Slow Food's $5 Challenge Made Alice Waters Cry

Categories: Controversy
People are apparently quitting Slow Food USA over this.
On 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.

Follow us on Twitter: @sfoodie, and like us on Facebook.
Follow me at @JonKauffman.
My Voice Nation Help
Sort: Newest | Oldest
Poppy Tooker
Poppy Tooker

Please read Gary Nabhan's thoughts on "Affordable Food for the Poor vs Justice for Disaster Stricken Farmers," Edible Communities end of the year editorial.  It clearly explains the SFUSA disconnect. http://www.ediblecommunities.c...


I love farmers' markets but too often they are the province of the monied class... and that isn't who needs it the most...  When you have $5 for the whole meal, buying even questionably organic at the big grocery chains becomes 'too much'... 


Amen.  What's the point of organic, sustainable food if the only people who can eat them are the rich? Diabetes and obesity are so much more common in the lesser financial classes, and the idea that slow food dinners cost 80 dollars seems like some sort of terrible way of keeping the rich healthier and the poor fatter.  


Excellent challenge from Slow Food. 

Alice may have been a hippie at some point in her life, or hippie-ish, but she's catered to a moneyed crowd for a long time now. 

And she really needs to stop claiming that locally raised, whatever food is "healthier" than industrial-raised. I'm open to the idea but I have yet to see that claim supported by science. 

Now Trending

From the Vault


©2014 SF Weekly, LP, All rights reserved.