No one knows less about food than us. We, the American people, having inherited an extraordinary and unprecedented wealth of native and immigrant culinary traditions and knowledge - a kind of Alexandrian library of edible wisdom - no longer know how to feed ourselves.
We love fast food, whether itâ€™s from a drive-through or a grocery aisle, and itâ€™s really bad for us. Itâ€™s bad for our health, our culture, the environment. In short, itâ€™s unsustainable.
But our once-diverse food lore and skills have been scattered to the four winds. Our taste buds have been jammed on salt, sugar and every conceivable molecular permutation of corn. We literally eat petroleum-derived substances, and ask for more.
This is how we got here: Over the past couple of decades, processed food became more affordable, thanks to economies of scale, logistics and transportation developments, cheap oil and government crop subsidies, especially for corn, which quickly became the staple of our new national diet. This, in turn, further centralized farm operations, threatening the markets for small farmers and the preservation of a diverse food supply.
Essentially, the food economy was turned upside down, so that now, a cheeseburger and fries at a fast-food chain can cost less than a pound of sustainably and locally grown tomatoes.
How do we kick our fast-food addiction and re-establish a relationship with whatâ€™s good for us and good for the planet?
Most of us are stuck somewhere in the grief cycle. Find your spot:
Denial: â€œThereâ€™s nothing wrong with the food system.â€
Anger: â€œI donâ€™t have time for this.â€
Depression: â€œI canâ€™t do anything about it.â€
Bargaining: â€œWhat am I supposed to do?â€
Acceptance: â€œWe have to fix this.â€
More and more, people seem to be grouping at the last stage. Thatâ€™s good news - but where do we go from here?
Itâ€™s actually easier than it looks to start making a difference now. This was the impetus for Slow Food Nation, an expo and conference that weâ€™re modestly billing as the largest celebration of food in history. We home in on celebration, because the pleasures of real food are the ultimate seduction, and because thereâ€™s a little word in protective custody in California - fun.
Staged over Labor Day weekend at Fort Mason and on Civic Center Plaza in San Francisco - where the Slow Food Nation Victory Garden is already flourishing - the event is part detox program and part renewal agenda. Citizens, who are the heart of the event, will come away with a new awareness about food, ready to follow a 10-point checklist, shown on the preceding page, that makes the user-friendly South Beach diet look complicated.
The 10-point checklist goes on, of course, and people can and should make priorities according to their personal means and interests.
For example, a precious item on my list is: Teach children what you know. In 2001, I started working with the restaurateur and food activist Alice Waters on her campaign to feed American kids healthy and delicious meals and reinvent the public-school lunch program.
The Edible Schoolyard is a hands-on gardening and cooking program integrated into the public-school curriculum, teaching kids the principles of ecology, the origins of food and the cycles of all living things. It also shows that we care to nurture our children and respect their future.
Once youâ€™ve reconnected with the basics of real food, the larger and much more complicated problems surrounding our industrial food system begin to come into focus. I think itâ€™s here that most people throw up their hands - and relapse in the grief cycle, looping back into citizen paralysis.
The large-scale problems are indeed daunting: Type 2 diabetes in the wrong age bracket, diet-induced obesity, death lurking in a bag of spinach, feedlot and slaughterhouse cruelty, famine, food scarcity and cost, the loss of biodiversity, the environmental and human-health impact of industrial farmingâ€™s fatal chemical dependence. But if we learn about the benefits - cultural and biological - of a diverse food supply, if we empower ourselves, through our own actions, to consider real food a right and not a privilege, then we can demand action from our political leaders.
At Slow Food Nation, weâ€™ll unveil a Healthy Food and Agriculture Declaration, orchestrated by Roots of Change as a response to the farm bill, which will be posted on August 28 at www.fooddeclaration.org
for public comment. We chose Labor Day weekend in homage to the harvest season and because farmers, who are the soul of the event, told us this was one of the few times of the year they could spare. But if citizens are the heart and farmers the soul of Slow Food Nation, political leaders are the target.
We also chose Labor Day weekend because, on the eve of the presidential election, we intend to send a strong message that food policy reform is a critical priority for the next administration, paramount in the creation of a just and sustainable food system.
By Katrina Heron, San Francisco Chronicle, August 18, 2008