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The Gourmet Q & A: Joshua Viertel

Slow Food USA’s president is heading for a new foodie frontier: social justice.

Gourmet.com • Nov. 21, 2008

By the time Joshua Viertel took the helm of Slow Food USA this fall, the 30-year old already had a quiet reputation for mixing a refined palate with grassroots sensibilities. The former farmer’s résumé would make most recruiters pause: There are stints in Sicilian sheep pastures, hurricane-ravaged towns in Honduras, and small New England farms; a philosophy degree and protester bona fides from Harvard; and a job history that includes a reference from Alice Waters. If it seems like a no-brainer to hand the reins of the country’s most prominent food-culture group to this man, some of Viertel’s other passions—grassroots organizing and social justice—suggest where the next generation of American foodies may be headed. Writer Tracie McMillan spoke with Viertel, fresh from Slow Food International’s Terra Madre conference in Italy, to talk about founding Yale’s landmark farming initiative, whether we should be paying more for our food, and finding inspiration in a bodega.

Tracie McMillan: You’ve mostly worked as a farmer and an educator. How did you end up as president of Slow Food USA?

Joshua Viertel: Well before I was president of Slow Food USA, I was co director of the Yale Sustainable Food Project. I came to Yale when there was no project there and developed this organization with a working farm, internships and fellowships, and educational programs with an emphasis on sustainability, food and agriculture, and the environment.

I had really wanted to move to California to do work in sustainability food agriculture and education. I essentially threw myself in front of Alice Waters and said, “I want to move to California and help you do this. What can I do?” And she said, “Well, it’s too bad you want to move to California, because you really need to move to New Haven, Connecticut—there’s a group of students there pushing to have sustainable food in the dining halls and create a small farm, and they’re at a point where they really need to hire someone who knows how to do this. And that should be you.” I was really flattered and said, “The truth is, I think I want to move to California.” But then as I was leaving her office, I realized, “No, that is just too amazing an opportunity to pass up. And I want to do it.”

I’d been on the board for Slow Food USA for probably a year and a half and stepped off of the board to apply for the [president] position. I just felt very blessed to get the offer in the end.

TM: Did you come to this work more out of a farm background, or were you a foodie?

JV: Both. I grew up in a family that loved, really loved, food, but my parents are not farm people. I was always drawn to that stuff as a little kid, and I always really cared about the environment. I was always deeply concerned about social-justice questions. And those were just these disparate things: I loved to eat and I loved to cook, I was interested in farms from a distance and physical work in the world, and the two problems that concerned me most were the environment and social justice. It took taking a year off school and working on farms for me to realize that the problems I cared about most were core problems that were linked to the food we eat and the way it’s produced.

There’s also an incredible amount of pleasure in it. For me, this was a great revelation. I figured out that by doing the things I loved, I could address the problems that bothered me the most. So that’s really how I came to it, this combination of pleasure and responsibility.

TM: And why did you want to move into doing work at Slow Food instead of, say, continuing at Yale or doing something else in that model?

JV: I can imagine Slow Food over time having a membership and a reach that enables it to put real pressure on federal policymakers in the next food and farm bill discussion in the same way the Natural Resources Defense Council or the Sierra Club could affect policy for the environmental movement. Imagine the change we could get if we had an organization that could bring one million people to the table and say, “Hey, we all agree about these three things.” We haven’t had that historically, and I think having it going forward could make a huge difference in the way our country grows its food.

TM: You had come, both to Yale and then to Slow Food, with an expertise in youth work. I heard that Slow Food is incorporating more youth in what you’re doing.

JV: When I look at what young people are doing in the sustainable-food movement, I think that their creativity and sense of humor—but also their complete unwillingness and also disinterest in compromising—are just this kind of jet fuel in our movement right now. I want to really push hard to make room for young people in everything we do and support the work they’re already doing.

There’s this young guy, his name is Sam Levin, and he’s fifteen years old. And we worked really hard to get him into the opening session of Terra Madre. He’s from western Massachusetts and in his high school started a small farm on campus and had the food from that farm going to the cafeteria. Sam got up and spoke in front of nine thousand people at this opening, translated into a bunch of different languages, got a standing ovation. I think he showed up Carlo Petrini, who’s the most charismatic speaker in the world. That energy for me is really important.

TM: What were you most excited about at Terra Madre?

JV: There was this delegation of people doing work around social justice and food and agriculture, and some really great conversations about what the role of Slow Food should be in addressing social-justice questions moving forward. I was so happy to have that conversation and so happy that, after standing up in front of our whole delegation and saying, “Good, clean, fair food is not a privilege, it is a right, and in everything we do, we need to work to make sure people have access to that right,” no one came up to me and said, “For me, Slow Food is really about fancy cheese and good wine—that’s why I got into it, and I don’t like this whole new political bent.” Everyone came up to me and said, “It’s so great that we’re addressing this.”

TM: There was all this discussion about Slow Food Nation being a big test for whether Slow Food can speak to normal people. How do you think you guys did on that front?

JV: Slow Food Nation was amazing. We totally exceeded our expectations in terms of attendees: eighty-five thousand people, a really broad demographic attending, ninety-five percent of all the events were sold out. I was extraordinarily excited about that. And I thought it was appropriate to the flavor of San Francisco and the Bay Area. Going forward, we’re not going to do it in the Bay Area, and when it goes some place next, it needs to take on the flavor of the place; for me that’s really important. If it’s in Des Moines, it can’t have the fancy food focus that the Great Hall of Taste had this last round—even though it was beautiful and perfect for San Francisco. If it’s in D.C., it’ll have more of the feel of a march on Washington.

TM: How do you respond to people who say that Slow Food is elitist?

JV: For years, the sustainable-food movement in general said, “Food that doesn’t hurt the environment, food that doesn’t make you sick, and food that doesn’t exploit people is worth more, so you should be willing to pay more for it.” That is okay if you can afford to pay some more for it. But for the group of people who this winter are going to have to choose between feeding their family or heating their home, that argument is a slap in the face.

And when the sustainable-food movement makes that argument, corporations that sell industrial food are making the argument that “We’re your friend because our food costs less.” And so our historical argument has essentially driven poor people—the people that are hurt most by the current food system—into the hands and into the cash registers of the corporations that are hurting them. That’s got to change.

TM: Why is it a problem for Slow Food if lower-income people are excluded?

JV: I see our constituency as everyone who eats food. People who joined Slow Food early on were more from that tradition of pleasure. More and more, people are coming to Slow Food because they feel engaged politically around the question of food. No one would be comfortable with the notion that only the wealthy deserve to have their kids grow up without chronic diet-related disease. Our work can’t end with good food that’s clean and that’s fair that only the wealthy can afford.

TM: What kind of work is going on outside of Slow Food that you’re excited about?

JV: There’s a group of community and nonprofit leaders that are locally based that are doing incredible programming on food-justice issues. Hank Herrera, Brahm Ahmadi, Ian Marvy. I’m a huge fan of those initiatives. I think more and more we need to ally ourselves with those initiatives and help support them.

TM: How would Slow Food work with groups that are based in poor communities?

JV: We don’t ever want to own a movement—a movement is always more than an organization. We want to use our network of members and chapters, build them and use them to help support this incredible work that’s happening locally. A first step is a chapter leader in Oakland reaching out to Hank and saying, “Hank, what are you up to, how can we use our pretty strong chapter here to support your work?”

TM: A couple of years ago, I spent the day at Stone Barns with a youth program. They had these beautiful box lunches, and half the kids didn’t eat their food—they wanted to go to McDonald’s. How do you deal with cultivating an appreciation for good food among kids?

JV: If I pick something in a garden and hand it to a kid who’s never been in a garden, she or he might think that’s gross. If they help to plant it, they watch it grow, then they pick it, then they’re one hundred times more likely to taste it and to enjoy it and to feel like they’re connected to land. I think maybe it’s not ever reasonable to take a child out of a very, very unhealthy place in terms of food culture and expect them to be dropped into an environment with some beautiful local produce and suddenly have a lightbulb go off.

TM: Michael Pollan had a big piece in the New York Times Magazine in October, where he brought up the idea of a federal definition for food. The basic gist was, “You can’t use federal funding for stuff that isn’t food. You can’t use your food stamps to buy soda pop or cheesy poofs.” What do you think about that?

JV: I think it makes sense that you shouldn’t be able to use food stamps to buy soda. We use government all the time to incentivize good behavior, and if research shows that calories from soda are a leading cause of obesity and Type II diabetes, then it’s just crazy to use federal funding both to subsidize the cost of that corn syrup and then to subsidize people consuming it. It’s essentially taxing the public to help make the public sick. It’s worse than taxation without representation—it’s taxation with explicit intent to harm.

TM: Both Alice Waters and Michael Pollan have suggested having an organic farm on the White House lawn. Should that be the top priority for food issues?

JV: For me, the top priority is to create a national public-works program and embed green jobs as a central foundational piece of that—and I’ve got to give credit to Van Jones for this. You don’t have to be putting up solar panels to have a green job. If you’re feeding your community, reducing obesity, increasing health, supporting the local farm economy, and also reducing your carbon footprint—the guy who runs the bodega that’s selling local sustainable food—that is a green job in the best of ways.

There’s this great young guy who runs a bodega in Philadelphia named Juan Carlos Romano. I was inspired by what he does: He’s got a corner store in a neighborhood that’s food insecure and started to bring in products that were good for people and were environmentally sustainable. And it works for Juan Carlos. He says people are mimicking him in his community—other bodega owners are bringing in more fresh products, selling more produce.

TM: So, what about the White House Farm?

JV: I think it’s a great idea. I think we should do it, and we probably will do it. And it’s something we’d love to help do.

There’s a real value to symbols, especially coming from leadership. The way we perpetrate inequity and the way we perpetrate justice are typically not major decisions—they’re small everyday acts. If our commander in chief can model that to us, I think it will help each of us as a citizen make positive decisions in our everyday lives.

And I want Obama to enjoy himself. I want him to have a really good meal when he’s home, and I want him to be able to know it’s connected to the place where he lives. The idea that the salad on his plate and the beet in his soup comes from his yard—even if it’s an important piece of real estate—I think will help him. And I hope that will be able to help him take pleasure in his everyday life. And I really think that’s important. I‘d hate to have him not be happy; he worked so hard to get the job, you know? He deserves a good meal based on local produce.

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