Repair Interview: Josh Viertel of Slow Food USAby Leah Koenig | June 22, 2011 | 1 comment
Slow Food’s name says it all. Founded in Italy in 1989, the global organization works, in the words of founder Carlo Petrini, to unite “the pleasure of food with responsibility, sustainability, harmony and nature.” In other words, the exact opposite of fast food.
In the States, Slow Food USA applies this lofty food philosophy on a national scale, advocating for agricultural, economic, and governmental systems that support the right and enjoyment of clean, fair food for everyone. Repair the World recently spoke with Slow Food USA’s president, Josh Viertel – a food lover, farmer, and co-founder of the Yale Sustainable Food Project, a program that helped launch the movement of healthy and sustainable eating and advocacy on campuses across the country. Below, Viertel talks about being raised at the table, how food connects us to people and place, and why Slow Food is a “gateway drug for civic engagement.”
What inspired your interest in sustainable farming, eating and advocacy?
My parents raised me on the floor of their kitchen. Whether we had money or not, we always sat at the table for dinner together. It left an impression on me. It was at the table that I first learned to share; it was at the table that I first learned to think critically, and it was at the table that I first learned to disagree with someone and still love them. Because at the table, you see what you have in common before you see what you have in difference. It turns out that the table is a powerful place. It can transform how we see each other.
I also took some time off of school to work as an agricultural laborer. I picked lemons, hoed grapes, and herded sheep. I fell in love with the work. But I began to see that food, done wrong, is a core cause of every issue I care about, from environmental degradation to social injustice. I also began to see that food done right can be the solution. When we share work or share a meal, we build a connection and commitment to each other. Food can be an extraordinary way to organize people, grow community and build power for change. Ultimately, Slow Food is a gateway drug for civic engagement.
What do you think is the most pressing issue facing the food movement today?
Many people are starting to get that there is a story behind their food. They see that the story isn’t always a good one. And they work as individuals to buy and eat food that reflects their values. This explains the growth in farmers markets, restaurants buying local, and folks buying into community supported agriculture operations. It is an excellent start.
But food and farming aren’t broken just because individuals are making bad decisions about what to eat. There are big, structural barriers to change that can’t be overcome by individual choice—from federal policy to lack of access. So we can’t pretend that we will fix the problem just with individual choice. To make meaningful change that lasts, we need to shift from being just conscious shoppers, to engaged community members, and engaged citizens. I really see our work as being about helping people find ways to drive that change. Every concerned shopper, every person who has read Michael Pollan and gotten angry or inspired, every mom, worried about the garbage they are going to feed her kids at school, I want each and every one of them all to have a meaningful way to do something about it. Yes, as individual shoppers, but also as community members and citizens.
The sustainable food movement has grown tremendously over the last decade. Where do you think/hope it is headed in the next decade?
This movement needs to become even more powerful. Food issues get a lot of press right now, and lots of consumer interest, and in the next ten years, we need to transform that into the sort of power that can drive real social change. This means we need to engage more people more deeply, but it also means we need to become more diverse. In the next ten years we must become a movement that includes the people who are most hurt by problems with the food we eat and the way we grow it. This means that while we are fighting for sustainable farming, local agriculture, and healthy food, we are also fighting for social justice. It means that this work is not just about chefs, farmers, and financially able consumers but it is about restaurant workers, farm laborers, and people who live in communities where you can’t buy real food. This is a moral imperative. And it is the only way we will ever build the power needed to win.
What is Slow Food’s unique contribution to the movement?
Some organizations lobby for legislative change. Some sue the bad guys. Others are focused on delivering direct services. All have a role to play. Slow Food USA’s role is build power that can drive change; we build it through the power of everyday people. And we do it all over the world, with members in 160 countries.
Do you connect the work you do with sustainable agriculture with your spirituality/Jewish heritage
For me, growing and cooking food and even shopping at the farmers market are the ways that I ground myself. Food is a core way that I connect with people, and with my place. And now, my work, which is fundamentally about building connections between people, so that they also can feel that sense of belonging in the world, is in many ways a spiritual practice. My intention is to leave people more connected to each other, and more connected to their place. I believe that the commitment that grows from that sense of connection will position us all to make the change we want to see in the world.
How can people get involved with Slow Food USA’s work?
On your own, you can explore the story behind your food, and make sure it is a story that makes you proud. You can grow something you can eat – even if it’s just herbs. Take time to share food with friends and family. Cook with your kids. You can also join the movement. You can start by becoming a Slow Food member and getting connected to your local chapter. When you’re a part of the Slow Food community, you get information and news, and you will get invited to participate in local and national campaigns and events. It’s a great way to get connected with people in your community who care about the same issues and it’s fun.