SAN FRANCISCO - Pick up your forks and knives, and let the revolution start now.
Fifty thousand people, including some of the world's leading food authorities, health care experts, farmers and policymakers, are expected to attend the four-day exhibition in San Francisco over Labor Day weekend - what's being called the largest celebration of American food in history.
Their message: Americans need to fix the food system or risk destroying their health and the planet.
"This impacts every single one us," said Mayor Gavin Newsom. "No matter where we live or how we've been raised, this is a profoundly important issue."
Workers will break ground Tuesday on a vegetable garden at San Francisco City Hall, where the public can take free tours and taste fresh produce. In addition, Slow Food Nation, held at both the Civic Center and Fort Mason, will include lectures, workshops, cooking demonstrations, tastings, films, concerts, hikes, a farmers' market and a "Slow on the Go" food court. Some of the programs are free; others require tickets that range in price from $5 to $65 (slowfoodnation.org) to help offset the $2 million cost.
One highlight will be the pavilions at Fort Mason, which will be divided by types of food - chocolate, cheese, bread, honey and the like - showcasing American varieties and artisan producers. At the Civic Center, speakers will include "Fast Food Nation" author Eric Schlosser; author, farmer and cultural critic Wendell Berry; and nutrition expert and "What to Eat" author Marion Nestle.
Slow Food Nation is the first such event to be held in the United States, although it's patterned after similar events in Europe.
Slow Food, a philosophy that food should be not only savored, but also produced with a social and environmental conscience, started as an Italian protest movement in 1986.
Furious that McDonald's had come to Rome, political activist Carlo Petrini organized a demonstration against the fast-food chain.
"Rather than take the French route - driving a tractor through the building - Petrini took a more Italian hedonistic tack," said Michael Pollan, a UC Berkeley professor and well-known food journalist and author who, like Petrini, is scheduled to speak on several panels. "Petrini set up trestle tables in front of the McDonald's, called upon Italy's grandmothers to make their favorite dishes and served them to passers-by."
Since then, Slow Food organizations have formed in 131 countries, working to preserve local cuisine and lobby for more sustainable and fair-wage farming practices.
Critics have denounced the movement, calling it elitist and accusing it of trying to stand in the way of farming and production methods that would make food cheaper. Proponents argue that eating local products grown and raised without chemicals, as opposed to nonorganic imported goods, will save the environment, lead to good health and save Americans money.
"Unless we squeeze the fossil fuel out of our dinner," Pollan said, we won't be able to maintain a viable food supply. "We no longer can catch salmon in Alaska, fillet it in China and serve it in New York."
Food as a language
Slow Food Nation founder Alice Waters, the Berkeley restaurateur who popularized the idea of serving food straight from local, organic farms to the table at her Chez Panisse restaurant, says the timing of the event, which kicks off on the eve of the presidential election, is no coincidence.
"We want people to vote with their forks," she said. "Food is our common language. The choices we make about what we eat not only affect our health, but affect our planet."
Pollan hopes the event will help galvanize the new administration to push for a better food agenda in this country.
"There's a real need for rethinking things," he said, adding that the world is in the midst of a food crisis, with people either starving or obese. There's something terribly wrong, says Pollan, when "it's cheaper to buy a double cheeseburger than a head of broccoli."
Countries like Haiti and the Philippines have become so reliant on imported rice that they've stopped growing their own, said Pollan, who blames globalization. Now their citizens are going hungry.
Back to basics
Newsom's worries are closer to home.
"In the Bayview, the only produce being sold is at a liquor store, and it's three days past its due date," he said. "Instead, I see a Kentucky Fried Chicken and a Taco Bell. Our fast-food culture is the primary contributor to the health care costs in this country."
Waters complains that people don't even know how to cook anymore.
"We used to know how," she said. "We just got disconnected from it. The globalization of food took us by surprise. People told us, 'It's too hard to cook. Let us do it for you.' "
She hopes that Slow Food Nation will motivate people to get back to the basics - "learn how to fry an egg or stir polenta." She's also optimistic that participants will be spurred to reject industrialized farming, persuaded to eat locally and inspired to fight for changes in food policy.
None of this is far-fetched, said Waters, who has seen a significant shift in the public's attitude in the last five years - especially in the 18-to-22-age group.
"All of a sudden, it's happening," she said. "There are all these people who want to live off the grid. They want to farm. I see young people with their kids buying food at the farmers' market."
She acknowledges that the Bay Area may be a bit ahead of the curve.
"Next year," she said, "we'll take it to Washington, D.C., then New Orleans, then the Midwest."
© 2008 Hearst Communications Inc.