Back to the Garden

(By John Addison 9/4/08) The warm summer breeze carried the aromas of ripe berries, almonds, fresh honey, heirloom tomatoes, and exotic mushrooms. I was like the cartoon character lifted by mouthwatering fragrances and carried to the source in a hungry trance. I was soon in the middle of a farmers market, a tradition as old as civilization. The food was local, seasonal, often organic, and at peak freshness.

Thousands sampled and bought 35,000 packages of local goodies. Neophytes learned about the collage of heirlooms displayed in front of their eyes. Regulars traded hellos and stories and recipes with the farmers who brought their food. Free water stations, generously located everywhere, reduced an estimated 100,000 water bottles from being sold and discarded.

Across America, thousands of such farmers markets allow people to learn, socialize, and buy food at the peak of its freshness and health benefits. Growers and producers benefit by having dialogs with their best customers, trading notes with other farmers, and making their precious brands visible in a market where the food processing giants spend millions on advertising. This particular farmers market on Labor Day Weekend in San Francisco was part of Slow Food Nation’s celebration of food. Over 60,000 attended the farmers market, workshops, special tastings, and/or the edible garden.

From 4,000 seedlings planted in July, a vast garden covering 10,000 square feet flourished. This Victory Garden was a vivid reminder of the years during World War II when American’s produced 40 percent of the nation’s vegetables in such gardens. The food would be donated to those needy and hungry through the Food Bank.

Surrounded with tall green plants and the smells of fresh food, hearing the happy voices of children weaving through the garden paths, I drifted back to my childhood when I followed my mother into our backyard garden. I could see her appraising the rhubarb, then selecting the most promising stalks. I knew that one of her famous pies would soon be baking and that dinner would be complete with a slice of the curiously sweet and tart desert.

Slow Food USA envisions a world in which all people have access to food that is good for them, good for the people who grow it and good for the planet. Slow Food USA is a nonprofit membership organization that seeks to create dramatic and lasting change in the food system. Slow Food USA has more than 16,000 members and 200 local chapters in 47 states. The U.S. group is part of Slow Food which has over 80,000 members in 100 countries.

In this first U.S. event, a wide range of food experts, activists, and executives were brought together. Leaders of the movement were passionate about the health of everyone, especially children. They shared a concern that children are now taught to be perfect students of Fast Food Nation. Their senses must now be awakened. Good food needs to be irresistible. Alice Waters was passionate about the success and growth of edible school yards where children are involved in growing and enjoying real food. Ultimately, she explained that food is about love and nourishing people.

Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food, discussed the health and environmental benefits of local fresh food instead of the industrial products where food quality is sacrificed in the name of quantity and shelf life.

Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, chaired a panel that detailed how many farm workers are denied a wage that would allow their families a roof over their heads and medical care. I empathized with the workers, having once bailed-out on farm work after spending all of three days as a lemon picker who lived with migrant workers when I was 17. At the speed I picked, I could not feed myself, much less a family.

Food, health, climate change, and justice are all big issues. Everyone at Slow Food Nation could find much to like, as well as issues over which to disagree. While many in the world cannot afford the most basic of substance, some objected to gourmet fund raising dinners at over $100 per plate. Yet, this allowed the non-profit to raise important funds to continue and expand its work.

More needs to be done. True. We need thousands of Victory Gardens. Instead, the San Francisco demonstration garden ends this mid-September, lacking the funds for permanent personnel and security.

Others objected that local, seasonal, and organic food cannot scale to meet all of the world’s needs. Thinking back to when I lived through frozen winters in New Hampshire, I would agree that Slow Food is a critical step in the right direction, more beneficial in some seasons to some locales, and that feeding 6.5 billion people is indeed complex.

After event sessions titled Food for Thought, my wife and I completed our time at the event enjoying an evening of tasting and thoroughly enjoying food and wine. I convinced myself that the wine tasting was somehow beneficial because the vineyards were local, their practices sustainable, and the grapes organic. I was also grateful for the public transportation that returned us home free from needing to drive.

Slow Food is certainly a delicious and healthy antithesis to my young bachelor days of subsisting on fast food, frozen dinners, and packaged stuff with long ingredient lists of unpronounceable chemicals.

Slow Food Nation has inspired me to lower my carbon footprint and my “water footprint.” I will be drinking tap water not bottled water and sodas. I will buy more local and seasonal foods at farmers markets and our local markets. Bon Appetit Food Carbon Calculator

Consider joining Slow Food. Why shouldn’t something good taste delicious and be full of health benefits?

Copyright (c) 2008 John Addison. Permission to reproduce on the web with preservation of this copyright notice.