An interview with Slow Food USA President Josh Viertel
Oct 04, 2011, Updated Aug 21, 2017
Andrew: Slow Food strives for “Good, Clean, and Fair” food. What does that mean to you?
Josh: “Slow food” is the opposite of “fast food.” It’s food for the people who grow it, for the people who people who pick it. It’s good for the environment and for the people who eat it. Good, Clean, Fair is those things. And it tastes really good, too.
The big idea is that there’s a story behind your food, and it should make you proud.
Andrew: How do you tell the story accurately?
Josh: Get close to the source of your food. If you’re lucky enough to live in a place with a real farmers’ market, that’s a fantastic way to start. Ask questions. Get to know the farmers as people.
Another way is to grow some of your own food. Begin to understand the relationship between land, ecosystems, the environment, and your food. It’s also a real pleasure.
Get educated! If you’re shopping in a supermarket, just looking at the ingredients lists, particularly around your unprocessed challenge, is an extraordinary project. If there are things that are on that list that would cause you to scratch your head, and you wouldn’t recognize them as food, you probably shouldn’t eat them.
The average American consumes over ten pounds of chemical food additives each year. That’s an insane number! Imagine a ten pound sack filled with those chemicals. The story behind additives doesn’t give you an appetite.
Andrew: There’s been a lot of talk about the recent “Food Dialogues,” which have been created by the US Farmers and Ranchers Alliance. What’s your take on those?
Josh: The USFRA, is as far as I can tell, not an alliance of farmers and ranchers. It’s an alliance of a very large organization called the Farm Bureau — which is insurance and agribusiness trade groups. Corn producers and processors, livestock, processing, etc. The big commodity groups.
They’re reasonable to feel threatened by a movement of people, both farmers and consumers, who think that food should be different, that food should be good for farmers, workers, consumers, and the environment.
That movement has threatened corporate agribusiness.
They’ve set up these “dialogues,” but I believe at core, they’re not about dialogues. They’re a message-framing exercise. They’ve decided — smartly — that they would like to have the debate be not about how we grow our food, not about how we feed each other, not about how we spend our money.
They would like to shift it to be a conversation where they set up some premises. One premise is that “there is no industrial agribusiness lobby, there’s just farmers and ranchers.” The second is that “farmers and ranchers” share values with consumers. The third premise is that consumers don’t really know how food is grown, and that’s why there’s all this hullabaloo and concern in the media. If only people understand the story behind their food, then all of this concern would go away. Once they establish those premises, then the debate takes place inside that frame.
Each of those premises is patently false. Those companies don’t have those interests. They’re on record as monopolistic, degrading, and making us sick. They hurt small and midsize family farmers. They don’t share the values that the average eater shares. The “dialogue” is really a message-framing strategy to try to get us into a discourse that will preserve the status quo.
However, it will only be moderately effective because people are too smart for it. A lot of people aren’t okay with how our food system works, but they know that real farming is very different than industrial agribusiness.
Ultimately, the food dialogues are not about small or midsize farmers. Yes, it’s giving them a voice, but they’re being used as pawns. Who is really going to advocate for them in the end?
Andrew: What are your top three wish list items for fixing our food system?
Josh: First, that people cook together, and that it be fun.
Second, it needs to become easier to buy real ingredients than to buy processed junk.
Third, we have to make the economics work. We have to be able to grow food sustainably, while paying the farmer a living wage. And that food has to be sold at a price that’s affordable to someone else who’s making a living wage. A person should be able to grow and sell food and make a living wage without having their customers only be wealthy people. Everyone should able to eat that kind of food every day.
Andrew: Sounds great. How do we get there?
Josh: On the first one: People are already starting, and it is fun because it actually is fun! Cooking with kids is the most important thing we can do. When I was growing up, we had dinner every night together; that table is where I learned to share, where I learned to think critically, and also to disagree with people and still love them. We need to cook with our kids and treat that as quality time, not drudgery. Cooking together is how we build community, family, and real relationships.
On the second: We need to change the policies that shape our food system. Right now, according to the latest guidelines, more than half of our plates should be filled with fruits and vegetables. But we spend less than 1% of farm subsidies on those. There’s a whole series of changes we need to make to our policies to make it easier to feed our kids fruit rather than Froot Loops.
The last one is complicated. It’s a long-term struggle. First, and this is the biggest one, we need to deal with poverty in this country. If people are poor, it makes it very hard to do the right thing when it comes to food. Second, we need to build the kind of infrastructure that can hold a local, sustainable, vibrant agriculture. Distribution and processing needs to be considered, and it’s not adequate right now. We also need buying ingredients, and buying real food, to be a real priority. Americans spend, on average, less on food and more on healthcare than any other nation.
It does not work to not pay the farmer and instead pay the doctor. We need to turn that around. I see that less as a set of individual choices, and there are structural choices we need to make so that the default is eating well instead of getting sick.
Also, I would never say to anyone, particularly a low-income individual, that they need to spend more on food. Our movement does that too much.
A common phrase is that the food system we have is a democratic system — that “we vote with our forks.” But if you’re low-income, there’s no polling place. There’s only one candidate — junk food.
Andrew: I recently wrote that SNAP (Food Stamp) benefits shouldn’t be allowed for soda, which sparked a passionate discussion in the comments. What do you think?
Josh: The starting place needs to be incentivizing good behavior, not banning bad behavior.
Let’s take a tiny amount of money, say just one tenth of one percent of what we spend on corn, soy, and commodity crop subsidies. Let’s apply that as an incentive to double SNAP benefits that are spent at farmers’ markets for local produce. That will drive the choices in the right direction, without creating a negative dynamic.
Oran Hesterman, from the Fair Food Network, is the one that gave me the “one tenth of one percent” suggestion. Smart idea.
One area where I do draw a line: Right now fast food companies are chasing after SNAP money. I think that’s a really bad idea, and a big step backwards. We call it a supplemental nutrition program for a reason. To start using that money to buy fast food? It’s bad for the recipient, bad for the economy, and bad for our health. Instead, take that money and spend it at a farmer’s market. Instead, you’re using that money to boost the farm economy. I see huge benefits to going the other way, and huge costs to supporting it at fast food restaurants.
Andrew: How do you solve that in food deserts?
Josh: We need to create options for everyone to be able to buy ingredients. Fast food is not a solution to food access. They’re not the solution, and in a way, they’re the cause of the problem.
The Healthy Food Financing Initiative is a great project. It’s making financing available to incentivize the opening of small businesses to address the challenges of food deserts. It’s an incentive for communities to fix those problems.
Andrew: What one change can somebody make in his or her own life that would have the biggest impact?
Josh: I don’t believe we can change the world by shopping differently alone. I also don’t believe we can do it just by calling our legislators. It’s going to take each of us rolling up our sleeves, cooking with our kids, and getting engaged as citizens and communities to make change happen in the world. Living a life that includes each of those things is vital.
If we want to talk about the individual choice? Choosing not to eat processed foods and cooking with whole ingredients will lead to massive change.
Zeke Emanuel (Rahm Emanuel’s brother) is a bioethicist. He was recently talking about what we can do about sodium. He said that “everyone has all these ideas about drugs we can use, about having slightly less sodium. Look, 77% of the sodium we eat comes from processed foods. Just stop eating processed foods! If there were no more processed foods, then every case — all the health problems we have linked through excessive sodium consumption — would be solved.” Behavior change is hard, but every behavior has opportunity.
Financially, food corporations bring us so far away from the farmer — and they rob our pocketbooks. As an illustration: If you were to buy a bag of potato chips, and calculate how much it would cost to make your own, you’re actually paying $12/pound for those potatoes. The most super-expensive, organic fingerlings cost maybe $2.50/pound. It’s six to 12 times more expensive to buy processed foods. Institutional food is the same way.
I’d like to add that it’s not just “don’t eat processed food,” but also “cook real food from whole ingredients.” It changes people’s lives to stop and cook. There’s so much pleasure in there. It changes your health, and will change the environment.
Andrew: The First Lady recently made a big announcement about Olive Garden’s pledge to reduce calories and sodium over the next decade. Some people say it’s just “healthwashing,” others thing it’s a great move. Your thoughts?
Last year I submitted a video after the State of the Union address. I asked President Obama the “Froot loops” question. He started talking about the First Lady’s initiative, and he talked about her working with Wal-Mart. All this stuff is good news, not bad news. It’s great if they reduce their sodium in their food. But if we think that’s enough to end obesity in a generation, then we’re fooling ourselves. It’s going to take each of us to roll up our sleeves, cook real food, and demand real change from our leaders.
Right now, all our leaders have room to do is work with food corporations — the same corporations that got us in this mess. We need to create political pressure — particularly on Congress — to change the rules that shape our food system.
I don’t want this news to distract us from the real work we have to do. Even if Olive garden makes a radical change, it’s not going to get us there. It’s just not going to solve the problem.
It’s going to take each of us jumping into that as leaders, community members and citizens.
Andrew: I’m getting the feeling you’re an optimist.
Josh: (Laughs) I really am. Things are more important now than ever before. But I also believe there are more people than ever before who are ready to take a stand. The “us’s” — all the citizens, eaters, growers, who want to see it change — they’re ultimately the power to change it. Seeing them concerned gives me hope.
This is the first generation that will die at a younger age than their parents. But also, it’s the first generation to grow up into a social movement that will be the drivers to change that.
It’s terribly disheartening that there’s a problem of this magnitude. but it’ incredibly inspiring that there are so many people committing themselves to address it.
Andrew: I have a particular pet peeve for nutrition experts who make it all sound so easy — nobody’s perfect. So, fess up: What’s your guilty indulgence?
Josh: One is Uncle Luigi G. They’re a Brooklyn ice cream maker. It’s not sustainable, though it is local. They have a chocolate ice with peanut butter cups. It’s one of the best things in the world. I know it is neither good for me, nor particularly good for the environment (Though I don’t know the story behind their ingredients — they don’t make it a part of their brand). I love that stuff, and it makes me feel like a little kid.
It’s not easy to be a purist, but the rules are all easy. My pet peeve is nutrition experts who make the rules complicated. All those questions about fat and calories and protein, they all go right out the window if you just eat real food.
Michael Pollan’s line, “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants” [from In Defense of Food] is as simple as it can be. So it’s great when nutritionists are simple.
Andrew: Okay, let’s finish with an easy question, from Eating Rules reader Jess Hankins: What’s your favorite food?
Josh: Ha! I promise this is not a cop-out, but it depends on where I am and what time of year it is. My favorite food? I LOVE having a garden. Love, love, love it. It’s one of my favorite things. My favorite things have come out of growing food. When I can’t be in a place where I can grow food, I hope that at least some of my food comes from people nearby who grow it.
Okay, so if you’re going to force me to choose one thing? It’s my perfect comfort meal: Roasted chicken, roasted root vegetables, and a salad.
I love it because the vegetables change depending on the time of year. The salad changes. I like to know where the chicken comes from and know it lived a good life. It’s easy to make, and the smell of it cooking reminds me of my family’s kitchen.