Talking about Slow Food with Richard Villadoniga
1. What is "Slow Food?"
Slow Food is an international movement that is a response to the fast food movement and the fast-fooding of our lives and our cultures. It was started in Italy as a reaction to McDonald's opening up a franchise right at the Spanish Steps. Many Italians felt this was an attack on their culture and their way of life. Their response was to protest the opening but to also go beyond a one day protest and look inward to see where things had started turning away from the more traditional parts of Italian culture that make Italy stand out. When you think of Italy you think of good food, long leisurely lunches, and time spent around the table socializing. Fast food was the anti-Italian culture. For many people around the world, besides Italians, the same was true. Sitting around eating together is probably the oldest form of socializing. Supporting local farms is something that has been engrained in our cultures - not just in Italy but here in the United States and all around the globe for as long as mankind has been around. So, when you start looking at all the things that were happening in our rapidly changing world people started recognizing that there are things that are great about globalization and industrialization but there are also other parts they weren't so happy with and they didn't want to forget their roots and traditions that had been around for so long and were disappearing in one quick generation.
2. So, is Slow Food about both slowing down as well as focusing on local aspects of food?
The core mission of Slow Food is to change the food system in a manner that ensures pleasure and quality. Pleasure refers to sitting around the table and slowing down - not just in terms of food but in terms of life. Quality refers to the quality of the food we grow and that we eat. There's also a strong environment and social justice component. Slow Food believes the food we grow and consume should be good not only for our own health but good for the health of the planet and good for the health of our communities.
3. What, specifically, is wrong with our current food system that you're trying to change, and what sorts of changes are you trying to make?
When you look at the alarming obesity and diabetes epidemics we have in the United States, those are things that you can easily connect to our food system as a direct contributor to those problems. Our food system is full of junk food, fast food, and food that is just not nutritious but which is very cheap. Eating well, for many people in the United States, is unaffordable. That is one of our big concerns - we believe that everyone should have access to high nutrition foods. Whether that means strictly organic or whether that means fresh veggies - there are different levels of what people consider healthy - but there are some basic things we believe all people should have access to.
Also, when you look at the way our food is produced - fossil fuels are used not only to produce synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, which cause problems on their own, but they're also used to transport our food across thousands of miles. It's really incredible - the average meal here in the United States travels over 1,500 miles from farm to plate. By supporting a more localized or regionalized food system you're reducing the amount of fossil fuels used to produce the food and to deliver the food to the grocery stores and eventually restaurants and household tables across America.
Finally, I think social justice is an important thing. I started out by saying that everyone should have access to healthy foods, but we also believe that the people who provide us with our food should be treated well. That means the farm workers who work in our fields should be well taken care of - they should be paid a living wage and treated with respect. But that also means that family farms across the United States that are struggling because they can't compete with the giant multinational food corporations who pretty much run the show these days, they need to be given a fair shot, and they need to be given the tools to be able to succeed. When you think of the billions and billions of dollars that the government uses to subsidize the corn or soybean industry - we're asking to use just a small sliver of that subsidized money to support small family farms or organic farmers or sustainable farmers. One of the complaints some people bring up about the Slow Food movement is that they say it's an elitist movement - that only the wealthy can afford to eat organic or afford to support their local farmer's market and so forth. But if you were able to transform the subsidy program that the USDA currently has and give just a small percentage to family farms, that would bring down the cost of being able to eat healthy. Today, what we have is this very strange system where the government subsidizes Froot Loops but not fruit. So what you have is a situation where people can't afford to buy fresh fruit but they can buy a box of Froot Loops and pack on all that sugar, sodium and everything else that doesn't help any of us.
4. Is Slow Food, the movement, a way of thinking about the food we eat, or is it more of a movement?
It's more than thinking about the food, it's about putting the thoughts into action. It's about educating the public on why we should support local farmers and what's wrong with our current food system. It's also about educating the government and our elected leaders on where money would be better spent to help actual, real families, rather than giant agribusiness corporations. All the things we advocate for are reachable goals that have steps to make them happen. It is a philosophical movement and a philosophical response to the current state of affairs but it's also one that's realistic, plausible and advocates concrete steps to make those things happen.
5. Can you talk about a few of the concrete steps?
If someone on the street were to ask me how they could get involved I'd say, number one: buy local, support local - and that goes beyond just our local food supply. When you buy from a local farm or a local business there's a tremendous economic multiplier effect for your community. People who spend money with local businesses or local farms end up seeing that money being reinvested into their own community because farmers and businesses will then go and spend money back in the community. Buying local is a great way to take that first step. I think that with the economic crisis of the last couple of years people have started looking inwards and thinking about how they can support their local community and where their dollars go. Every dollar you spend is a vote and when you decide to spend your dollars at a local business you're actually deciding to spend and re-invest your dollars in your local community.
The other thing I'd recommend is to focus on the garden - start a garden, buy at a farmer's market, teach your children how to garden, teach them healthy eating habits so they'll be able to make good choices for the rest of their lives. One of our most successful programs locally has been our school gardens program. We have helped to establish 25 school and community gardens in St. Johns and Duval counties and it's really incredible for me, as a teacher, and as a member of the Slow Food movement to see the difference these gardens have made in kid's lives. The feedback we get from the teachers is that some of these kids very rarely have access to fruits and vegetables and they're trying some things for the first time - they have no idea what an eggplant is or they've never tried basil before - and suddenly these kids, who are looking suspiciously at what's growing in their gardens, when they have a tasting experience in their classroom they're blown away. I remember last year we received an email from one particular class that was growing Brussels sprouts. The kids at first didn't want to try the Brussels sprouts but by the end they were all demanding more Brussels sprouts then they had in the garden. It's those little things that end up teaching them life long lessons. What we've also found, interestingly enough, is that oftentimes the kids take these stories and lessons home with them and it actually changes their family eating habits as well. They are now educating their parents. Their parents may have never bought Brussels sprouts or you name it. Now, suddenly, their kids like them and want them. They go home and tell their parents and the experience then goes beyond simply affecting the kids to actually affecting the entire family's eating habits.
6. There seems to be more farmer's markets around - is that the case?
It is the case. There's a plus side and a negative side to that. The plus side is that more and more people are interested in and educated about wanting to support their local farmers, bee keepers, cheese makers or you name it - and that's fantastic. The challenge we have is that when every little neighborhood wants its own farmer's market you actually end up diluting the quality of the vendors there because here in Northeast Florida, as great as it is to have a booming new food movement, we're still very limited in terms of the number of farms out there and the number of cheese makers, etc. The food producers get pulled in so many directions in terms of the number of markets who want them. But they can only do so much. What ends up happening at many of the markets I've been to is that there are truck vendors selling fruits and vegetables - which is a first good step - but oftentimes the food isn't local but rather it's exactly what you'd get if you went to the supermarket. What I've found in a few very good farmer's markets, like for example the Beaches Green Market out at Neptune Beach, is that they have taken it upon themselves to make it a little more strict as to who the vendors can be and what they're selling. Their vendors must be local and they must sell only their own products. That small step in monitoring the food supply is a good step because it ensures that people who go there with good intentions and want to support local businesses and local farmers aren't being duped. People want to feel good when they purchase something from a farmer's market, and that's a great first step. But when you buy imported bananas from a guy who has some on his table you're not really doing much to support the local economy in a very meaningful way.
7. Are there more small farms who are catering to the demand from the local farmer's markets?
Yes, there certainly are. In the last 5-6 years we've seen a tremendous growth in the number of families who are going into farming. A lot of these are young people who were disenchanted with the everyday grind of their careers and decided they wanted to do something else and just switched into farming. They took a stab at it and have turned out to be very successful. I think of Down To Earth Farm, for example, right here in Duval county. It's a great example of a young couple who bought a small parcel of land just west of downtown and turned it into this flourishing farm where they are selling at farmer's markets and to chefs and restaurants and have been very, very successful at it. I know another couple that started their own chicken operation. And the list just goes on and on. It's not just farmers. When you think of the whole thing with Bold Bean Coffee or Intuition Ale Works or Bold City Brewery - these are all people in the community, mostly young people, young entrepreneurs that are interested in good, quality food and wanting to do something to improve their communities. A lot of times these businesses are doing well because they're also doing good for the community.
8. What sorts of things are your organization working on?
We've just written the check for our 25th school garden at Dupont Middle School. It's a youth refugee garden that we're helping to expand. A group of refugee children came with a rural, farm background and the Lutheran Social Services thought it would be a great way to engage them and educate them and so they started a garden at the school. We're helping to expand that garden and we're going to get them to start doing some native Florida foods. For example, we're donating a packet of 200 Seminole pumpkin seeds, which are an heirloom variety that were grown here by the Native Americans before the Europeans arrived 500 years ago. We're really excited about that. We think 25 is a great number and we continue to grow our school gardens program.
A couple of other big initiatives we've put together include the Tour de Farm and other agritourism events. The Tour de Farm is an event we've held the last 2 years on a Sunday in April. This year we're going to hold it in the Fall to give people a chance to see farming from a different seasonal standpoint. We've had over 20 farms open up their doors and offer things like petting zoos, cheese making classes and wine tasting. We've had chefs who went out in the field to cook up products that were harvested that morning, on site, and turned into delicious snacks and meals for all the people who came out. What's great about the Tour de Farm is that it's a free event. We wanted to keep it affordable and accessible to people across North Florida. We certainly wanted to make it a family friendly event so kids could, often for the first time, get out to a farm and re-connect with nature and with a way of life that here in the South is disappearing, but which, not long ago was the norm. People used to eat from their gardens and almost everyone in the South used to have someone in their family who used to own a farm. In one generation we've changed everything. In the first year of the Tour de Farm we had 8,000 farm visits. In the second year we had over 12,000 farm visits made. We thought that was very successful.
The other big program that's been tremendously successful is the Snail of Approval. It was started a few years back to reward the chefs, restaurants, farms, farmer's markets and local businesses that were going above and beyond to make our local food supply a better one. The Snail of Approval is an award we give out to those folks, such as a chef, who have made strides in connecting themselves to local farms and sourcing their menus as much as possible with local items. We're also rewarding farmers who are transitioning to a more sustainable practices. And farmer's markets that really go above and beyond to support the local food infrastructure. There have been more than 80 Snails of Approval awarded across Northeast Florida. There's a little sticker that most businesses have on their front doors. When you enter you'll know this is a Snail of Approval business. The demand by many of the restaurants and food businesses in Northeast Florida to get one of these recognitions has been very, very competitive - we've been pleasantly surprised. We vet the applicants very carefully and they're re-vetted to show that they continue along with our mission - it's not a one time thing. We get folks all the time, on our website, who recommend businesses or restaurants for the Snail of Approval. We also have many chefs who go out of their way to ask us about what they need to do to get this award. It's certainly in demand.
9. How can someone find out which restaurants have received a Snail of Approval?
Many people want to support local farms but don't want to cook every night and would like to support a local chef or business that is supporting the Slow Food movement. On our website, SlowFoodFirstCoast.com, there is a section called Snail of Approval, where you can click to get an online directory that lists all the different Snail of Approval winners. It's broken down alphabetically and by category - restaurant, brewery, cafe or farm, or whatever you're looking for. Each place that's listed has a small description of why they received the award.
10. Is the Tour de Farm held on a single day or is it spread out across many days?
It's a single day event.
11. Are there farms that allow people to come out to learn about what they're doing at different times throughout the year?
The biggest feedback we received from the Tour de Farm is that people really loved the event but we had 20 venues and people could only get to a few of them in one day. People wanted to see more. We've now created the Sunday Supper Series which kicked off at NaVera Farms in Calaghan this Spring. NaVera Farms is a sustainable farm within the Slow Food network. Chef Jeff Honeycutt from Native Sun cooked a Farm to Table dinner onsite. During the day there were free farm tours for families. This was the first in a series. In May we had a blueberry picking event at Harriet's Bluff, an organic blueberry farm that's just over the state line in Georgia. There was blueberry picking, barbecue, and gourmet popsicles from The Hyppo, which is a cool spot in St. Augustine. The next event will be a pig roast at KYV Farm, which is the only certified organic farm in Northeast Florida. We'll then resume the series in the Fall with another 2 events. We're definitely trying to expand to give people lots of options to experience these different farms. We're trying to keep them affordable and accessible to everyone. A lot of the farms also put on their own farm days or will be happy to show you around by appointment. The farmers have a tough job but they really love showing off what they do and connecting with people. I think that's what it comes down to with the Slow Food movement - it's about re-connecting people with people. The pleasures of not only enjoying local food, but enjoying local food with other people and slowing down to socialize.
12. Are the suppers family events or are they more adult oriented?
The very first one was for adults but all the others are open to families. We try to make it welcoming to everyone.
13. What's the state of Slow Food on the First Coast?
We started in 2007 when I put a little ad in the newspaper in St. Augustine and 12 people showed up for the first meeting. I didn't know where we'd go from there, but today we have about 150 paid members, over 600 folks on our email list and hundreds more on our Facebook page. More importantly, I think, is to look at numbers like 12,000 visits for the Tour de Farm, the Snail of Approval winners, all the chefs clamoring to work with us, and the number of farmer's markets out there. I'm not saying we're here to take all the credit but in terms of the Slow Food movement, back in 2007 Jacksonville was pretty much a slow food desert. Things really started picking up steam in the past 4-5 years. Not just in terms of the farm to table restaurants but also in terms of the breweries, coffee roasters, farms, and farmer's markets. Clearly, the public has responded positively to all of this. I don't think it's a fad. I'll go back to something I said earlier - when the financial crisis occurred a few years back people started looking carefully at how they spent their money and where they spent their money knowing that every dollar they spent has a consequence. Every dollar can be used to re-invest into their own communities or it can just go bye-bye hundreds of miles away from us.
14. Can people find out about how to become a member of your organization on your website?
Yes. Actually, you become a member of Slow Food USA. Our website will redirect you to SlowFoodUSA.org which is the national organization. We're part of the Slow Food USA umbrella as a local chapter. When you become a member of Slow Food USA you automatically become a member of Slow Food First Coast.
15. What got you interested in slow food?
I have always wanted to give back to the community, but to be honest, it was a little selfish motivation for me to start Slow Food First Coast. I took a big road trip with my wife across the US in 2007. I had won an award called the Geoffrey Roberts Award, which is award out of England. It's given to one person on the planet, who, in that year provides the best proposal for a project that benefits the world of food, travel and wine. My project was to travel across the country to document the endangered foods of America. Foods that were very popular up to a single generation ago but which are now very, very hard to find. We took a 6-week, 34-state road trip across the country. We went to farmer's markets, we met with chefs, ranchers, farmers and all kinds of great people doing amazing things all across the country. When we came home after meeting all these wonderful people we felt a little disappointed that these things we'd seen weren't happening in Northeast Florida. We wanted to find more local farms, to go to farmer's markets and to buy things in season that were being grown here locally. We wanted to go to local restaurants and find local food on the menu. After scratching my head and moaning and groaning for a while I decided to do something here. I started the Slow Food chapter for slightly selfish reasons so that I myself could enjoy local foods and go to a restaurant to enjoy something that was grown just a few miles away. It's been great to see our community flourishing. It feels good to start an organization that is making the community a better place. But this is definitely a team effort and without a wonderful SFFC Board of Directors, all of whom are volunteers, and tremendous community support, none of this would be possible.
16. What sorts of things are endangered now that used to be quite popular?
Here's the thing - we've really gone away from eating seasonally. Traditionally people ate the food that was grown on nearby farms. When it was corn season you ate corn. When it was peach season you ate peaches. Everything had its moment. That anticipation of waiting made it even extra special. Today you can go to a supermarket and whether it's a peach from Georgia in the summer or a peach from Chile in February that's as hard as a rock and tastes like nothing - if you really want a peach you can go out and get one. But there's a big difference in the quality of those 2 peaches. One of the reasons we don't eat so seasonally is because a lot of the really juicy peaches and really tasty vegetables that were grown before have short shelf lives. Producers responded to supermarket demand to alway have these products available by producing foods that look pretty and hold for a long time but really don't taste like much. Think about tomatoes, for example. People used to look forward to summer to be able to enjoy a few tomatoes from their garden and nearby farms. Today you can find tomatoes 365 days a year in the supermarket. But, there are so many different varieties of heirloom tomatoes out there that today are not being produced outside of little pockets around the country because in the supermarket you generally only find 3 different types of tomatoes - they don't have lots of variety. Same with potatoes - there are over 3,000 varieties of potatoes but at the supermarket you'll generally only find 4-5 varieties. It's the same with so many products - in order to offer them consistently the diversity of the crops had to be reduced to 3-4 varieties of each, leaving all the others in the dust. Many food experts estimate that, in the last century here in the United States, we've lost 90% of our food diversity - just in the last century. It's crazy!
17. What's next for Slow Food First Coast?
We're building a reputation as a leader in the school gardening movement. We're looked on as a leader in the agritourism movement. I think it's something that here in Florida, and certainly in Northeast Florida, agritourism has huge potential. People come to our area for the beaches. They might also visit St. Augustine for a few days for the history. They may be on business for a few days in Jacksonville. At the end of those few days of golf, going to the beach and strolling down St. George St. in St. Augustine they're looking for something else to do. I think agritourism has a lot of potential to bring many, many cultural and economic benefits to our region. Where people might normally leave Northeast Florida after 3 days you can extend their trip here while filling up hotels and restaurants. There's that economic multiplier effect again - if we offer people a few more reasons to stick around, such as U-pick strawberry operations and corn mazes and tour events like the Tour de Farm where people can really connect with local food producers, that is going to be something in the future that we're going to want to capitalize on better than we are today.