I have met up with Joanna Dixon and Sean McArdell to talk about the Slow Food movement and their recent trip to Terra Madre, the movement’s biannual conference.
AL: We should probably start off by defining Slow Food…
JD: It can be difficult define Slow Food in a way that truly gets across the significance and diversity of what they do, but a short concise way of expressing it is an international movement set up to promote good, clean and fair food. It aims to promote locally grown produce and there’s real emphasis on preserving local food traditions and knowledge.
SM: And it’s about promoting this attitude towards food in the local community, and in politics.
AL: Do you think the difficulty of defining the movement is a problem?
JD: I think it is a problem, because it prevents the communication of the movement’s ideas. Having said that, anything that is an international movement is going to be interpreted differently and the slogan of “good, clean and fair food” can encompass everything. The movement has been criticised for the way it was initially taken up, possibly due to the difficulty of defining it; it was a kind of rich people’s dinner club and didn’t address the issues of finding affordable good food. That was in the 80s and 90s, however, and things have now moved on with the real value of the movement beginning to show in its projects and the lifestyle it advocates.
SM: But I think that the fluidity of definition is in some way a good thing, because it means that the international movement can accommodate a range of attitudes.
AL: Does the movement work in collaboration with local government, or government departments?
JD: Slow Food UK doesn’t work with the government at the moment, although they are trying to develop this area. In terms of Slow Food Baby, for example, some countries’ campaigns are focusing more on government lobbying, but the UK one is aiming itself at mums’ groups, and has a workshop project that has recently been taken up by the National Childcare Trust. There’s a lot of back story to all of this though: the original group was in Ludlow, but a new CEO and headquarters was set up in London under orders from the international movement because they thought the Ludlow group hadn’t been doing enough to champion the cause. This is why the UK office is so young, and why their projects are only just starting to get off the ground; for example, developing their educational programmes alongside the already established local groups. In order to achieve everything they want, they’re looking to increase the number of staff and the amount of sponsorship they get.
SM: At home in Dorset, the group I belong to is mainly made up of interested parties that organise things like farm tours. It’s mainly about promoting local production on a local scale. I think Slow Food groups can seem a bit like self-indulgent dinner party-goers, but I do get a sense that the movement is trying change itself, it just hasn’t happened yet.
AL: So what does a subscription to Slow Food give you?
JD: On a personal level, I admit that most of what Slow Food does could be achieved without the need for subscriptions but the money goes into a central pot and this gives the organisation its international scope – for example, the ability to run projects on food procurement in the developing world and give delegates free access to Terra Madre. There were lots of developing-world delegates there who wouldn’t have been able to come if it wasn’t for subscriptions. You can criticise the movement for various reasons, but the projects that they run internationally are really incredible. In the opening ceremony, we heard people from across the world talk about the risk to their native languages and how Slow Food was going to try to help them preserve them.
AL: So you two both went to Terra Madre last weekend, Slow Food’s biannual conference in Turin, which brings together people involved in the movement from across the world, be they chefs, producers, academics or merely observers. Why did you go, and what did you get out of it?
JD: There were about seven hundred student delegates at Terra Madre this year and we’re invited as the newest and youngest members of the movement to learn about and get involved in the political activism of the movement, and also to move it away from its dinner party reputation.
SM: For me, it was very inspirational. I went to a talk on the activities of the Dutch youth food movement, which seems to be more effective than its adult counterpart. They’ve set up a food academy and have eat-ins all over the place [Slow Food speak for when a group shops locally together, cooks a meal with the purchases and then eats it in public, inviting people to join them]. One particular project I heard about a struggling strawberry farm that was failing to sell its fruit, and the Slow Food group rescued it by driving a cart filled with punnets into the centre of Amsterdam and within fifteen minutes, they had all disappeared and the farmer had two offers of supermarket contracts.
JD: We’ve both come back with loads of ideas for projects we’d like to run ourselves, after hearing about the possibilities and inspiring each other, for example getting into contact with college caterers about the sourcing of their food.
AL: Do you think it was necessary to go all the way to Terra Madre to start the group?
SM: You get a real sense of the international movement by going to Terra Madre, and that you’re a part of something bigger, which is hard to get at home. Working with other people and hearing their stories also really helps inspire you. I wouldn’t have met Jo without going, and so it’s had a tangible effect here.
JD: I think it’s about keeping people up-to-date – we, as youth delegates, didn’t contribute to the debates as much as the academics who presented papers on food policy and whose work contributes to the Slow Food manifesto but we have lots to learn so that we can contribute later, and Terra Madre was the place to do it. If the issues that Slow Food supports are to be properly understood and campaigned for on a local level, I think it’s important to understand the wider context. It was an opportunity to really try to understand the global food network. Above all, it’s a way to bring thinking heads together, and educating the next generation.
AL: Did you ever get the feeling that the international outlook of Slow Food is ever at odds with the UK movement?
JD: I think there isn’t really much opposition any more between Terra Madre and the UK, after the relocation of the office to London, but I can imagine there’s still resentment at Ludlow in the wake of the move. Nowadays, the international movement isn’t at odds with the UK movement – they have the same goals and want to achieve the same thing, even if each country does it in a slightly different way.
SM: I think that the UK is a hard nut to crack – it’s a cultural problem really. In the USA, it’s in their culture to lobby the government, but the UK is too moderate to work in the same way. Even public eat-ins are too radical for us. The American leader of Slow Food at Terra Madre tried to make us have a group hug!
JD: The thing about the movement at a local level is that it is completely dependent upon its volunteers and resources. Connecting people is the key to getting the UK movement off the group, including the Durham group, and Slow Food UK have just appointed a new membership secretary to do this. It’s completely what the members make it.
AL: So how does it make you feel about sitting here, eating food whose provenance is unknown?
JD: It’s completely inevitable. You couldn’t live if you tried to eat slow food all the time.
SM: We’d starve otherwise. There just wouldn’t be enough to eat. Also, at least the café is local – it’s the best we can do.
JD: It’s just not practical and up-to-date to never buy food from supermarkets and it’s unrealistic and unhelpful to argue that. We need a more modern solution. Also, people shouldn’t be looked down upon for having an ethos if they don’t follow it all the time, because if you present the ethos as requiring perfection, people won’t take it up. You must be approachable.
SM: No one would want to join you, so it would destroy your ability to change things.
JD: Slow food isn’t about religiously keeping to local products, it’s about your lifestyle and thinking about food. The organisation isn’t about a set of rules, but the ethos for living, and what you want to make happen. If try to live like this, something will change. In the UK, they want to change the food culture through education. A revolution in our approach to food is necessary and this needs people who are going to stand up and say so.