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By Lauren Howe, National School Garden Program Manager

Who feeds the planet? We feed the planet!

It’s held every five years and goes by many names: world’s fair, world exposition, and universal expo to name a few. This year’s world’s fair was held in Milan, Italy (May 1-October 31, 2015). It’s the first time this historic gathering has been themed around food: “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life.” With a strong emphasis on technology, agro-industry, and gastronomy, Expo 2015 brought 140+ participating countries and over 20 million visitors. Sounds like an inspiring event, right?

{{ image(3918, {“class”: “flor round”, “width”:350, “height”:350}) }}The Slow Food Youth Network (SFYN), the youth component of the global, grassroots movement of Slow Food, certainly thought so. But Expo was missing the voice of the small producer – the farmers, fishermen, processors and purveyors who are really feeding the world. Being youthful (below 35 or young in spirit!) and highly motivated, SFYN decided to take action to raise our voices in Milan by hosting a gathering of our own. In a mere six months, the leaders of SFYN organized an ambitious conference called “We Feed the Planet” (#WFTP). From October 3-6, 2015, 2,500 young delegates, mainly small producers, from 120+ countries convened to discuss the future of food and farming.

We organized around five key issues: Innovation, Power, Heritage, Message and Commons and each of the four days had a different theme: Connect, Inspire, Create, and Share, respectively. We spent time in regional meetings, meeting participants with both geographic and professional similarities. Delegates also participated in a variety of presentations and discussions with titles ranging from “Women and Agriculture” to “Global Trade vs. Small Scale Farming.” The first night even featured a keynote address by the inspiring activist and writer, Raj Patel.

{{ image(3919, {“class”: “flol round”, “width”:350, “height”:350}) }}Though of course, it wasn’t all listening. Interactive workshops like “Youth Entrepreneurship in Agriculture,” “Empower Yourself through Cooperatives,” and a concept-generating “Hackathon” complete with food pitches gave participants creative space to apply their own ideas. More than the workshops and presentations, however, was the invaluable opportunity to connect with others. Because my role within Slow Food USA is around school gardens, I was eager to meet other enthusiasts from around the world. As I look to launch a new international e-pen pal program called the “Global Garden Exchange,” it was exciting to engage in conversations with teachers, practitioners, and gardeners from Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, Romania, Canada and India.

These connections revealed that the story of school gardens is essentially the same around the world. I learned that the goals, benefits, opportunities, and challenges are strikingly comparable from the United States to Italy to Senegal, which is exciting and reaffirming. A vehicle for social change, school gardens reconnect school children with their food, preserve biodiversity and cultural traditions, and build community around the empowering act of growing and cooking food. I was able to convene a pop-up school garden workshop the second day, complete with a surprise visit by Alice Waters, Slow Food International Vice President. Meeting Alice, the founder of the Edible Schoolyard Project and the renowned Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse, was a food-celebrity moment for us all!

On the final day of “We Feed the Planet,” the 2,500 delegates gathered at Expo, a fitting conclusion to this remarkable conference. During the closing ceremony, we heard from the Italian Minister of Agriculture, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, and the Mayor of Milan. The founding father of Slow Food, Carlo Petrini, addressed the eager crowd of global youth and in his booming voice and distinctly Italian cadence, he expressed how this was the “United Nations of young farmers.”

{{ image(3920, {“class”: “flor round”, “width”:350, “height”:350}) }}And we were about to make our voices heard at Expo Milano 2015. With a colorful variety of signs that read, “Good, Clean and Fair,” “Vote With Your Fork,” and “Farmers Are Cool,” we were quite the spectacle, peacefully marching through the main street of Expo, call and response chanting: “Who Feeds the Planet? We Feed the Planet!” And with a symbolic close, we finished at the Slow Food Pavilion.

But of course, this wasn’t the end, not at all. This was only the beginning: the start of 30 new project and business collaborations, new Slow Food Youth networks in 45 countries, and the birth of a manifesto and open letter titled: Never Waste a Food Crisis. During this Slow Food gathering, we only just initiated the conversations, critical dialogue, and exchange of innovative ideas around sustainable and equitable solutions to feeding the planet. This vital work elevates the small producer and begins to restore the necessary respect and dignity around the essential act of growing good food. Although there is still much work to be done, I look forward to seeing where SFYN goes in the future and continuing to participate in this crucial, dynamic and inspirational network of new friends, colleagues, and young global change makers.