“The time feels right for a slow food revolution”: An Interview with SFYN USA Leader Gavin Myers
Written by Amelia Keleher (SFYN USA Communications Team)
“I just feel like Slow Food is so poised for helping to revolutionize food,” Gavin shared as he reflected on his hope for a more sustainable and equitable future of food.
In January, SFYN USA leader Gavin Myers plans to pursue his passion for revitalizing and preserving Indigenous foodways at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, Italy (UNISG) on a Fulbright Scholarship.
Gavin studied wealth inequality and sociology at Georgetown University, where he was part of a student group that ran a weekly campus farmers market. During his time there, Gavin became conscious of the elitism embedded in the local food movement and how this was “problematic and inaccessible to many people,” which motivated him to find ways to link his academic interests to food and food justice.
Dinner with Seven Strangers
“It was the time of my life because we would have these secret meetings at night. We went around campus at midnight to drop off posters and no one knew who was behind it.”
At Georgetown, Gavin became involved with the Georgetown University Farmers Market (GUFM) which was required to collect vendor fees in order to be compliant with university policy. In doing so, he and the student group helped ensure their fellow students could continue to enjoy affordable, local food on campus –– including paella, Belgian waffles, fresh-baked bread, produce, and many other foods. The student group put the collected funds toward stipends, scholarships, and market coupons.
Gavin also helped manage the market’s social media, which included interviewing local producers and finding out where our food comes from. “It kind of planted the seed to be interested in fair treatment of farmers and local food producers, that then later evolved into being interested in my own food roots,” he said.
One year, the student group launched an event called “Dinner with Seven Strangers” (DW7S), using a Google form and lottery system that would populate small dinner parties. “Our goal was to foster community through homemade meals,” Gavin said. The host would receive a check to cover the costs of the food, and ‘seven strangers’ would come together to cook and enjoy a meal. The events were open to the entire campus community and became so popular that even Jesuit priests, professors, and other faculty would attend.
“It was the time of my life because we would have these secret meetings at night to plan,” Gavin said. “We went around campus at midnight to drop off posters. Very covert and no one knew who was behind it. There were so many rumors and theories flying around; it was all so fun and mysterious!” Gavin laughingly admitted that it felt a bit shady, but emphasized that it was all in the name of good food and community. “I think the world needs more things like this!” he said.
Gavin compared Dinner with Seven Strangers to Eat With, an organization that puts on similar dinner events in people’s homes around the world. “They’re not secretive though,” Gavin clarified with a laugh.
UNISG: Italy’s Slow Food University
Soon after graduating from Georgetown, Gavin came across The Sioux Chef, a cookbook by Sean Sherman, an Indigenous chef born and raised on the Pine Ridge reservation. Sherman seeks to reclaim and revitalize pre-colonial Indigenous cooking. Gavin is Sicangu Lakota, and grew up in Winner, SD which is just outside of the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in South Dakota. Because of his own Indigenous roots and lack of exposure to traditional foods, Gavin said that reading The Sioux Chef was like embarking on a “personal journey.”
It was also through Sherman’s cookbook and work that Gavin learned about Slow Food and the University of Gastronomic Sciences. This led him to attend the 2019 Slow Food Nations in Denver, CO where he met Slow Foodies and became incredibly inspired by the youth food activists he met.
The University of Gastronomic Sciences (UNISG) — a private nonprofit institution in Pollenzo, Italy — was founded in 2004 by Carlo Petrini, the founder of Slow Food. Petrini still actively helps run and also teaches at the school.
“I think UNISG students see the organization as rather ineffective,” Gavin said. He thinks this is because the university students may have different ideas and approaches to enacting the mission of Slow Food. Nevertheless, Gavin is hopeful that the social justice movement will “light some fire” in terms of relinquishing leadership to the new generation.
Gavin expects to find a variety of people at UNISG –– “from what I’ve heard, I think there are people embarking on their ‘eat pray love experience’ who just want to indulge in good cheese and wine for a year,” he said with a laugh. Others are truly committed to building a better food system. Gavin recognizes that these things aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. “I mean I too want good cheese and wine but everyone should have good cheese and wine!” he said.
The Program: World Food Cultures & Mobility
UNISG offers eight master’s programs, and Gavin will be pursuing a master’s in Gastronomy: World Food Cultures and Mobility. Gavin said he’ll essentially be studying how migration shapes food cultures and how relocations shape what people eat and how they eat. “[This] is particularly interesting to me because of my ancestor’s forced relocation by the federal government and how that impacted their lives as the original stewards of the Americas.”
Gavin pointed out that Indigenous foodways around the world, and even across the U.S., are incredibly diverse based on region. He also said that there are many different people doing preservation work. Sherman, for example, focuses on pre-colonial foods, but other Indigenous chefs and activists are also interested in preserving post-colonial, contemporary foods.
The master’s program will last 12 months. Throughout the year, students usually go on three to six study trips. During the last three months, students complete a three-month internship while also writing their thesis. According to the UNISG website, “study trips at UNISG are learning tools that give students unique access to knowledge about the world’s gastronomic cultures.” Last year’s destinations included Thailand, Greece, and Campania.
Centering Locally-Produced Food
Referring to the many times he’s driven through his home state of South Dakota, Gavin said, “It’s just shocking how much land and space there is. I know that climate-wise it’s challenging to sustain yourself in your own food system, but [at the same time] different societies have done it for millennia.”
He also shared that he’s noticed a distinct difference in the quality of food between California –– where he currently resides in Los Angeles –– and South Dakota, even though both states are quite agricultural. Gavin thinks you can find a direct link between Big Food exorbitant profits and the lack of access to quality, nutritious food in middle America, something he wishes to help correct after returning to the states from Italy.
While he isn’t opposed to the Slow Food “supper clubs” and foodie events, Gavin doesn’t want to ignore the fact that far too many people rely on stores like Dollar General and Family Dollar, for food — stores that are not part of distribution chains meant to provide whole, clean, fresh foods to the communities they serve and profit off of.
“I feel like there needs to be more of a shift toward producing food in your area and a move away from stores that only stock highly transported and processed food,” he said.
Finding Inspiration in the SFYN Movement
Gavin said he’s feeling inspired by his fellow SFYN leaders. “At this moment, it feels like there’s more energy. And the young people seem to be more attuned with food and social justice.” He attributed this in part to Lauren Nelson, the leader and co-founder behind SFYN USA’s revitalization.
“It just feels ripe for an explosion, like in the next year or two there could be a total revolution of Slow Food.” That’s what he hopes, at least. Because as Gavin pointed out, food — whether “good” or “bad” — shapes all people, from daily lives to broader community culture.
Revitalizing Indigenous Foodways
Because the federal government and European settlers have long fought to eradicate Indigenous Peoples via their foodways for centuries (and continue to do so today), Gavin believes that it’s important to engage in preserving and revitalizing Indigenous knowledge and foods so they don’t get lost to history while also allowing Indigenous communities to maintain their sovereignty and own autonomy.
“In a dream world, or maybe not so much of a dream, I want to contribute to the fight to revitalize traditional foodways. I feel like there’s a lot to be learned from current American coastal mentalities around good, fresh food and from traditional Indigenous food systems. Both can teach us how to have more locally-rooted food practices.” He also stresses the importance of learning from the wealth of Indigenous knowledge without co-opting or misattributing where it comes from.
Resources to know about
Gavin highly recommends the film Gather, by Sanjay Rawal. “I attended a virtual screening a few months ago and woah, is it good! Not only beautiful but it’s encouraging to see such innovation in places of such severe food apartheid,” he shared in writing. “The documentary follows three Indigenous folks from different tribal nations working to preserve and revitalize traditional foodways.”
He has also been thoroughly enjoying the audio version of Robin Wall Kimmer’s Braiding Sweetgrass. “Part poetry and indigenous wisdom, [it’s] so calming and enlightening at once,” he shared. Kimmerer is a respected female Indigenous botanist and writer. According to Gavin, she knows how to weave a powerful and engaging story!
Additionally, Gavin wants to highlight Thunder Valley CDC, a community organization on the Pine Ridge reservation. “They’re doing some pretty cool food sovereignty/ preservation work amongst many other cultural preservation projects.” In February, the organization sponsored the 1st Annual Lakota Foods Summit.
Finally, Gavin reiterated how much he enjoyed Sean Sherman’s The Sioux Chef and learning about his accompanying nonprofit, NATIFS. “It’s perhaps what first woke me up to the necessity and urgency behind preserving traditional Indigenous foodways in 2016.”