The Gourmet Q + A: Joshua Viertel

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TM: There was all this discussion about Slow Food Nation being a big test for whether Slow Food can speak to normal people. How do you think you guys did on that front?

JV: Slow Food Nation was amazing. We totally exceeded our expectations in terms of attendees: eighty-five thousand people, a really broad demographic attending, ninety-five percent of all the events were sold out. I was extraordinarily excited about that. And I thought it was appropriate to the flavor of San Francisco and the Bay Area. Going forward, we’re not going to do it in the Bay Area, and when it goes some place next, it needs to take on the flavor of the place; for me that’s really important. If it’s in Des Moines, it can’t have the fancy food focus that the Great Hall of Taste had this last round—even though it was beautiful and perfect for San Francisco. If it’s in D.C., it’ll have more of the feel of a march on Washington.

TM: How do you respond to people who say that Slow Food is elitist?

JV: For years, the sustainable-food movement in general said, “Food that doesn’t hurt the environment, food that doesn’t make you sick, and food that doesn’t exploit people is worth more, so you should be willing to pay more for it.” That is okay if you can afford to pay some more for it. But for the group of people who this winter are going to have to choose between feeding their family or heating their home, that argument is a slap in the face.

And when the sustainable-food movement makes that argument, corporations that sell industrial food are making the argument that “We’re your friend because our food costs less.” And so our historical argument has essentially driven poor people—the people that are hurt most by the current food system—into the hands and into the cash registers of the corporations that are hurting them. That’s got to change.

TM: Why is it a problem for Slow Food if lower-income people are excluded?

JV: I see our constituency as everyone who eats food. People who joined Slow Food early on were more from that tradition of pleasure. More and more, people are coming to Slow Food because they feel engaged politically around the question of food. No one would be comfortable with the notion that only the wealthy deserve to have their kids grow up without chronic diet-related disease. Our work can’t end with good food that’s clean and that’s fair that only the wealthy can afford.

TM: What kind of work is going on outside of Slow Food that you’re excited about?

JV: There’s a group of community and nonprofit leaders that are locally based that are doing incredible programming on food-justice issues. Hank Herrera, Brahm Ahmadi, Ian Marvy. I’m a huge fan of those initiatives. I think more and more we need to ally ourselves with those initiatives and help support them.

TM: How would Slow Food work with groups that are based in poor communities?

JV: We don’t ever want to own a movement—a movement is always more than an organization. We want to use our network of members and chapters, build them and use them to help support this incredible work that’s happening locally. A first step is a chapter leader in Oakland reaching out to Hank and saying, “Hank, what are you up to, how can we use our pretty strong chapter here to support your work?”

TM: A couple of years ago, I spent the day at Stone Barns with a youth program. They had these beautiful box lunches, and half the kids didn’t eat their food—they wanted to go to McDonald’s. How do you deal with cultivating an appreciation for good food among kids?

JV: If I pick something in a garden and hand it to a kid who’s never been in a garden, she or he might think that’s gross. If they help to plant it, they watch it grow, then they pick it, then they’re one hundred times more likely to taste it and to enjoy it and to feel like they’re connected to land. I think maybe it’s not ever reasonable to take a child out of a very, very unhealthy place in terms of food culture and expect them to be dropped into an environment with some beautiful local produce and suddenly have a lightbulb go off.

TM: Michael Pollan had a big piece in the New York Times Magazine in October, where he brought up the idea of a federal definition for food. The basic gist was, “You can’t use federal funding for stuff that isn’t food. You can’t use your food stamps to buy soda pop or cheesy poofs.” What do you think about that?

JV: I think it makes sense that you shouldn’t be able to use food stamps to buy soda. We use government all the time to incentivize good behavior, and if research shows that calories from soda are a leading cause of obesity and Type II diabetes, then it’s just crazy to use federal funding both to subsidize the cost of that corn syrup and then to subsidize people consuming it. It’s essentially taxing the public to help make the public sick. It’s worse than taxation without representation—it’s taxation with explicit intent to harm.

TM: Both Alice Waters and Michael Pollan have suggested having an organic farm on the White House lawn. Should that be the top priority for food issues?

FI: For me, the top priority is to create a national public-works program and embed green jobs as a central foundational piece of that—and I’ve got to give credit to Van Jones for this. You don’t have to be putting up solar panels to have a green job. If you’re feeding your community, reducing obesity, increasing health, supporting the local farm economy, and also reducing your carbon footprint—the guy who runs the bodega that’s selling local sustainable food—that is a green job in the best of ways.

There’s this great young guy who runs a bodega in Philadelphia named Juan Carlos Romano. I was inspired by what he does: He’s got a corner store in a neighborhood that’s food insecure and started to bring in products that were good for people and were environmentally sustainable. And it works for Juan Carlos. He says people are mimicking him in his community—other bodega owners are bringing in more fresh products, selling more produce.

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