Thursday, May 9, 2013

Slow Food USA: The message is the movement

Willamette Valley CSA farmer Derek Brandow introduces a
potential customer to his flock.
On the surface, the Slow Food message is simple: Everyone deserves access to “good, clean, and fair food.” Convincing U.S. consumers to buy into that message, however, is a herculean task.

Consider that agribusiness conglomerates, which receive the lion’s share of the $10 billion annual U.S. agriculture subsidy, pour an estimated $32 billion annually into advertising. What are they selling? The highly processed, sugar and fat dense prepackaged foods  that make up the average American diet.

Yet over the past two decades, organic food sales have skyrocketed while Consumer Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms and thousands of farmers markets have sprung up across the country. Why is that? Has the Slow Food movement successfully countered the dominant American food narrative, which says the best food, even if not nutritious, is quick, cheap and convenient? 

To learn more about Slow Food USA’s communications strategies, I recently dug into Ashli Quesinberry Stokes’ academic study on efforts to brand the movement, recruit supporters and combat the agribusiness advertising blitz. 

Investigating the Slow Food story

It all began when self-described professional gourmet Carlo Petrini and a group of young Italian foodies protested the launch of a McDonalds in the heart of Rome in 1986. Since then, culinary activists have built Slow Food, a global movement to counter dietary homogenization and the corresponding loss of heirloom plants, animals and regional food culture.

Stokes employs rhetorical analysis to examine a variety of Slow Food public relations material from websites, press releases, speeches and the organization’s events and workshops. She argues that Slow Food has been able to mainstream its message and broaden support for sustainable food by forming a compelling narrative, defining the issues and engaging consumers. She explains how Slow Food uses these strategies to form knowledge about food while imbuing its growing membership with movement goals and potentially influencing the greater food movement’s public relations efforts.

Defining the Slow Food Lifestyle

The Willamette Valley, one of America's most fertile regions,
 is in the midst of a small farm renaissance
One of Slow Food USA’s biggest challenges has been to rebrand itself. Consider the message at the heart of international mission statement: “We believe that everyone has a fundamental right to the pleasure of good food and consequently the responsibility to protect the heritage of food, tradition and culture that make this pleasure possible.”

An emphasis on gastronomical hedonism, closely linked to traditional cultures by the concept of taste, makes sense to the European foodies who launched the movement. In America – with its less traditional, more utilitarian approach to food – the same message elicits charges of elitism.

What is the value of the perfectly vine-ripened, locally grown $4 dollar a pound organic tomato in a world of cheap, supersized fast food? Does the supposedly superior taste of the former trump the perceived value of the later?

As Stokes sees it, Slow Food USA tackled the elitism implied in the value of taste head on. By hosting workshops where attendees sampled varieties of local produce and sustainable versions of American standards like cornbread and beer, the group democratized the definition of taste. In doing so, the group rebranded Slow Food, replacing images of snooty foreigners quaffing fancy wines and sampling foie gras with scenes that most Americans can imagine themselves in.

Creating a compelling narrative

While combating charges of elitism by redefining the concept of taste, Slow Food has also had to create a way for Americans to identify with its core goal, promoting biodiversity. “Slow Food needs to tell a persuasive story to compete against dominant narratives that celebrate the brand, the convenience, and the low cost of industrial food,” Stokes writes.

As communications scholar Walter Fisher cautions, a narrative must resonate with its movement’s target audience by echoing their own experiences and making sense to them. Internationally, Slow Food has relied on a David versus Goliath narrative, pitting small farmers and unique local food traditions against monocultures and multinational corporations.

A young farm girl frolics with her family's herd of Jersey cows
in the southern Willamette Valley. Customers place a premium
on the creamy raw milk these heifers produce.
But such an overtly politicized strategy does not easily translate to a culture dominated by corporate advertising. In the U.S., for example, children see more than 10 food ads a day on average, ads that wildly distort the fast food products they pitch.

In response, Slow Food USA tells a lighthearted, uniquely American story about food diversity that plays up the myth of the melting pot to highlight regional culinary styles and heirloom species. Stokes highlights the organic victory garden planted at San Francisco’s City Hall as a powerful visual symbol of that narrative: “a strong statement about government priorities, accessibility, and the redefinition of beauty from packaged and polished to vibrant and organic.”

The Slow Food lifestyle in action

Along with creating a story consumers can see themselves fitting into, Slow Food has had to motivate supporters to take the final step and live their beliefs. For Slow Food International, consumers are co-producers of culinary raw material “voting with their forks” to effect change, as America’s Foodie-in-Chief Michael Pollan puts it.

While that message may resonate with committed food activists anywhere, Stokes rightly points out, its guilt-laden message may backfire with the average American eater. To combat this problem, Slow Food USA emphasizes simple, pleasurable, easily accomplishable actions, as demonstrated at an “Eat-In” staged during the annual Slow Food Nation conference.

By focusing on simple things like picking ingredients for a meal, cooking it and enjoying it with others, the event reimagined a highly political event as a fun picnic in the park. Most Americans won’t be picketing in front of McDonalds anytime soon, but these days they are flocking to the local farmers markets in droves.

Responding to the message

Looking for another sign of how deeply the Slow Food message has penetrated American culture? Try the menu of your favorite non-corporate restaurant. Chances are they list locally sourced ingredients with pride, marketing their connection to the local food system as a mark of distinction.

Stokes credits Slow Food for changing the way we view locally produced, sustainably grown food by translating lofty movement goals into a compelling story of how food choices matter to people. While plenty of work remains to be done to help America eat better, she says, “Slow Food’s happy, celebratory” message “helps bring new attention to the idea that you are what you eat.”

Judging from my own refrigerator and pantry, I’d say Stokes is onto something. While I haven’t joined Slow Food USA or even been to a Slow Food event, over the years my family has made an increasingly conscious effort to buy local, sustainably produced food.

Three separate CSA farms provide us with local poultry, raw dairy products and staple crops like beans and grains. What seasonal produce we don’t garden we purchase via an online farmers market.

While we’re as budget conscious as the next American family, we've adopted a national version of the culinary narrative Carlo Petrini spawned more than 20 years ago that makes sense to us. We want to get the most value possible from our food, and we've learned to value the farmers who grow it and the impact their growing practices have on the environment.

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