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As Food Becomes a Cause, Meeting Puts Issues on the Table

Diners linger at Slow Food Nation's opening dinner Thursday in front of San Francisco's City Hall.
Diners linger at Slow Food Nation's opening dinner Thursday in front of San Francisco's City Hall. (By Eric Risberg -- Associated Press)
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By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 30, 2008

This is how far some people will go these days to get locally grown food: In California, more than 40 residents volunteered their back yards to an aspiring young farmer who couldn't afford to buy land of his own. In exchange for a weekly supply of produce, they would let him till their all-American lawns into rows of lettuce, broccoli, squash and peas.

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These weren't Bay Area yuppies, either. In working-class Chico, about 85 miles north of Sacramento, the residents who offered property to 28-year-old Lee Callender last October included a a real estate agent, a retiree, a school administrator and a newspaper deliveryman, who offered a plot behind his trailer. Callender had so many options, he was able to select seven properties close enough together that he could bicycle between the plots and begin to cobble together a business.

"We were inundated with calls," Callender said. "People said, 'Please use my land. Make it productive.' "

The term "foodie" is no longer reserved for an exclusive club of chefs and discriminating diners. Today, food has become a focus -- and a cause -- for a broad audience, from individuals such as the Chico residents offering their yards to an idealistic urban farmer, to corporations such as Chipotle, which this month announced that each of its more than 730 restaurants will be required to buy a percentage of the produce it serves from local farms.

Sodexo, the world's largest food-service company, now sources from 700 independent, regional farmers and is overhauling its menus to focus on seasonal and local ingredients. Wal-Mart announced last month that it plans to buy and sell $400 million worth of locally grown produce at its stores in 2008. "It's no longer the fringe elements," said Tracey Ryder, founder of Edible Communities, a publisher of regional food magazines. "We call it the new mainstream."

This weekend, the movement shows its strength as tens of thousands of food activists gather in San Francisco for Slow Food Nation -- four days of political rallies, lectures, dinner parties and tastings. The conference, three years in the making, is the first national assembly of the American wing of Slow Food, an Italian organization founded in 1986 in reaction to the opening of a fast-food restaurant (a McDonald's) in Rome.

Food lovers, chefs and producers can wander through taste pavilions to sample artisanal cheeses, honeys and olive oils, or admire the quarter-acre "victory garden" that organizers planted this summer in front of City Hall. There will be panels led by the food intelligentsia, including Michael Pollan, author of "The Omnivore's Dilemma," and "Fast Food Nation" author Eric Schlosser.

"Think of it as a dinner party thrown by revolutionaries," said Anya Fernald, Slow Food Nation's executive director.

Some attending the conference undoubtedly are attracted by the star power on display. But the movement's foot soldiers are drawn to food for a broad range of reasons.

Some, such as Lee Callender, see food as a path to social justice. In addition to feeding the families who donate their land, Callender, along with his wife, Francine Stuelpnagel, and partner Max Kee, has created GRUB (Growing Resourcefully Uniting Bellies), a nonprofit whose aim is to provide organic, local food to low-income families and educational gardening programs to children.

Since the project launched in October, the team has consolidated its farming to three larger plots, enough to produce a box of fruits and vegetables for 30 weekly customers, as well as five low-income families who get theirs at no charge. "Good food is not just for the middle class. We want to make it accessible," Callender said.

For others, food is an opportunity to reconnect with tradition. In South Texas, rancher Hugh Fitzsimmons gave up cattle for bison, the "noble beasts" that originally inhabited the land around his Shape Ranch in Carrizo Springs. Fitzsimmons's herd roams on 13,000 acres and eats only grass. Unlike cattle, the bison are never sent to a feedlot to be fattened, nor are they transported to a slaughterhouse.

Instead, Fitzsimmons processes his meat the old-fashioned way. Each of the 100 bison he sells annually (about 25,000 pounds of meat) is "field-harvested." That means Fitzsimmons personally tracks and shoots each animal in its natural habitat. The skins are turned into leather, and the meat is sold at farmers markets and restaurants.

Fitzsimmons believes this traditional killing method is the most humane and produces the best-tasting meat. "There's a cleanliness to the meat," he says. "When you take the time to do things right, you are rewarded."

Health concerns are another key driver of the foodie movement. "The more you learn, the more you realize you don't want to eat a lot of what's being shipped into supermarkets," said Sallie Mitchell, who runs a honey company, Bees 'n Blossoms, with her husband, Scott, in Providence Forge, Va.

While commercial bee operations truck their hives thousands of miles each summer, the Mitchells keep their 80,000 bees close to home. The 175 hives are located at old farms or orchards within 150 miles of the Mitchells' house. Their honeys, which include wildflower, cotton and pumpkin varietals, are sold at nine farmers markets in the Washington area.

Jason's Deli, a chain of nearly 200 restaurants across the country, banned trans fats (several years before states and cities began to do so) as well as MSG, and it is in the process of eliminating high-fructose corn syrup from everything on its menu. Where possible, produce and even condiments are organic.

The company's efforts are spearheaded by Executive Vice President and co-founder Rusty Coco, who takes advantage of the chain's size and independent distribution system to demand that suppliers meet his standards. "I don't want to serve something to my guests that I won't eat myself," he said.

Coco is a longtime advocate of healthful eating and exercise. And the Slow Food message has encouraged him to put his ideals into practice. "We don't take time to eat and celebrate food. We're on the run, putting things in our body that don't make sense," he said. "Slow Food reinforced what I was trying to do."

That message even appears to be trickling up to corporations as large as Wal-Mart. As part of an effort to make over its image, the retail behemoth last year began selling organic milk and baby food. This April, Wal-Mart announced that during the summer one-fifth of fruits and vegetables sold in its stores would be grown in the state in which they were sold.

And the proliferation of the message, Slow Food organizers say, is the point of this weekend's extravaganza. "This is a very grass-roots effort that connects young artists, environmentalists and young people, all of whom are engaged for their own reason," said Chez Panisse chef Alice Waters, an international vice president of Slow Food and the U.S. conference's founder. "We have to meet each other and understand our power as a group."

Slow Food Nation plans to put that power to the test. The conference opened with the presentation of a Food Bill Declaration, a statement of values the group hopes will guide the omnibus farm bill that appropriates money for farm subsidies, food stamps and the school lunch program. The 12 principles include providing access to affordable, nutritious food to everyone; preventing exploitation of farm workers; and committing resources to educate children about food. Slow Food's goals are to have 350,000 people sign it and to deliver it to Washington in November.

"All of this in a country that invented fast food and the supermarket," said Carlo Petrini, who founded Slow Food in Italy. "It's something very important."


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