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By Graison S. Gill, Slow Food New Orleans

Food is a human right, not a privilege. How do we uphold this self-evident truth socially and politically? This is an essay about my first trip to Italy, and first time at Slow Food’s Terra Madre.

Just like Italy, Terra Madre confronts me immediately. There wasn’t a pensive moment, not a minute to think, to reflect, to process. It is a visceral now, a liquid experience of time which ebbs like water’s tide. Chewing, smelling, talking, listening, seeing, tasting, walking, wandering; mostly it’s watching. Like a first trip to the Grand Canyon, it’s a poetic panorama, a carnival of sensual horizons.

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For years I have been struggling with connecting dots. I am a baker, miller, business owner, eater, shopper, but every role I play is always frustrated by a lack of cohesion. It is like looking up at the sky and recognizing no patterns. Food connects us first to ourselves, then to everyone else, and lastly to the earth from which it comes. From where we come. Food and eating determine our personal and communal lives. 

In America, we are missing something fundamental, something that had a strong presence at Terra Madre: Commerce. What I witnessed at Terra Madre — especially among the European, African, and Asian vendors — was an incredible harness of transaction, of trade. Instead of allowing Whole Foods and other corporate giants to appropriate our message and our food, leaving us victims in other ways, these artisans were self-steering and self-organized. This was not capitalism, but commerce.

Why is the commerce of Slow Food so successful in Europe? Policy. Support. And what is missing in our success at home? Policy. Support. We lack government support for good, clean, and fair food in the United States. If the law requires farmer market vendors to use 50% local ingredients in their value added products; if the law requires that school lunch contract bidders use 50% of local ingredients in their kitchens; if the law requires that each Land Grant University establish an Organic Department…then bingo. Instead, we rely on philanthropy and bourgeois chefs to popularize and democratize fresh, local, and organic food. Until good, clean, and fair become rules of our government, we will never make our goals as equitable and accessible as we need them to be.

Italy isn’t a place of contemplation, of stepping back, of taking a breath. Life here is an embroidered drama, stitched by the threads of food, the threads of stories.

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Carlo Petrini says, “Loving the earth means defending diversity in all its forms.” Within Slow Food USA, we need a serious diagnoses of privilege. Sometimes, in an effort to preserve and defend diversity, some of us with educational, financial, gender-based, or emotional privilege impede the voice of others. We need to take a clean, deep look at ourselves and understand what is so ingrained from the old system that we’re trying to dislodge. In the words of speaker and economist Stefano Zemagni, we need to “decolonize our imaginations.” The sooner we accept, understand, and ultimately embrace our privilege and its implications, the sooner our movement will roll. Privilege, at the end of the day, is responsibility.

We were inundated with problem-sharing narratives at Terra Madre. Now it’s time to move towards solutions. Let imagine a perfect world and start there. We need cohesive agendas for change that are welded to the ethics of inclusivity, access, and empowerment; to good, clean, and fair. We are an army of love. An army in defense of pleasure, of food. But we cannot wait to find or stumble upon solutions. We all, in our own unique and positive way, posses the qualities we so desperately seek in the world. Every harvest, every victory, is an opportunity to put more back into the soil.

Life has become diluted and distended and fast; but when we slow down our food, then everything else will slow down with it. Our foodways—our mother earth—is the only thing in this life that will never be lost. Try as we may, forget as we will, we will always find our way back home.