Cheap Drama at Slow Food

Slow Food

Slow Food USA, the nonprofit organization that has championed sustainable and organic foods since 2000, is in trouble. Many of its longtime core supporters have defected. This fall, Slow Food’s Brooklyn headquarters laid off 5 staffers (there are now 12, down from 19 earlier this year). Its most prominent members—famous cookbook authors, chefs, and leaders in the food movement—are embroiled in a bitter squabble stoked by angry emails, hurt feelings, accusations. According to one report, Alice Waters broke down in tears.

The controversy, not surprisingly, is around money: specifically, how much money people should pay for food. For years, Slow Food’s mission statement leaned heavily on the idea that Americans should spend more of their income on sustainably raised food from farmers’ markets and artisanal producers, rather than looking for deals on cheap, nonorganic, mass-produced stuff. Recently, however, Slow Food USA changed its tune to appeal to younger and less affluent potential members. In August, the organization announced its “$5 Challenge,” in which people were asked to sign a pledge to cook a slow-food meal for not much more than the cost of a McDonald’s Extra Value Meal. To some, it was heresy.

“We had spent all these years trying to make sure that the farmers were championed and other food producers were paid a fair wage for what they brought to our tables,” says Poppy Tooker, who founded Slow Food’s New Orleans chapter in 1999, even before Slow Food USA formally existed. “The $5 Challenge put a hole in that.”

Tooker has since defected from Slow Food, and New Orleans no longer has a chapter. She’s not the only one who’s bailed. Gary Nabhan, a research scientist at the University of Arizona, author, and founder of the Slow Food chapter in Flagstaff, Arizona, has also essentially abandoned the organization. Other prominent members, like cookbook author Deborah Madison, are speaking out against the new direction.

No More Preachin' to the Choir

Josh Viertel, Slow Food USA's young president (and an honoree in the CHOW 13 from 2009), is the leader behind the new changes. He says the organization is trying to make sustainable agriculture a populist, rather than an elitist, movement. He's proud of focusing the organization on what he calls “food justice”: vegetable gardens in public schools, Farm Bill education, and “Eat-Ins” (national potlucks meant to build community around food).

“People who can spend more on food absolutely should,” Viertel says, “but a lot of people can’t.” He calls the notion of telling poor people to spend more on food “insulting.”

But by burying the old charges of elitism, ironically, Slow Food may have killed the goose that laid the golden egg. Although Viertel has dramatically increased membership since he came on board three years ago, grants and gifts from wealthy donors, which make up approximately half of the organization’s budget, have dropped severely. So severely, in fact, that the Ark of Taste, Slow Food’s effort to save endangered foods like the Buckeye chicken—once the organization’s marquee program—is now beached. Though some of the decline in gifts can be attributed to the recession (and Viertel denies that Slow Food ever attracted superrich donors in the first place), the loss of respected members like Tooker and Nabhan, public personalities with well-heeled constituents, surely hasn’t helped.

“As I travel, many (formerly) passionate supporters of Slow Food USA have felt insulted or ignored,” wrote Gary Nabhan in an angry email to two members of Slow Food’s board of directors in November.

And anyway, the so-called populism of cheap food strikes some critics as hypocritical. Aren’t farmers part of the 99 percent, too?

“It’s such a weird idea that food justice is only about getting cheaper food to low-income consumers,” Nabhan says. “Is it elitist to support farmers? The production costs of farmers in drought-stricken areas has gone up 20 to 30 percent in this last year alone. At the same time, Slow is saying we should all eat $5 meals.” If farmers have a terrible year, Nabhan argues, consumers should be willing to pay more, not less.

Marketing Kale to the Masses

The tussle over Slow Food’s mission statement is more than just a catfight within a relatively small nonprofit (it has 25,000 dues-paying members). It’s indicative of the greater conundrum of how to market sustainable food to a mass audience during tough times—or, let’s face it, during any times.

Organic is the fastest-growing segment of U.S. agriculture, but still represents only a small portion of the foods bought and eaten in this country. Commodity foods are almost always going to be cheaper than local and organic. Telling people to budget more wisely in order to afford organic food isn’t a sexy message. And it can quickly veer into classist—even borderline racist—territory, as Alice Waters’s infamous 60 Minutes interview from 2009 made clear.

"We make decisions every day about what we're going to eat,” Waters told Lesley Stahl, who questioned Americans’ willingness to shell out for $4-a-pound organic grapes. “And some people want to buy Nike shoes—two pairs—and other people want to eat Bronx grapes, and nourish themselves. I pay a little extra, but this is what I want to do."

Telling people to buy local and organic foods because they taste better, a line of reasoning that was once central to Slow Food’s mission, hasn’t exactly convinced most Americans, either.

And so now, Slow Food has simply adopted the tactics of mainstream food mass marketers: People are always looking for a deal. However, this particular deal isn’t what most Americans are looking for. In order to make a $5 meal that follows even most of, say, Michael Pollan’s food rules, you’re looking at greens, beans, and grains, and this month, maybe winter squash, which you'll then have to cook. And after all that, would there be many Americans who'd find it even half as tasty as a Value Meal?

Once you start competing with industrialized food on the basis of cost, disaffected Slow Food members no doubt would say, you've sort of yielded the fight.

Image source: Snail photo from Shutterstock

John Birdsall is senior editor at CHOW. You can follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW, too, and become a fan on Facebook.