"Come to the table," Slow Food Nation invited. And come to San Francisco over Labor Day weekend they did-around 50,000 people, making it perhaps the largest food celebration in American history.
Tables and straw bales appeared in the heart of the city's Civic Center around a victory garden on about a quarter of an acre that was formerly a lawn. It was surrounded by a huge marketplace, which was like an old-fashioned farmers' market that gets food directly from the farm to the fork.
A couple of miles away by the Bay at Ft. Mason--inside an old military hangar stretching over the length of a couple of football field-people strolled down a long aisle to taste fresh seafood, chocolate, wine, olives, ice cream, Indian bread and other delightful options.
Meanwhile, inside rooms downtown people discussed the growing global food crisis and how to respond to it. The final panel included the following key voices in the growing world-wide sustainable agriculture movement: Italian Carlo Petrini, the founder of Slow Food in l986, physicist Vandana Shiva from India, Kentucky poet and author Wendell Berry, UC Berkeley professor Michael Pollan, Alice Waters of Chez Panisse Restaurant, and Fast Food Nation author Eric Schloesser.
Petrini emerged as a storytelling organizer, Shiva as an activist, Berry as an elder statesman, Pollan as a teacher with a broad theoretical frame, Waters as an inspiring chef, and Schloesser as a reporter from the field.
Food and agriculture were related to issues such as climate change, social justice, re-localizing food, and the policy and planning needed to replace our current food system with a sustainable one. "Good, clean, and fair" are Slow Food Nation's (SFN) goals, described as a "Triple Bottom Line."
"We're not the leaders," the elder Berry asserted. "We're the catalysts. More and more people are talking to each other and doing things for each other. This is the cooperation principle." Berry focused on the importance of being thrifty, growing a local economy, and being a good neighbor.
"The themes here are the themes of the next century," Petrini declared, painting a larger picture in Italian, which was translated into English. "If they are not, there will not be a future. Sooner or later these issues will arrive on the tables of all politicians." Frequently waving his arms, the bearded, grandfatherly Petrini often brought humor and laughs to serious matters with compelling stories.
"Food matters," Pollan asserted. "It is about politics and our health. The food issue has gotten on the national agenda because of the world food crisis. Food prices are high and the era of cheap food is over. It involves all the issues-energy, the price of oil, climate change, and health. We have been eating oil for 30 years now."
"Markets are being stolen from farmers," Shiva asserted, indicting industrial agriculture corporations. Shiva described the large number of farmers in India who are committing suicide because they are being displaced and loosing meaning in life.
At a soap box set up outside in the victory garden farmers and others spoke. Orchardist Peter Jacobson of Yountville said, "We need 50 million more farmers if we are going to be able to farm sustainably" in the U.S. San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom strolled by the garden and explained, "Both Alice Waters and I got down and helped plant the garden. We plan to leave it up at least through Thanksgiving. Then we will decide what to do." Waters added, "I've been wanting a garden on the White House lawn for a long time."
SFN offered a panel on "Edible Education" and the long weekend itself became an educational process. "We all eat every day," master chef Waters noted. "There are consequences to the choices we make with respect to our health, environment, and culture. Edible education is to help children understand those consequences."
Echoing what her mother Frances Moore Lappe wrote about in Diet for a Small Planet, Anna Lappe asserted that "the problem with respect to hunger is not a question of scarcity. We have enough food to feed us all. It is a crisis of democracy, as my mother wrote thirty years ago."
"Food is a universal right, not a privilege," declared Josh Verteil, the new president of Slow Food USA. He will coordinate the some 200 Slow Food chapters in the United States, which have around 16,000 members among the more than 80,000 members in the international organization.
The draft of a Declaration for Healthy Food and Agriculture of slightly over 500 distilled words was released. The intention is to gather some 300,000 endorsers and take the document to Washington, D.C., in the fall of 2009 to influence the next farm bill. The Declaration is now posted on www.fooddeclaration.org and seeks comments and endorsers before a final version appears.
Walking through the victory garden were many parents with infants in their arms and strollers. It was a truly family event with people of all ages. The lines at the booths at the marketplace were often long where people could buy the kinds of food and lunches that the gathering advocated.
"The role of Slow Food Nation," according to one of its organizers, Michael Dimock, president of Roots of Change and a Sonoma County resident, "was to convene people and be a convergence." A test of its effectiveness will be what happens in coming months as endorsers of the Declaration are solicited and then when it is presented to Congress.
Some SFN organizers are already considering hosting another such gathering, either next year or the following year.