How can I help? It’s a question I ask myself a lot when looking at the state of the world, and something I consider often when eating. How does my meal impact the environment? Am I respecting these ingredients? Will these containers be a permanent fixture in a landfill? In my quest to be a slightly better person, I came across the Slow Food movement, and while on the surface it has guidelines that appear to make the world a better place, its lasting impact could be more negative than positive by way of ignoring the more pressing food issues at hand.
What is slow food?
The Slow Food organization was started in 1986 by Carlo Petrini to “defend regional traditions, good food, gastronomic pleasure and a slow pace of life.” The organization’s first demonstration was a protest at the intended site of a McDonald’s on the Spanish Steps in Rome. In 1989 the Slow Food Manifesto was signed. It reads:
Born and nurtured under the sign of Industrialization, this century first invented the machine and then modelled its lifestyle after it. Speed became our shackles. We fell prey to the same virus: ‘the fast life’ that fractures our customs and assails us even in our own homes, forcing us to ingest “fast- food.”
Against those - or, rather, the vast majority - who confuse efficiency with frenzy, we propose the vaccine of an adequate portion of sensual gourmandise pleasures, to be taken with slow and prolonged enjoyment.
Essentially, in retaliation to fast food this movement focuses on high-quality, locally grown ingredients that can highlight biodiversity and uplift different cultural dining traditions. There are a variety of terms created by the movement to get these points across:
- The “Ark of Taste” frefers to the idea of preserving forgotten and extinct foods and dishes
- “Eco-gastonomy” is the recognition of the connection between food and the planet
- A “neo-gastrome” is a person with a “responsible, comprehensive approach to food, combining an interest in food and wine culture with a desire to defend the environment and food biodiversity, and considers eating as not only a biological necessity, but also a convivial pleasure to be shared with others.”
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As the organization itself has expanded, with multiple international chapters and spin-off movements like Slow Fish and Slow Meat, so have interpretations of its cause. At its core, Slow Food seems to be about preserving quality ingredients and the notion that food should be enjoyed by everyone. The implied environmental impact of the movement has garnered Petrini accolades such as the United Nations’ Champion of the Earth award. But its evolution has resulted in an elitist, almost cult-like following that not everyone finds welcoming.
Controversies surrounding the Slow Food movement
Suzanne Zuppello, a former Slow Food devotee, described her disillusionment in an in-depth piece for Eater in 2018.
“My goals were simple, and seemed to align with those of Slow Food: everyone must have enough food, farm subsidies must go to crops with actual nutritional value, and farmers must decrease the use of chemicals and antibiotics,” Zuppello writes. “But I’d soon grow exhausted of ‘good, clean, and fair’ food, and realized that adhering to the Slow Food movement encourages a type of disordered eating. The organization’s evangelicals wouldn’t deign to eat anything falling outside the good, clean, and fair guidelines. What Slow Food overlooks is that its belief in restrictive eating willfully ignores that millions of people in the world who go without any or enough food daily.”
Zuppello felt trapped in the movement, so worried about being judged for her love of fast food that she ate these meals in secret, a habit that reflects the actions of someone dealing with disordered eating. And unfortunately, the movement has been co-opted by various weight loss blogs as a trendy diet.
“Bye Bye binding diets, say hello to Slow Food philosophy,” one page reads. “Reduce the pace of your life and have more balance with mindful eating,” another says. “It may seem difficult to see the relationship, but this is an important step to maintain a healthy weight and be happy with your body!” Associating Slow Food with health and weight completely undermines any good the movement could be doing by actually encouraging unhealthy behavior.
The Slow Food movement has also been criticized for being elitist. One Reddit commenter says that the tab for their Slow Food meal for two came out to $700. Some critics argue that because of the hefty price tag and high restrictions on what constitutes Slow Food, more people will end up going hungry and being exploited for food-related work. Socialist magazine Jacobin writes:
There is something especially sinister about telling people that the way to eat healthfully, morally, and sustainably requires more work — especially when slow food really does little to ensure a healthy, moral, or sustainable food system, nor one that treats farm and food-processing labor any better. In fact, small farms are as likely and maybe more likely to treat workers poorly, and often rely on unpaid family labor to remain productive. It may seem counterintuitive, but larger agricultural producers typically receive greater labor oversight and are more amenable to collective bargaining than smaller producers due to public scrutiny.
How Stuff Works even posits that the Slow Food movement might not be as great for the environment as it claims, saying that getting rid of efficient, industrialized farms in favor of organic farms could lead to a large deforestation issue.
And of course, like with every movement, there will always be the people who take it too far. The need to place restrictions on oneself and label oneself as a “devotee” of a movement easily leads to behavior that can be seen as “cult-like.” The intensity of those who are committed to the Slow Food movement (and who pass the judgement that Zuppello was so scared of) tarnishes any good intentions the organization might have otherwise had.
What we can learn from the Slow Food movement
While its philosophy has its merits, the Slow Food movement is not the be-all and end-all way to approach food. It essentially attempts to solve one problem that can’t really be solved in isolation from bigger factors like world hunger and food accessibility. In order to have a shot at being successful, the movement needs to be willing to adapt and change as different global food crises arise. And there needs to be wiggle room built into the system, too, because unless it’s a specific medical necessity, restrictive eating often does more harm than good.