As part of a February YouTube video project after the State of the Union speech, Slow Food USA president Josh Viertel asked President Obama: Why is it cheaper to feed our children Froot Loops than actual fruit, and what would the president do to change that? Viertel was disappointed with Obama’s answer, which talked about Walmart’s new initiative to emphasize more healthful food. (In fairness to the president, he also talked about the school nutrition bill.)
But Viertel wanted more. “I thought, ‘It’s going to take a lot more than a big corporation acting voluntarily’ ” to have an impact on the nation’s obesity crisis and other consequences of cheap, fast food. “If that’s the only answer our leadership is going to give us, we’re going to have to do it ourselves.”
Eventually, the group’s $5 Challenge was born. On Saturday (Sept. 17), participating cooks across the country will try to feed themselves and others for $5 per person. But not with just any food. It needs to fit the mission of slow food, which the group defines as “food that is good for those who eat it, good for farmers and workers, and good for the planet.” As Viertel told me, “We want to challenge people to cook slow food for the price of fast food.”
I decided to take them up on the challenge, and will host six friends for dinner on Saturday night. I plan to shop at the White House farmers market today and at the 14th and U market on Saturday, hoping to keep the total tab to a mere $35 — which, I have to admit, is a fraction of the price I usually pay for such a thing, when I don’t have my eye on the bottom line the way I’ll do this time. How hard could it be? Chefs such as Peter Smith have done it, making a dinner for four with deputy Food editor Bonnie Benwick for only $11.77 — but he shopped at the Safeway. Could I do it at the farmers market, notorious for its high prices? Check back next week, when I’ll report on the results.
But first, more from Viertel. I talked with him about the politics behind the challenge, including what the Brooklyn-based Slow Food hopes to achieve from it. Edited excerpts follow:
All We Can Eat: This seems like something of a retort to the often-heard complaint that the local, sustainable food movement is elitist. Was that part of the reasoning in deciding to do it?
Josh Viertel: It sort of popped up that this might begin to address that. It’s important to us that the message isn’t, “This is easy. Everyone should just start doing it.” If you live in a low-income community where it’s hard to find fresh fruits and vegetables, it’s not easy at all. So this is every bit about the challenges, too.
A lot of people would say, “Poor people just need to get their priorities straight. Don’t they realize they could save money in the long run, etc.” But I don’t want the challenge to be used that way. It’s not just a matter of choice — there’s this whole very important question about the environment that they live in.
AWCE: Didn’t Alice Waters once make some comment about people buying sneakers instead of organic food?
JV: Yeah. That is not where we are. Pathologizing poor people for bearing the traits of being poor doesn’t work, ultimately. I think until the food movement can say it’s working to change these problems, we deserve to be called elitist.
AWCE: Why did you pick $5?
JV: $5 is actually a lot of money for some people. It’s $5 or less. You can do less. I actually discovered that most of the food I cook costs less than $5 if you add up all the ingredients. But I have access to a great farmers market. I buy trash fish — sea robin, squid, mackerel, sardines — because it tastes best, and it’s cheapest. The same is true of the meat I buy. I never cook pork chops or filet mignon; I cook oxtail and short ribs. The $5 came from the fast-food industry. The [McDonald’s] Value Meal is $5 or $6. They say it’s a value — but it’s not, it’s a lot of money, and it’s making your kids sick. So let’s see what we can do. Take back the Value Meal.
AWCE: What do you say to people who complain about the price of organic food, or farmers market food?
JV: There are farmers markets where the food is just ridiculously expensive because they’re essentially amusement parks for food-obsessed people, and the price is essentially a cover charge, and if farmers profit from that, great. But there are markets where, especially when the food is at its peak, it’s actually cheaper, and there are studies about this. There is a little bit of a myth attached to the idea of the expensive farmers market, partly because some of the most famous farmers markets are indeed expensive. But many are not. If you get out-of-season asparagus in a supermarket, it’s flown halfway around the world, and it’s really expensive there, too. In terms of the organic stuff, when it costs more, depending on where you’re at, it’s because it costs more to grow food that way. I’ve been a small-scale organic farmer. I’ve lived below the poverty line charging high prices for my food. That’s less about the farmer and more about the system.
AWCE: Your guidelines for the challenge, particularly in the sourcing of the food, are open to lots of interpretation. That is, you’re saying just that it has to be “slow,” which you define as “food that is good for those who eat it, good for farmers and workers, and good for the planet.” How do you imagine people will be interpreting that, and if it matters?
JV: We don’t have a secret definition that we’re hoping people discover. I want people to be curious about the story behind their food, and for the food to align with their values. I don’t think I’ve met a single person where if they were intimately familiar with the story behind fast food would find that it aligns with their values. I don’t care if it’s vegetarian, grass-fed, whatever. If we just ate according to whatever values we have, things would be very different.
AWCE: We ran a piece by Sally Sampson a few years ago in which she disproved the idea that fast food is cheaper by replicating burgers and pizza for her teenage boy and his friends. Kurt Friese more recently did a similar project for Grist in reaction to a KFC ad claiming the $10 chicken bucket was cheaper than making it yourself. Do you think the myth of cheap fast food is coming to an end?
JV: I think it may be coming to an end . . . for people who read food blogs. But I think that for a lot of people, it’s not even that it’s cheap, that’s just what food is. That’s because of the environment that their communities operate in. I think about communities I know near me in Brooklyn where there are recent immigrants. And they see fast food as a really extravagant thing and they cook from scratch. And I know other communities that have been in America for generations, and they view fast food as just what’s for lunch. Our work is to try to instill a little more clarity.
AWCE: So as I mentioned to you, I’m doing the challenge. Now, I could probably be feeding six people from my pantry and freezer alone. Would that be in the spirit of the challenge, or are you hoping people source everything new, specifically for this dinner?
JV: If you reach into your freezer, that’s great, because there’s a fantastic lesson in that. In mine, there are bags of sweet corn, because I bought the corn when it was inexpensive and good. That’s a great way to have low-cost, really delicious food all year. That’s a great story. One: It comes from a farm I know. Two: It’s really inexpensive. Three: It’s delicious.
That’s the kind of tip and trick that we want people to hear about. Saying that I make pesto and freeze it in cubes and put it in freezer bags and then pull it out all winter, or the sweet corn, is a great thing to tell people about. The point of this is not necessarily to go shopping.
AWCE: Which will be more of a success in Slow Food’s eyes: If most people on Sept. 17 can’t hit that $5-or-under mark, or if most people can?
JV: My hope is that most people can, and that they also notice something that makes it hard. Because I want us to feel like this is possible, but it should be normal. It shouldn’t be a challenge. Our goal is ultimately that it’s not a challenge — that everyone can eat slow food everyday, and they choose to. So my hope is that most people can do it, but they notice what needs to change.
AWCE: What are you doing on Saturday, Josh? Are you cooking?
JV: Nah, I’m just going out to dinner. (Laughs.)
Seriously, I’m going to be in Portland, Ore., and there’s an event in a community that’s a food desert, in a church there, and it’s a potluck, and they’re talking about what needs to change in that community. They’re working to make food justice central to that community. It seems like it’s an event that’s born of the community, and the Slow Food chapter is partnering up with them. That’s what I’m hoping for: It will help us see what’s challenging, what’s possible, but also to sit down at the table together.