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Slow Food Movement Celebrates Local, Natural Foods

Fast food is everywhere… but slowly, a group of activists – unhappy with the changes it brought to the world's culinary landscape – is promoting an alternative. It focuses on preserving and celebrating good-tasting traditional foods, sustainable farming practices, and fair prices for growers. The so-called Slow Food Movement is now in 131 countries, each chapter having the same goal: to stop the industrialization of food production. The American Slow Food Nation recently held its first tasting festival in San Francisco. Jan Sluizer stopped by:

A cavernous hall once used by the U.S. Army was divided into 16 colorful mini-pavilions for the Slow Food Nation tasting fair. Each offered a different treat for the taste buds, including coffee, chocolate, wine, pickles, bread, olive oil, cheese and meat.

Festival goers sampled food and drink and learned about where it came from and how it was produced. Farmers, chefs, and conservationists delivered lectures and held workshops. World-renowned chefs, using farm-fresh ingredients, demonstrated how to make simple meals with sustainable ingredients. Slow Food merchants from all over the United States sent products for display.

At the ice cream pavilion, local pastry chef William Werner was giving out samples from nine different manufacturers. Werner volunteered at the festival to support the Slow Food Movement, and compared the ice cream he was serving to what he called "pre-made fabricated ice cream… You can buy local from people who are being sustainable, making it, spinning it every day, keeping it fresh, and, also, keeping it healthier for you."

As part of the weekend-long festival, California farmers who subscribe to the slow food philosophy set up stands to sell their produce. As festival executive director Anya Fernauld explained, it's all about reclaiming elements of the traditional food system that Americans abandoned when – as she put it – 'canned food rolled our way,' and incorporating those elements into modern American life.

Fernauld said she would consider the festival a success if a tenth of those who came make just one small healthy change in their approach to their food. "Some people who come to the event might be inspired to try making some things from scratch," she suggested, "inspired to ask their local sandwich place: 'Well, where is that meat from and does it have things in it that are going to really be bad for the environment or bad for me?'" She said she'd also like to see people cooking more, growing more of their own food, and buying produce that's in season in their area.

Many at the festival saw politics as a catalyst to change how Americans eat. Daniel Bowman Simon drove cross-country from New York in a double-decker yellow school bus with an organic garden on top. His goal was to gather signatures for a petition for the next president of the United States. It asks him to eat from a community garden to be grown on the White House lawn and tended by local school children.

Michael Dimmick was at the festival with another petition. He wants to deliver a million signatures to Congress by November 2009, asking for Slow Food philosophies to be incorporated into the 2012 Farm Bill, the legislation that provides funding for all federal food and agriculture programs. "The Declaration for Healthy Food and Agriculture is a framework for changing policy in this country so that we actually give the right incentives to farmers and to communities so we can actually create a food system that is healthy," he explained. "Right now, we have just the opposite."

The Slow Food Nation festival ended with an outdoor sit-down potluck dinner for 250 young people. The newly appointed president of Slow Food USA, Josh Viertel, said it was to honor young farmers, restaurant owners and workers, and others who support the movement. "We are the next generation of Slow Food Nation," he said. "Slow Food is going mainstream and we're to help it and we're here to sort of take charge ourselves because we are the generation that was not taught slow food values but we, ourselves, are taking charge."

But living those values is not that easy. Not everyone has access to local fresh produce, and the organically grown food that slow food supporters advocate often costs more than conventionally grown and processed foods. Also, many Americans think it's just another fad. So critics of the Slow Food Movement contend that it's elitist, impractical and too expensive.

Restaurateur Alice Waters – recognized as the visionary behind the American Slow Food Movement – rejects those claims, noting that people have a choice of paying for healthy food up front… or for doctors' bills later on. "We have to learn how to cook again," she insists. "Vegetables and grains and fruits and nuts can be affordable. We just don't know what to do with them."

Slow Food advocates such as Waters say there is a lot of work to be done to get the movement's philosophy into mainstream America. But judging from the crowds at the festival, Waters says she's hopeful that Americans and people around the world will choose more healthful, sustainable foods over convenient ones.