Currently, over a third of Americans spend 10 percent of their annual income on fast food and consume such food daily. The Slow Food movement emerged from a protest in Italy during the 1980s against a major fast-food chain’s expansion near the Spanish Steps in Rome. The movement celebrates food that is locally grown, tasty, and nourishing.
“The idea of slow food is that everybody in the world is entitled to food that’s good, clean, and fair,” said Paula Shatkin, a committee member for the Slow Food Russian River Chapter. While the notion of slow food seems to be about rejecting fast food, something deeper harkens to the adage, “we have food at home.”
From the 1980s, the movement has grown to now include 1,500 conviviums, or chapters, worldwide, including Slow Food Russian River and Slow Food East Bay—both located in Northern California.
Slow Food International and its local chapters are guided by the mission to educate, inspire, and mobilize people toward good, clean, fair food. “We want people to learn to eat locally and seasonally,” said Shatkin. “Don’t buy apples in January that were shipped over here from New Zealand…. Buy apples in apple season.”
Slow Food’s Principles and Practices
The movement highlights how industrialized, mass food production has impacted the food process, the global food supply chain, and the expectations we have of food accessibility. “We’re all contributing toward a better food system and using our platform as a way to really bring up some of the social justice issues around food and fairness and equity and food,” said Willow Blish, Slow Food East Bay chair.
Every chapter has the same goal of educating the public but focuses on different food campaigns or activities, such as the Slow Food USA “Plant a Seed” campaign to plant rare, diverse seeds. “Each of our organizations are really place based,” said Blish. “It’s really our responsibility to look at the region in which we are based to figure out who the people are, who is working within the food system, and how we can best serve them based on where we are.”
Alice Waters was considered influential for introducing farm to table dining with her restaurant, Chez Panisse, which opened in 1971 in Berkeley, CA. Known for its anti -war sentiments, sit-in protests, and free love lifestyle movements, Berkeley was ripe ground for planting the seeds of the Slow Food movement’s first US chapter—now the East Bay convivium—as part of Slow Food USA in the early 2000s.
The movement then made its way to Sonoma County in the late 2000s at the peak of a “timber to vineyard conversion,” which decimated apple orchards and was opposed by Indigenous tribes and local groups in the area.
Slow Food’s Impact Today
Shatkin explains that each Slow Food chapter adopts a particular food that’s in danger of losing its growing and harvesting practices—often due to globalization or a lack of resources to bring the food to market. In 2020, Slow Food Ashville, NC, recognized that there were 70 varieties of okra and celebrated the red okra of one grower, Aunt Hettie, with the Utopian Seed project. Slow Food NYC‘s Urban Harvest farm teaches school children about urban farming. In 2020, the chapter donated 700 pounds of produce to the Coretta Scott-King Senior Housing Facility.
Sonoma County, in California’s wine country, is home to the Russian River chapter. Every year, from August to October, the chapter hosts the annual Gravenstein Apple Fair, which has a free apple press. It hosts a booth to teach cider and apple sauce making, endangered food crafts. “It [the apple press] is great for kids to understand that apple juice doesn’t come in a bottle,” said Shatkin.
In the last century, industrialization caused the share of the US workforce engaged in agriculture to decrease from 41 to 2 percent, according to a food primer from John Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health. Today, most people are no longer directly involved in food production. Slow Food chapters focus on connecting consumers to food producers, Blish explains. That does not just mean going to the farm, but also connecting consumers to “who’s doing urban agriculture work, who is doing food justice work or food access work,” said Blish. “They are just as integral to the food system as the farmers.”
Last month, in partnership with Hammerling Wines and Donkey & Goat Winery, Slow Food East Bay chapter held Bean Feed, an event exploring heirloom beans, which are preserved by heritage growers and have not been widely marketed commercially. For the East Bay Chapter’s first event since 2020, they invited Bay Area chefs from local restaurants, like Rocko’s Taco and The Lede-Oakland, to make dishes using such beans.
Despite the Slow Food movement’s good intentions, not everyone is on board with its mission. There has been criticism that the Slow Food movement is idealistic and elitist as only the privileged can afford to eat only sustainable, unprocessed food. Rising food costs make it difficult for people to make healthier eating choices, and in certain places, nutritious food options are not accessible. Slow Food organizers say they hope to combat some of this inaccessibility by creating Slow Food events focused on joy and justice. For example, events like the apple press, as well as the Heritage turkeys project, aim to improve biodiversity and keep communities engaged and informed.
While it may have increased the speed and efficiency of food growing and production, industrialization limited opportunities for community members, especially those living in urban areas and food deserts, to acquire food production skills and maintain traditional food practices. The industrialized food production process continues to have a devastating global impact. As of 2020, there were a reported 190,000 fast food restaurants in the US, generating an average of 200,000 pounds of food waste every year.
Industrialized food production has also been linked to salmonella contamination. Outbreaks of salmonella are not limited to meat factories; in 2021, the CDC reported salmonella outbreaks caused by vegetable contamination in 39 states. Between 2021 and 2022, there were massive slowdowns in the distribution of goods, including food, a hangover from the first year of the global pandemic. According to the USDA Economic Research Service, the cost of food is projected to increase by 4 to 5 percent in 2023.
“We need to be changing the system, not just trying to change the people,” Blish.
Slow Food organizers say that leveraging the movement’s more positive aspects, where food is seen as a joyous and celebratory experience, is an ideal way to begin the conversation. “We’re going to draw you in, and it’s going to be this wonderful meal,” said Blish.