On Chow.com this week, former SFoodie editor John Birdsall came out with a shocker of a story. Slow Food USA is losing members, upsetting core supporters, and laying off staff, Birdsall reports. Why? Because it's changing its focus to address the price of good food -- specifically, with the nationwide $5 Challenge the organization promoted in September, which encouraged participants to make a local, organic meal for $5 a person. The new focus on cheap food, Birdsall reports, had Alice Waters in tears. (Side note: Over on Chowhound, they're having a great discussion about the piece.)
What bothers me about this kerfuffle is that the $5 Challenge was the first time in years I felt like Slow Food USA was actually addressing the charge of elitism rather than superciliously telling their detractors they're wrong.
For most of its history, the organization, like Alice Waters' "delicious revolution," has pushed two tenets as inseparable truths:
A) Local, organic, heirloom, humanely raised, etc., food is far more delicious -- aesthetically superior -- than the products of industrial agriculture.
B) Anyone who wants food that is better for the environment, farmers, and our bodies must pay more.
I get that Americans pay a smaller percentage of their income on food than anyone in human history, and I'm a true believer that cheap industrial food has huge invisible costs. But when the delicious revolution pushes both aesthetics and ethics in equal measure, we end up with farmers' markets filled with $14 small-batch jams made with pristine local fruit, multicolored baby carrots for $8 a bunch, and $35-a-pound steaks from grass-fed cows.
So many of the products heralded as the epitome of all that is right with the food movement end up being luxury products for special occasions. I love those products. But on a busy Tuesday night I'm more likely to cook a half-assed stir-fry with vegetables grabbed from the natural-foods market on Haight Street. Is it all organic? I've forgotten to check.
What the resistance among core members to the $5 Challenge -- or even addressing the issue of food costs -- says to me that middle ground is verboten. So is incremental change. Thou shalt not pick up cheap hamburger at the Safeway near your house to make tacos with organic local lettuce, Mexican tomatoes, and Papalote salsa when the kids are cranky and you want to get them to bed by 7. You either pray at the high church or get damned with the heathens. I don't know about you, but by that measure everybody in my acquaintance is a heathen.
It's not just the message the Slow Food wants to convey that's important. The way the organization conveys it is important, too. More than any other local convivium, Slow Food San Francisco used to reinforce the luxury-foods subtext of its mission by only organizing $80 dinners at high-end restaurants and marketing $75 heirloom turkeys. That's why I canceled my membership years ago.
And that's why I was so excited to see Slow Food finally talk about price, and advocate creating humble meals for a reasonable amount of money. The initiative wasn't phrased as a moral-imperative upsell or a celebration of the precious. The $5 challenge sounded doable. To my mind, whether or not the first-time initiative reached a lot of lower-income eaters doesn't matter, either. It may actually help people outside the movement recognize that Slow Food USA cares about practical considerations as well as establishing a gold standard. And that, in the end, makes the organization's core message more appealing.