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Written By Deirdra Stockmann, former leader of Slow Food Huron Valley

In April 2012, Slow Food Philadelphia convened its second Collaboration Luncheon. This fall, they’ll host a third. The goal of these meetings is to bring leaders of Philadelphia area food movement organizations together in an informal, conversational atmosphere (with food, of course!) to meet, greet, and find ways to work together and advance shared goals. By hosting these events, Slow Food Philly is playing a vital convening and connecting role in an active, but not always coordinated, food activism landscape.

Philadelphia has long been a hub of the good food movement. Chefs, entrepreneurs, nonprofit leaders, community members, and urban farmers have been hard at work for decades simultaneously honoring Philly’s food traditions and pushing the city forward through innovations in urban agriculture, fresh food access and food policy. Philadelphia is renowned for its markets, artisanal food products, farm-to-table restaurants, and microbreweries. And the city is home to dozens of organizations known regionally and nationally for their work on hunger, food justice, sustainable agriculture, community gardening and food policy.

But the busy leaders of these groups rarely have the time to meet, catch up on the latest activities and welcome newcomers to the lively scene. Slow Food Philadelphia decided to devote some of its resources to creating the time and space for this to happen.

“When we put this together, we had an idea, it was purely an idea, not a plan,” said Joe Brandolo, Slow Food Philadelphia president. The idea was to bring representatives of likeminded organizations who may not know each other and sometimes feel like they compete with each other, together to talk about how they can help one another. The plan was simply to get the right people in the room and then let the meeting develop organically. Brandolo provided light direction to the group, but the focus was on participants talking with each other. “Joe is a very good convener and a very good sharer of information,” said Bob Pierson, president of Farm to City, an organization that has been bringing regionally grown produce into the city through markets, CSAs and buying clubs since 1996.

In preparation for the first meeting, Brandolo asked participants to identify an area of need in their organization where they could benefit from collaboration with another group. At the meeting, participants had five minutes to talk about their organization, what they are currently working on and how they would like to connect with others. The first couple of presentations, Brandolo recalled, were a little awkward as the group was getting a sense of the tenor of the gathering. But it quickly became a dynamic and animated conversation, with people connecting on common interests and commitments to change in the regional food system.

After the introduction round, attendees paired with someone in the room with whom they wanted to talk further. Some pairs chatted about opportunities to work together. Some used the time to catch up with old friends and colleagues. Afterwards, conversations continued over lunch. Slow Food Philadelphia provided the meal, using funds they raised through a monthly speaker series. Brandolo’s company donated wine. The first luncheon was hosted at the Inn at Penn, the second at The Restaurant School. The next will be held in partnership with Les Dames Escoffier Society of Philadelphia and their Green Tables initiative.

Participants felt that the relaxed, conversational feel of the meetings was a key part of their success. “It is always difficult to get all the local food movement people in one room where they can kind of relax and walk away for an hour or two from their very busy pace and know they are with likeminded people. It is very comforting,” Pierson recalled. Carey Morgan, Executive Director of the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger, compared the meetings to other, more formal regional food groups she is a part of: “the Slow Food [Luncheons] are more productive. When you go to the Slow Food event, you know you can have conversations and build relationships.”

When Morgan started as the director of the Coalition, she felt the hunger movement was disconnected from the sustainable agriculture movement despite how interconnected the issues are. She sees the Luncheons as one important way to link different aspects of the food movement together. “The lunches are great for education for both sides to see what is going on and how we can build a bigger movement that touches all of these issues,” Morgan said. She attended the events after getting to know Brandolo a few years earlier when their offices became neighbors. As a result, she connected with organizations she may not have met otherwise. For instance, the Coalition plans to partner with some groups on community gardens that will supply food pantries in the city.

One thing that made Slow Food Philadelphia an effective convener and facilitator was that it wasn’t trying to push its own “agenda” beyond promoting connections and building the movement. “We don’t really have a dog in the fight, we have everybody’s dog in this fight,” Brandolo noted. The chapter sees itself as the “glue” of the movement and serves as a “mouthpiece” by promoting the events and fundraising activities of all of its partners through Facebook and its large email list.

For Morgan and others, inclusivity was another essential component of the success of the Collaboration Luncheons. “We are at a time when none of us can afford to be working against each other especially with the Farm Bill coming up,” she emphasized. As the Slow Food Philadelphia website states and the Collaboration Luncheons show, “collaboration makes us stronger.”

Learn more about some of the organizations that have participated in the luncheons here: www.slowfoodphilly.org/organizations/