P.S.15. After twenty-two weeks of working on the Red Hook farm, the first through third graders “had “invested in themselves a sense of ownership and knowledge,” Marvy recounted, “and what they wanted to do, given space and dollars, was produce food.”Garrett Oliver, Brooklyn Brewery Brewmaster and founding board member of Slow Food USA, concluded the evening, shifting our focus with a jovial sense of humor. He joked about the excuses of Americans who “don’t have time to cook,” but would never miss the premiere of Survivor. He regretfully expressed the way Americans doubt their “right to pleasure,” and don’t learn from the habits of Italians, who would never question why one might not take off the whole month of August. “Slow Food is not a protest movement,” said Oliver, “and that is why it is sexy, and vital.” garretoliver.jpg Oliver highlighted the history of Brooklyn, and the way Brooklynites revolve back to neighborhood values. “We were always brewers here,” he said, “we were always farmers here.” Oliver even remembers his little backyard efforts in Queens, growing (a good two dinners’ worth) of corn for his family of five. Slow Food, according to Oliver, is working on honest transparency, on dispelling “the big lies” of how and where our food is made, what we are eating, and the idea that we need to use chemicals to feed the world. “What you discover when you move closer and closer to the truth,” Oliver said with a comfortable smile, “is that your life improves.”The little crowd exchanged stories afterwards, about Brooklyn and beer preference, farmer’s markets and familiar meals. I found myself describing to the couple beside me that I may be partial to the local food movement because I left my childhood neighborhood so early. My family moved from our home when I was six, and we never really grew roots again until settling in New York, not many years ago. Of course, my support for family farming has a number of concrete principles behind it. But it’s also true that my focus on local farming has been my main source of community in New York. As far as hoping to wake up “local” anywhere, being in Brooklyn was my first shot. And the community surrounding food here has made it happen.Slow Food’s event on Monday reminded me of a feeling I’ve had before, that joining the food-conscious community is like joining an ongoing dance. We are connected, active, and learning. We are a movement, about workers getting paid for what they produce, children growing up with an slowfood.jpg education that includes their nutrition and health, and community that can take advantage of the natural, historical resources of their neighborhood, their environment, and their region. It’s about relationships, I thought as I left Beer Table, full of names and faces and the excitement of foreseen collaboration. It’s about moving with the day-to-day trust, of our recognized dependence on each other.As far as I can see, Slow Food knows these steps by heart.Related (Mostly Bklyn) Links:Edible BrooklynAdded Value (October 20th Harvest Festival!)Brooklyn BrewerySlow Food USA

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