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Wednesday, Feb. 4, 2009

Leaving the Fast Lane

The Slow Food phenomenon

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You don’t have to dig deep to see the allure of fast food. It’s cheap, it’s convenient and it’s everywhere. The fast-food franchise machine, however, has gone unchecked for decades, garnering an unprecedented degree of power over our country’s food supply. It has played its part in fueling the industrialization of agriculture, drastically changing the way we grow crops and raise animals, with little regard for environmental sustainability. The consequences of a life made easier by a diet of fast and convenient food include sending our country’s obesity rates into epidemic proportions, stamping out small businesses, undermining local food traditions and eclipsing the opportunity for quality family time around the dinner table. While the price of that 99-cent burger may seem like a value, the cost to our health, culture and environment is staggering.

When the McDonald’s Corp. chose Rome’s treasured Piazza di Spagna as a site for one of its fast-food restaurants in 1986, a group of concerned Italians formed an organization that would evolve into Slow Food, a member-supported nonprofit devoted to counteracting fast food and fast life. Written in 1989, theSlow Food International Manifesto declares, “We are enslaved by speed and have all succumbed to the same insidious virus: Fast Life, which disrupts our habits, pervades the privacy of our homes and forces us to eat Fast Foods… A firm defense of quiet material pleasure is the only way to oppose the universal folly of Fast Life.”

Slow Food International has more than 85,000 members in 132 countries. Slow Food USA was established in 2000 and has 15,000 members and almost 200 chapters (also called convivia) in 47 states. Slow Food Wisconsin Southeast, which encompasses the metro-Milwaukee area and its surrounding counties, is led by Martha Davis Kipcak.

“Slow Food has many, many faces,” Kipcak explains. “What Slow Food is doing in Japan is going to be different from what Slow Food is doing in Australia, Mexico and Germany.Slow Food in the United States wants to intentionally shift and look at policy and social justice issues in a way that we have not before.”

Central to Slow Food USA is the promotion of good, clean, fair food for everybody, whether you’re in a hut or kitchen or around a campfire. The goal is quite simple: to build community and celebrate cultural diversity through the enjoyment of delicious food prepared from healthy plants and animals. In this context, the food we eat should, quite simply, taste good and be produced in a clean way that does not harm the environment, animal welfare or our health. Most importantly, fair food is a universal right—it should be accessible to everyone and produced by people who receive fair compensation for their work.

To put all of these ideals into practice, members of Slow Food USA are involved in activities that raise public awareness and improve access to local, seasonal and sustainably grown foods. They advocate for farmers and artisans and perform educational outreach. They protect biodiversity by identifying and promoting fruits, vegetables, animals and cooking traditions at risk of disappearance. Through Slow Food USA, the opportunities for community involvement are endless.

When you stop to consider just how immense the food industry is—agriculture, food processing, regulation, research and development, marketing, distribution, wholesale, retail, food service, etc.—it can be overwhelming to think about what it takes to change it for the better. But, like a colossal supertanker on the high seas, it can be turned around. It’s just going to take some time, some willing hands and faith that your contribution will work.

When Milwaukeeans heard that yet another fried chicken fast-food restaurant had plans to move into their North Side neighborhood, they held a peaceful vigil to protest its opening. While Church’s Chicken did receive zoning approval for 1635 W. North Ave., the residents opposing the plan were pleased that the fast-food company received only a one-year permit. And the company recently announced that it would not open a restaurant in that location.

“We want to provide an opportunity for people to be activists,” Kipcak says. “By being informed about how our food is produced and actively supporting those who produce it, we become a part of the production process. Now we have the power to better it.”

The Slow Food Wisconsin Southeast Annual Meeting and Slow Soup Dinner takes place at 7 p.m. on Feb. 9 at Milwaukee’s Urban Ecology Center. For more information, go to www.slowfood.com, www.slowfoodusa.org or www.slowfoodwise.org.