By the time Joshua Viertel took the helm of Slow Food USA this fall, the 30-year old already had a quiet reputation for mixing a refined palate with grassroots sensibilities. The former farmer’s résumé would make most recruiters pause: There are stints in Sicilian sheep pastures, hurricane-ravaged towns in Honduras, and small New England farms; a philosophy degree and protester bona fides from Harvard; and a job history that includes a reference from Alice Waters. If it seems like a no-brainer to hand the reins of the country’s most prominent food-culture group to this man, some of Viertel’s other passions—grassroots organizing and social justice—suggest where the next generation of American foodies may be headed. Writer Tracie McMillan spoke with Viertel, fresh from Slow Food International’s Terra Madre conference in Italy, to talk about founding Yale’s landmark farming initiative, whether we should be paying more for our food, and finding inspiration in a bodega.
Tracie McMillan: You’ve mostly worked as a farmer and an educator. How did you end up as president of Slow Food USA?
Joshua Viertel: Well before I was president of Slow Food USA, I was co director of the Yale Sustainable Food Project. I came to Yale when there was no project there and developed this organization with a working farm, internships and fellowships, and educational programs with an emphasis on sustainability, food and agriculture, and the environment.
I had really wanted to move to California to do work in sustainability food agriculture and education. I essentially threw myself in front of Alice Waters and said, “I want to move to California and help you do this. What can I do?” And she said, “Well, it’s too bad you want to move to California, because you really need to move to New Haven, Connecticut—there’s a group of students there pushing to have sustainable food in the dining halls and create a small farm, and they’re at a point where they really need to hire someone who knows how to do this. And that should be you.” I was really flattered and said, “The truth is, I think I want to move to California.” But then as I was leaving her office, I realized, “No, that is just too amazing an opportunity to pass up. And I want to do it.”
I’d been on the board for Slow Food USA for probably a year and a half and stepped off of the board to apply for the [president] position. I just felt very blessed to get the offer in the end.
TM: Did you come to this work more out of a farm background, or were you a foodie?
JV: Both. I grew up in a family that loved, really loved, food, but my parents are not farm people. I was always drawn to that stuff as a little kid, and I always really cared about the environment. I was always deeply concerned about social-justice questions. And those were just these disparate things: I loved to eat and I loved to cook, I was interested in farms from a distance and physical work in the world, and the two problems that concerned me most were the environment and social justice. It took taking a year off school and working on farms for me to realize that the problems I cared about most were core problems that were linked to the food we eat and the way it’s produced.
There’s also an incredible amount of pleasure in it. For me, this was a great revelation. I figured out that by doing the things I loved, I could address the problems that bothered me the most. So that’s really how I came to it, this combination of pleasure and responsibility.
TM: And why did you want to move into doing work at Slow Food instead of, say, continuing at Yale or doing something else in that model?
JV: I can imagine Slow Food over time having a membership and a reach that enables it to put real pressure on federal policymakers in the next food and farm bill discussion in the same way the Natural Resources Defense Council or the Sierra Club could affect policy for the environmental movement. Imagine the change we could get if we had an organization that could bring one million people to the table and say, “Hey, we all agree about these three things.” We haven’t had that historically, and I think having it going forward could make a huge difference in the way our country grows its food.
TM: You had come, both to Yale and then to Slow Food, with an expertise in youth work. I heard that Slow Food is incorporating more youth in what you’re doing.
JV: When I look at what young people are doing in the sustainable-food movement, I think that their creativity and sense of humor—but also their complete unwillingness and also disinterest in compromising—are just this kind of jet fuel in our movement right now. I want to really push hard to make room for young people in everything we do and support the work they’re already doing.
There’s this young guy, his name is Sam Levin, and he’s fifteen years old. And we worked really hard to get him into the opening session of Terra Madre. He’s from western Massachusetts and in his high school started a small farm on campus and had the food from that farm going to the cafeteria. Sam got up and spoke in front of nine thousand people at this opening, translated into a bunch of different languages, got a standing ovation. I think he showed up Carlo Petrini, who’s the most charismatic speaker in the world. That energy for me is really important.
TM: What were you most excited about at Terra Madre?
JV: There was this delegation of people doing work around social justice and food and agriculture, and some really great conversations about what the role of Slow Food should be in addressing social-justice questions moving forward. I was so happy to have that conversation and so happy that, after standing up in front of our whole delegation and saying, “Good, clean, fair food is not a privilege, it is a right, and in everything we do, we need to work to make sure people have access to that right,” no one came up to me and said, “For me, Slow Food is really about fancy cheese and good wine—that’s why I got into it, and I don’t like this whole new political bent.” Everyone came up to me and said, “It’s so great that we’re addressing this.”