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by Charity Kenyon

April 14-17, San Francisco

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Last week, I had tea with His Royal Highness Charles, Prince of Wales—in San Francisco, at the invitation of the Sustainable Food Trust to examine what?—The True Cost of American food. 

Okay, HRH was on video, but I caught your attention, didn’t I? And the Sustainable Food Trust caught ours.  All these UK farmers, scientists and economists devloping a true cost accounting methodology to measure the adverse, externalized health, economic, and environmental costs and benefits of the American way of farming.  It was a little surreal.  Of course, at Slow Food we know that American food and farm policies affect what and how food is grown all over the world.  We know that the losses of livelihood, food culture, biodiversity and health we have experienced extend well beyond our borders.  What is the true cost? We were game to explore. 

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The Sustainable Food Trust and Global Alliance for the Future of Food share the Slow Food mission to inspire change through gatherings, campaigns and partnerships, moving the world toward food that is good, clean and fair. In this instance they selected “true cost accounting” as a way to convene a broad spectrum of scientists, farmers, news media, activitists, philanthropists, economists, and businesses to find common ground.  The basic conference premise was that the “American” way of farming is not sustainable, but nothing will change, if sustainable agroecology cannot produce good livelihoods and affordable food.  Nothing will change, if the ability to externalize costs is the path to fortune.  The conference unveiled some interesting case studies analyzing “true costs” on three farms: Jim Erdahl’s conventional corn and soy farm in Minnesota, Straus Family Creamery (certified organic in Marin County, Ca), and Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farms in Virginia.  Breakout sessions explored soil, nitrogen, water, economics, education, the future of food, communication, you name it…Everything was live streamed and will be available here when the sessions have been edited and posted.  Also, check out the bios of the presenters.  

What did I, as a representative of Slow Food, get out of or contribute to this gathering? I’ve selected some highlights: 

  • It is always rewarding to meet new people working on our issues, to renew acquaintances, and, best of all, to introduce people to each other, when a valuable new connection can be made.
  • Slow Food still suffers form a “gourmet supper club” reputation.  I even got, “Oh, so eating slowly is good for your health, is it?” I was armed with Farm to Every Fork brochures, a handy example of a non-elitist annual fundraising dinner shared with homeless neighbors in the Sacramento region.  We have a ways to go on communicating our mission and what we do.
  • It was odd to be challenged on elitism by people funding an event with a $500 basic ticket price.  SFT generously provided me (and other activists) a complimentary ticket.  Still, Patrick Holden recognized quite readily that social justice advocates should have been involved early, not as an afterthought.
  • The role of women in the future of sustainable food production, which I raised in the policy breakout, was largely absent from the discussion.  The FAO estimates that women grow more than half of all the world’s food.

Insights from some of the most speakers that resonated with Slow Food:

  • Until the sustainable ag movement and the social justice movement are the same movement (not parallel movements), the change we seek will not happen.
  • Proponents of Good Food Purchasing Policy developed by the LA Food Policy Council, urged us to show respect for our children and the future by serving good food in our schools.
  • Carbon sequestration through sound agricultural practices holds big potential benefits for climate change.  While accounting is a challenge and the science is still developing, support for research and pilot projects is a good policy advocacy opportunity.
  • Farmers are in an economic trap that requires changes to crop insurance and subsidy policies to move to sustainable practices.  Our grassroots collaboration with the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition on the Farm Bill remains important.
  • We need a revolution to confront the Culinary Industrial Complex and it will take money and political Engagement (with a capital E).
  • Consumer demands for transparency in the supply chain have the potential to radically improve conditions for food works here and around the world.  Oxfam’s Equitable Food Initiative certification program shows promise.  Food businesses are hearing the demand for change.
  • We can use the Diners Guide to Ethical Eating — now an app — to locate High Road Employer Partners of Restaurant Opporunities Centers (ROC) United and avoid unfair labor practices in restaurants.
  • Finally, lots of smart people are desperate to find solutions to the problems posed by the conference.  Broad collaboration and joy are critical.  (Hmm Joy + Justice.  It sounds like the Slow Food message has been embraced!)
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It was an honor to be Slow Food USA’s representative and I was gratified to be asked to suggest additional invitees, some of whom were able to attend.  Our network is expanding, but we remain the roots of the grassroots movement for good, clean and fair food for all.  There’s no time like the present to jump in and be a leader in inspiring change to the American food system.