Something is Rotten in the State of the Nation

| September 2, 2008 | 70 Comments
  • 70 Comments

snailWarning: This is not a piece extolling the virtues of Slow Food Nation ’08, so if there are delicate sensibilities out there who can’t bear the suggestion that Slow Food Nation is anything other than shiny, happy people eating food, you should probably stop reading right now.

It would be one thing if this rant was all about how I volunteered at Slow Food Nation and all I got was this lousy apron.

That’s not even the half of it. In fact, it’s just emblematic of the entire SFN volunteering experience as I lived it. It’s emblematic of the rudeness, the exclusion, the contradictions between what SFN advertised and what was actual, and the overall disgust I came away with after volunteering. The blog posts about what SFN did right are already thick on the ground, and the praise is prodigious; this is not going to be one of those pieces.

All my life, I’ve volunteered at various non-profits, churches, and events, and this is the first time I’ve been made so boiling mad by the attitude and treatment received. Building houses for Habitat for Humanity in the 105° Missouri heat was a more rewarding experience, and we even had one of our newly-paned HFH windows shot out by a friggin’ drive-by!

I volunteered at SFN to help a friend and to help a vendor I believe deeply in; my beef is with neither of those parties. They took care of their volunteers the best they could. They celebrated our participation and did what they could to make it a pleasant experience. Not so for the rest of the SFN organization.

Let me get it out there right away that I appreciate the idea of slow food. (Note the lowercase.) It’s the execution of this particular event I take exception to. Do I think it’s awesome that there were, like, 26 different preserve makers there? Of course. Do I celebrate all 110 olive oils made in the Slow Food way? Well, I didn’t get to taste any of them, but who wouldn’t celebrate that range of fat? Was I completely disgusted by the way the organization treated the unpaid volunteers? Oh, hell yes!

Slow Food is about counteracting the “disappearance of local food traditions and people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from, how it tastes and how our food choices affect the rest of the world.” Slow Food Nation ’08 “was created to organize the first-ever American collaborative gathering to unite the growing sustainable food movement and introduce thousands of people to food that is good, clean and fair.”

But how about how they treat their workers? Their unpaid workers? People who volunteered their time, energy, and bright smiles to support them in their cause? Shouldn’t that be a consideration?

Directly from the SFN website:

Slow Food Nation is a community event and we welcome your participation. We’re seeking volunteers to help in all aspects of planning and on site. Let us know if you’d like to join in this exciting endeavor—we promise plenty of fun and food!

In the cold light of morning, after an exhausted sleep following a long volunteer shift, I just have to laugh at that: “we promise plenty of fun and food!” So, the fun is debatable. You make your own fun; I’ve always believed that. And we did. At our vendor, we joked with each other, with the “paying guests,” and we laughed a lot. One of my “paying guests” friends even told me I looked like the happiest person at the entire event. But the food? Sure, there was “plenty” of food, but none of us volunteers were allowed to eat it.

I direct you to the “food” portion of the multi-page dos, don’ts, and behavior modifications we received in advance as volunteers (bolding mine):

CIVIC CENTER: Although some small snacks may be available to our volunteers, please note that meals are neither provided nor reimbursed. Affordable meals are available each day from 15 unique Slow-On-the-Go vendors in the plaza.”

FORT MASON: Volunteers wishing a simple meal may take one as available from our sponsor, Whole Foods. No additional concessions are available for purchase at this location. Volunteers are asked to refrain from eating samples from our taste partners, as these are intended for our paying guests and we will run out.

SFN never pointed out where these “simple meals” were, and I never saw them. If they meant the cheese and bread and juice they had at our check-in location, well, that was a-ways away from where we were working and would take more than a 10-minute break to get there, bolt the food, and get back to our post.

Keep an eye out for all the shouting “NOs” and “NOTs” in the additional portions quoted below from what I’m calling the SFN Dos and Don’ts. They make the overall tone quite objectionable. Get an editor and learn how to convey things in a more palatable manner, especially to people WHO ARE THERE TO HELP YOU.

Getting There: Transportation: Slow Food Nation encourages you to travel in ways that minimize our collective carbon footprint. We will NOT reimburse for parking and there is NO official parking partner affiliated with this event – plus it is a holiday weekend!

Sheesh.

(Also, given that I have a whole separate post coming about the behavior of the Slow Food Nation “paying guests,” maybe SFN should have provided Dos and Don’ts for them.)

After checking in as a volunteer, we were directed to wait in our designated food area. Signs above were labeled “olive oil,” “wine,” “chocolate,” etc. We got our one freebie — the SFN apron — and stood around a bit. There was milling. I joked (because the firm, bright smile never left my face ALL NIGHT) to a old friend and fellow volunteer that it’s like we were the Joad Family. Day laborers from the Dust Bowl era, waiting to see if there’s paying work that day.

A SFN organizer briefly welcomed us, thanked us for our time, and then said no less than five times that we were NOT to ask for food in the Taste Pavilion. If we required food during our 4pm-10pm shift, they had food for us there. However, we had to make sure to ask our managers if we could leave our post and really should consider planning our hunger around a lull.

A lull? Sorry, we didn’t see a lull at my vendor. None. Not in six hours. My only lull was a 10-minute break that I used to stretch my legs and call home to report a Top Chef Marcel sighting. We never stopped serving people as fast as humanly possible.

“Do NOT ask for ANY food,” he repeated. Again. I turned to fellow Joad Family member and shook a finger in her face, “Don’t even THINK about food,” I ordered her, “You’re thinking about it. I can tell. DON’T!” Because you gotta laugh. Or else you’ll scream.

Moving on to the “perks” portion of the Dos/Don’ts, we were told:

Each volunteer will be given a Slow Food apron to wear during their work shift, which is then yours to keep. Please note, however, that aprons only are not valid for entrance to ticketed events. Volunteers will be admitted, with their Managers, to work shifts only and do not receive free entrance to any other events.

Let’s put my whines about the lack of freebies for the hard-working volunteers aside. Let’s instead consider a case where a volunteer actually tried to BUY a Slow Dough coupon so they could participate in the events. They tried and were reportedly told, “You can’t, you’re a volunteer.”

So, let me get this straight: As a volunteer, I work for free. I work for love and laughs, and I don’t get any perks aside from an apron that is probably compostable if I add Slow Food-approved olive oil to it. And as a volunteer, I can’t even PAY you to let me enjoy the promised “plenty of food and fun”? Unique.

Maybe they weren’t allowed to sell to volunteers in case those volunteers shirked their shifts, but shouldn’t that be something the volunteer’s vendor policed? Maybe the volunteer was going to use the Slow Dough the next day when they weren’t working. Is that not allowed?

When we were herded to the Taste Pavilion to start our shifts, a SFN manager came over to get us. “You [food group]?” she asked unsmilingly, “Follow me.” “She’s very excited about her job,” fellow Joad Family member confided in me. We followed her. We got a warm, happy, and grateful welcome from our vendor.

Since we’re still and always on food, I’ll quote what the Dos/Don’ts said about water:

Water stations will be located in all locations, so please be sure to bring your own water containers to fill. Individual bottles will NOT be available.

SFN never pointed these stations out to us and I never saw them, so I’m thankful for two things: I brought my own container that I’d already filled at home AND our vendor provided us with filled water bottles. Because our vendor? Is awesome beyond the reaches of the SFN org.

Hand-Outs: Please do NOT give food, samples, or leftovers of any kind to any homeless person, at any location, under any circumstances. Word will spread of free food and we will soon have an encampment. Be sure to clean up all waste at days’ [sic] end.

Of course, this is just ironic when part of Slow Food’s mission is the professed belief “that everyone has a fundamental right to pleasure.”

On two totally separate occasions, two UNPAID volunteers on their 10-minute breaks were ordered quite rudely by extraneous SFN workers not connected with our specific vendor, “Bus that table!” When both volunteers explained that they were not general staff but were working for [specific vendor] and also on their break, the response was, “Yeah. Bus that table!” No please, no thank you. Just an apron.

Maybe I’ve got this all wrong. Maybe every person wearing a SFN apron — official ribbons or no — was an unpaid volunteer who was also working just out of the pure goodness of their hearts. Because they believe passionately in the cause. If so, shouldn’t that have brought us together in a more cohesive state of camaraderie where communications are clear, polite, and respectful?

At the end of the sweaty six-hour shift, a bar designer came over to us during clean-up and shook out dozens of cocktails composed of Gin 209, St. Germaine, mint, cucumber, and agave for us. He announced, “I’ve worked enough of these things to know you guys got nothing tonight.” He gave the cocktail some name like, “Multi Spa,” but I prefer to call it, “Faith Reviver.” Maybe not faith in being a SFN volunteer again, but faith that there are still kind people out there who know how to treat others with respect, dignity, and gratitude.

My parents — my dad, especially — didn’t raise me to turn a blind eye to the inconsistencies and contradictions of the world. They raised me to speak up and out if changes are to be made to the accepted status quo and not to sit idly by hoping everything will all work out somehow.

Next time you do an event, Slow Food Nation, take better care of the people who turned out to help spread your message. We may not have been “paying guests” in the monetary sense, but we paid with our time, energy, and goodwill and we deserved to be accorded the same respect as those forking over cold hard cash. This was a high-profile chance to show a whole mess of people that you are better than the average food industry expo, and in some ways you did. In other ways, you really didn’t.

Bless you and your gleaming cocktail shaker, Bar Designer.

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Category: events, politics, activism, food safety, sustainability, environment, climate change

About the Author ()

A former picky eater, Stephanie V.W. Lucianovic is a writer, editor, and lapsed cheesemonger in the San Francisco Bay Area. A culinary school grad with an English lit degree, she has written for CNN.com, MSNBC.com, Popular Science, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Boston Globe. Additionally, she has been writing for KQED's Bay Area Bites since its inception and is the website editor for KQED's Emmy-award winning show "Check, Please! Bay Area." Stephanie was an original recapper at Television Without Pity and worked on a line of cookbooks for William-Sonoma as well as in the back kitchen of a Jacques Pépin cooking show. Her first book, SUFFERING SUCCOTASH: A Picky Eater's Quest To Understand Why We Hate the Foods We Hate (Perigee Books, 2012) is a non-fiction narrative and a heartfelt and humorous exposé on the inner lives of picky eaters that Scientific American called "hilarious" and "the perfect popular science book for a reader that doesn't think he or she wants to read a popular science book." Stephanie lives in Menlo Park with her husband, three-year-old son, assorted cats, and has been blogging at The Grub Report for over a decade. Follow her on Twitter at @grubreport
  • C

    I was a volunteer and had a great time. Yes, Slow Foods have to figure out a lot of things. Yes, it was not perfect. And yes, temper flared at one point in my shift. But all of us had the same goal – it’s a good goal. Yes, SFN and DPEM (the event planners) need to work on better logistics (and maybe better attitudes). As a volunteer, my goal, first and foremost, is to serve. I understand the ‘no food’ policies; they cant be expected to feed 2000 volunteers. I understand the ‘no freebies’ thing. I volunteer and expect nothing but good treatment from the organization. Freebies are just that, freebies, no obligations. I had a wonderful time with participants, vendors and workshop leaders – they were all so passionate about their crafts and so willing to share. I had a wonderful time with the volunteers as well. Yes, I will volunteer again next year.

  • N

    I too was impressed at how my time was wasted–at the Civic Center, I was dispatched to find a vendor who needed a volunteer. Most were fully staffed. At a certain point, I almost felt that I was begging for something to do. Really a waste of time.

  • http://www.meathenge.com Dr. Biggles

    Hi Stephanie,

    Your nightmare makes me sad. The fact that you were able to make it available to people such as myself makes me feel better.

    xo, Biggles

    ps – Ms. Blog Master, please stop the italics.

  • Susan

    Sorry you had such a poor time but I’m wondering if we were at the same event? I found the whole volunteer experience rather splendid. I took BART in from the East Bay, caught a bus, then walked to Fort Mason on a stunning Sunday. I was welcomed by generous yet focused people, then received a plentiful donated breakfast before starting work.  Contributing to this inaugural event and sharing with people of common interest was incredible. Slow Food is in it’s infancy in North America. Are you able to positively impact its growth and help make good, clean and fair food a reality?

  • /blogs.kqed.org/bayareabites/2008/09/02/somethings-rotten-in-the-state-of-the-nation/ Mary

    I can’t thank you enough for beginning this discussion.

    My own experience mirrors that of so many people who have posted. I volunteered for two separate Slow Food events. The first was the Victory Garden fund raiser on Sunday August 24 at the Civic Center. I, too, received marching orders to make sure to eat beforehand because though there would be plenty of food at the cocktail reception and dinner, it was off limits to volunteers. We were told pointedly that if we arrived hungry it could be hard to get through the event surrounded by “yummy food” we were not permitted to eat. I wasn’t looking for freebies, however, so I shrugged off the advance warnings.

    What really ruined the occasion was that when the volunteers reported for duty at the assigned time and place, we were told that we were not needed because “our people” (the phrase used by the SFN staffer) were taking care of everything. The volunteer coordinator was dumbfounded because some of the volunteers had traveled a distance to get there, only to be told they weren’t needed. Some volunteers were re-deployed and others (myself included) went home. I was glad my Muni transfer was still valid.

    I also volunteered for the “Changemakers’ Day” mini-conference that was closed to the public despite the fact that many of the sessions had plenty of empty seats. Here again there was food we were not permitted to eat along with other silly and superfluous rules that assumed volunteers were opportunistic morons.

    But the most memorable and hilarious thing about that day’s experience was the rush on the food tables by the workers from upstairs where the conference was being held in the old the state office building. Word got out that there was free food available in the conference center and workers began streaming down the stairs to fill plates with fruit and pastries. Workers were also making off with the expensive steel water bottles brought in for the “changemaker” participants (because, of course, paper or plastic cups and bottles were strictly verboten). No one dared tell the good workers of the state of California that the food was not for them. Incidentally, this scene was most ethnic diversity I witnessed during the entire SFN weekend.

    I get what SFN is about and trying to do. I know it is an easy target for ridicule and want to resist the cheap shot. But I also believe that aside from a complete re-think of its volunteer practices, SFN needs a complete re-think of the way it defines and pursues its mission. You can can’t claim to be non-elitist and then use the word “curator” to describe the people who chose food for the the tasting halls. SFN’s class and race/ethnic politics will prevent it from ever becoming the mass movement to which it aspires. The bottom line is you can’t expect people to “come to the table” when their only avenue for participation is eating what the experts have determined is appropriate to put on the table. Genuine inclusiveness begins with a much wider constituency building the table and having a say at what’s on it (and off) it. It’s a little more messy that way, but I’m willing to bet the revolution will not be curated.

    Without significant and deep change, SFN will continue to be just another form of entertainment for the (mostly white) elite in San Francisco and elsewhere.

  • http://slowfoodcolumbus.org Bear

    I’m actually increasingly, and genuinely, puzzled by what people mean when they say that Slow Food is an elitist organization. I started off assuming that they meant something similar to the dictionary definition of “elitist” — a couple of samples of which follow:

    “Practice of or belief in rule by an elite.” (dictionary.com)

    “The belief that certain persons or members of certain classes or groups deserve favored treatment by virtue of their perceived superiority, as in intellect, social status, or financial resources.” (American Heritage)

    To me, this doesn’t make sense on the surface, because a big part of Slow Food Nation involved organizing around campaigning to change the next Food Bill to improve the American food system for everyone. (See the Food Bill Declaration for details.) If this were really an elitist organization, they’d just drink sauternes and eat foie gras and let the American food system languish. But they’re not, right? They’re trying to make food better across the board, for the whole country. If anything that strikes me as being LESS elitist than people who just enjoy the fruits of farmers’ markets for themselves and let the rest of the country eat Tastycakes.

    So people clearly have something other than the dictionary definition in mind when they call Slow Food an elitist organization, or they’re seeing something that I’m not seeing. If posters wouldn’t mind trying to elaborate a bit on this point, I’d really appreciate it.

  • Glenn F.

    I agree with many of Stephanie’s points but, unlike her experience, mine was very positive. My wife and I volunteered to do kitchen prep for the Taste Workshops on both Saturday and Sunday. We were led by the indomitable Laura Martinez and her daytime captains, Penni Wisner and Minh Phan; our teams were composed of great people who weren’t afraid to work hard or contribute ideas. Our directions were clear and we actually felt as though our efforts contributed to the success of the workshops. We were allowed, even encouraged, to sit in on workshops in progress and sample the tastings. But between workshops, we really hustled, doing much more than just kitchen prep. True, we were “rewarded” with SFN aprons but then, we went as volunteers and had no expectations of additional rewards. We assumed we would be too busy to play and were pleasantly surprised when we found we were able to sit in on the workshops. We very much enjoyed these experiences and when we got home Sunday night, the first order of business was a long soak in the hot tub!

    True, SFN definitely needs to rethink how it manages such large events. Perhaps running the event was simply turned over to an “event management” group that neither understood nor cared what slow food is all about. But the experiences of Stephanie and other contributors clearly indicate that, should there be a 2009 repeat of this event, a radically different approach to volunteer use and management is imperative.

  • Anastasia

    Stephanie -
    Thanks for coming out and saying what needed to be said. I volunteer for lots of events – conferences, tastings, charity workdays, etc, and I have never before been asked to work a full shift (over 5 hours) at a paid event, and not be comped into said event. And it gets worse!

    I volunteered for multiple shifts at Slow Food Nation, and each one was a bigger slap in the face than the last. Starting with the extremely expensive Victory Garden Dinner, where I was told I would be working the full event. Got dressed, took BART into SF on a Sunday evening, got to the Victory Garden, waited around for about 45 minutes with a fairly large group of volunteers for the volunteer supervisor to assign our respective tasks, then we were all told that due to a miscommunication, none of us were needed for the event, and we could all go home. Yes, I know our volunteer time, and the money we spent to commute, has no meaning to them, but come on!

    I also worked the tasting event Friday night – “VIP” night. There were a few snacks -fruit, juice, and cookies, and Scharfenberger samples – for the volunteers, kindly donated by Whole Foods, Scharfenberger, and a couple other smaller food companies.

    However, most volunteers never got a chance, after the first 10 or 15 minutes in the volunteer staging area, to replenish with snacks, as most never had time to get back to the staging area from the main pier where the tasting event was held.

    I was designated as a “floater.” I got grabbed up early in the event to keep those water stations (that several people have mentioned) replenished throughout the event. In order to avoid plastic bottles, two 2.5 gallon containers of water were set up at each of about 10 or 12 tables scattered along the length of the pier. I was told, by a very bossy young woman, to assemble and fill more water bottles and lug them down to the tables, switching them out for empties.

    Two other volunteers were grabbed up to help me. They were both very petite, and had obvious difficulties lugging 20 pound water bottles those distances. So they soon gave up and encamped themselves back at the filter station at the entrance to the pier.

    That meant that I was THE SOLE PERSON providing water for all participants of the event on Friday night, lugging two 2.5 gallon jugs of water – 40 pounds total – up and down the length of the Pier for 4 hours. The bossy woman scolded me for not making the other volunteers help me. I told her they were too small to be doing the job, and that she should find a couple of big burly guys to help me. She said she would see what she could do. Later she said she couldn’t find anyone, but as there was only an hour left, I said I could manage. (BTW – I had volunteered to be a volunteer coordinator for Slow Food, but they said all positions had been filled. Obviously previous catering and volunteer management experience was not a qualification!)

    I could barely move the next day, my shoulders were so sore, and my feet hurt as if my arches had fallen. My only thanks were personal ones from every participant who saw me lugging those containers and filling the ones at each table.

    In 2 weeks I will be volunteering for another tasting event – Women of Taste, a fundraiser for Girl’s Inc. in Oakland. I do a 6-hour shift, from 5-11, organizing collection of all recyclables, especially wine bottles from the tastings, for the evening. It is almost as much work as what I did for Slow Food. The difference is that I can take a long break, mid-event, and fully participate in the tastings. We volunteers DON’T get to keep our aprons, as they are re-used every year. But all volunteers are entered into drawings for prizes (my sister won a gift certificate to JoJo Restaurant), can participate in the event, and are each sent a personalizing thank you letter by the volunteer coordinator. Despite the fact that the work is exhausting, I have volunteered to do this event every year. The difference is heart, appreciation, and a little forethought. The mission of Girl’s Inc is to give girls an opportunity to feel “Strong, Smart, and Bold,” and they treat their volunteers as if they all have those attributes, as if they are saying, “We know you have other alternatives for how you could be spending your Saturday night, and we appreciate that you’ve decided to spend it helping us!”

  • http://becksposhnosh.blogspot.com/2008/08/slow-food-is-for-life-not-just-for.html sam

    In answer to Bear’s question. I don’t think Slow Food Nation’s message – that of hoping to provide good clean fair food for all is seen as elite, after all what sane person would not agree that is an admirable goal? I think some perceived some of the events of the SFN weekend in particular as only available to a wealthy few ($65 to taste, not Sauternes and foie gras, perhaps, but other comparatively expensive foodstuffs), which did little to quieten any charges of elitism. A lot of money was spent on the event, but none of it actually went directly to helping the poorest of our communities eat better food. This is a a shame. The small profit that was made is instead being pumped into the next SFN event instead.
    Also – I think you have to get over the idea that Slow Food is the only organization that is working to improve the food system. Just because people choose not to join, doesn’t mean they aren’t working just as hard in their own way. Many others are hard at work at a grass roots level, struggling with little help or news coverage. Read Brahm Ahmadi’s post, for example, where he talks about how “Slow Food is currently distracted by its own self-important belief that it should be a big tent for lots of people, rather than simply being an equal member of a much bigger movement or coalition in which the movement itself is the big tent” http://peoplesgrocery.org/brahm/peoples-grocery/slow-food-nyt
    Even the leader of Slow Food USA, Josh Viertel, realizes there are many hurdles to overcome regarding the charges of elitism: He “admitted the group’s well-publicized effort to save heritage turkeys from extinction was a victory for biodiversity in our rapidly homogenizing food chain, but acknowledged the absurdity of touting such a victory in low-income communities where people will soon be choosing between buying enough food and paying the heating bill”
    (source http://www.grist.org/comments/food/2008/09/05/)
    I attended the Slow Food Journey to Alemany Farm. Over 40 SFN attendees came along and learned about how the farm is teaching at-risk young students about organic farming. The vegetables they grow are sold at very low prices in Bay view, one of the poorest parts of the City. To me – this was the kind of SFN event that should have had way more coverage and a larger participation (sadly less than a handful of us from the 40+ attendees actually stayed on and helped work the farm for the afternoon.) It was about giving to the community and actually really providing fair, fresh organic food to a low income community, it was great to be a part of and I am certain it my time spent there had far more worth than spending the afternoon in line for a cheese tasting at the Taste Pavillion.

  • James

    Sorry you had such a horrible experience working the Taste Pavillion…although my friend worked there and got unlimited ice cream?

    But first and foremost, I think today, people overstate the perks of being a volunteer. If you volunteer and get to do everything for free, then it’s merely work exchange (to quote a friend) is it not? The only thing that I would have changed in true volunteerism spirit, is the duration of the shift. Not that I don’t enjoy freebies, mind you, but true volunteerism is about donating your time and getting nothing back.

    However, that being said, I worked the Taste Workshops and I got a LOT back. All the excess food samples, food supplies, cooking supplies, etc., was given to the volunteers. And the Whole Foods spread was quite nice in my opinion. Not to mention SFN gave out a great goodie bag at the end of the event.

  • http://www.grubreport.com Stephanie

    To all volunteers who have written in about giving without expectation of receiving, I just want to reiterate what I said in my piece and what I repeated in comment #48. I acknowledged it was not all about the freebies — I will again point out that I have volunteered in many places where nothing was rec’d but good attitudes and graciousness. NOT shouting dos/don’t.

    I then went on to explicate the attitude and treatment we rec’d as a volunteers, which I feel is the more salient point here.

  • Dominic

    So sorry for the delay in responding to your blog entry, I have been concluding our project programs from SFN week. I am the producer for Slow Food Nation, including much of the volunteer programming.

    To your comments – passed onto me by the SFN staff – which were read throughout the office and saddened all who had worked so very hard with so little to make so much happen. However, the overall goal of SFN was for open dialogue, and so your comments are welcome, if hard to hear. Our aim was that everyone would enjoy the experience, not just the 60,000 guests, but everyone involved. There was no intension that anyone should feel anything but a sense of excitement of having been part of this community effort to raise awareness towards issues around the food movement.

    In terms of volunteer commitment, we did realize – as we approached the event – that this experience may be overwhelming for some, and so we wrote the passages you quoted prior to the event to ensure we did not surprise those so generous with their time and energy. We wanted to set real expectations about the potential experience. With 1800 volunteer shifts to fill, and despite the best intentions, we realized that we would not be able to offer volunteers much beyond a sense of inclusion in the amazing community work done to get this movement off the ground, though from our limited production funds, we did try to provide everyone with branded fair- trade aprons, we secured gourmet platters from Wholefoods, and we ensured there were free events that would allow all to attend some element of the SFN experience.

    What I do hope you will appreciate was the complexities of the great numbers of volunteers who made this event possible, from the 1800-volunteer shift we had to fill, to all the volunteer architect and curators, volunteer speakers and guests chefs, volunteer staff – even your friend who invited you into the experience volunteered to make this all possible. There was only a handful of paid staff – everyone else gave their time for a positive community-building experience to ensure our joint voices were heard over concern for the our current food production system.

    And while we did our best, we realize there is always room for improvement. Everyone should be treated with respect and appreciation. So sincerest apologies for any bad experiences, real appreciation for all the time committed, thanks for taking the time to make this comment and a commitment that we will create a means for all volunteers to voice their opinions – good and bad, so we can integrate them into improved programs for next time.

  • http://www.gordonzola.net/ gordonzola

    I was going to leave a comment to the folks who seem to think that those of us who complained about the condescending way Slow Foods treated its volunteers were greedy or expecting too much. I have worked many, many food (mostly cheese) events for free and I had never received a volunteer letter like the one Slow Foods sent. It gave the impression that, rather being a community of food people (some of us with years of experience) coming together for a common cause, volunteers were interchangeable parts and didn’t deserve basic respect. Indeed, there is an existing level of respect that most of us have experienced in the past at other food events. I have certain expectations going in to something like this. And it was shocking to not find that basic level present in an organization with pretenses towards improving the human condition.

    But now it seems someone with actual authority has responded. It’s your blog Stephanie, so I won’t get into like I would in my own. but all I can say to this,

    “There was no intension that anyone should feel anything but a sense of excitement of having been part of this community effort to raise awareness towards issues around the food movement.”

    Is that in the words of the internet: EPIC FAIL!

    Thanks again for writing this post.

  • http://www.californiacheesemaid.blogspot.com mandy

    Stephanie, I read this when you first posted, and revisited it today to catch the rest of the comments. Just today I posted my own thoughts on my blog as a somewhat jaded producer, but was emboldened to do so by your experiences as a volunteer.

    I felt disheartened as well, but more in the lack of communication I received versus the very blatant and offensive communication you received!

    I’m not sure the above response by Dominic does much more than prove that the behemoth created by the stretched-thin folks at SFN became too much for them to handle.

    I agree with a comment Gordonzola posted on my blog, that next year it would behoove SFN to reach out when feeling overwhelmed and enlist the help of other groups and organizations who share the same mission.

    To Bear: Instead of ‘elitist,’ how about ‘exclusionary?’

    And about donated product: I think we’re being compensated at a set rate for our product used in the Pavilion. There’s no way I’d donate AND feel “unwelcome to the table!”

  • http://slowfoodcolumbus.org Bear

    Hi Sam, and thanks, this is just the kind of dialogue we need to be having.

    I’m not quite clear on what you’re saying about the $65 admission cost. If your point is that it was too much given what was there, I’m afraid I wasn’t able to attend SFN myself, so I can’t comment on whether $65 was too much or too little to charge for the Taste Pavilions — I just don’t know. If your point is that no Slow Food event should cost $65 because a price tag that high is inherently exclusionary… well, that’s a genuinely hard problem. Because if you put that ceiling on the price for any event, what you’re saying is that some foods or combinations of foods are never, ever going to be served at a Slow Food event because they’re too expensive.

    It’s not clear to me that Slow Food needs to give up either possibility. I mean, clearly a food group in which every event is inaccessible to low-income people is not serving its community as fully as it could. But if event budgets are severely restricted, it might be hard to bring attention to small producers or growers of obscure or endangered foods.

    A quick example: We just came back from a pawpaw festival. Pawpaws never caught on commercially because they ripen quickly and didn’t travel well, but they’re locally viable (and regionally and beyond, with refrigeration). But they don’t sell because no one knows what they are — Catch-22. So the only way we can be sure to get them for an event is via Fed-Ex — $100 for 12 pieces of fruit. We might be able to feature pawpaws at a premium today, in the hopes that doing so will spread demand and create a market for them, thereby lowering the price tomorrow. For everyone. But we can’t make the pawpaws cost less ourselves, today, right now. (We tried. We asked if there would be a way to get a reduced rate for a Slow Food event. No dice.)

    Your point about Slow Food not being the only organization working to improve the food system is totally fair. I found the Ahmadi post a little baffling, though, in that it seems to call for Slow Food to reject diversity within its organization rather than become more inclusive. (Trying to imagine doing what everyone wants Slow Food to do can be paralyzing sometimes….) In our case, we’re fortunate to have a great sibling organization in Local Matters — http://www.local-matters.org/wp/ . They were founded at about the same time we were, and now that we’re both reasonably well established, once the harvest is over we’ll be getting together to try to coordinate our efforts. It’s a great example of how Ahmadi’s idea can work, though it’s based more on comparative advantage than on class.

    And to Mandy… if you can elaborate, I might have more of a sense of what you mean. At a quick Google, I find “Tending to exclude; causing exclusion; exclusive.” Tending to exclude? Well, all organizations do, technically, as long as there’s one nonmember, so that doesn’t seem helpful. Causing exclusion has more of a bite because it suggests intent: those excluded are intentionally kept out. Exclusive seems to focus more on the attainment or achievement of the members than on the converse, so it’s probably not useful either. “Causing exclusion,” then?

  • http://www.californiacheesemaid.blogspot.com mandy

    To Bear (Again. Sorry): I take back the “exclusionary” comment; that was a little harsh and even further from appropriate than the term ‘elitist.’
    How about…”disconnected as a result of being overly ambitious and simultaneously lacking focus.”

  • http://slowfoodcolumbus.org Bear

    And a quick p.s. to Sam, to the point, “Just because people choose not to join, doesn’t mean they aren’t working just as hard [to improve the food system] in their own way.” Absolutely true, and to be clear, I never claimed it did. My point was simply that people who describe Slow Food as elitist and live their own “slow lifestyle” outside of the organization but do NOT do anything to improve the food system for others may in fact be — unwittingly, to be sure — hindering rather than helping progress toward a less elitist food system, even in the terms that they understand it. People who don’t join Slow Food but who work through organizations like Local Matters (previous comment) are obviously doing tremendous good.

  • Diane

    Thank you for being brave enough to share this. I didn’t attend the event because – although I am an advocate of slow food, and a locavore from way back – I was put off by the way it was presented. I anticipated it would be more sound and light than substance, and I didn’t want to deal with lines. To me the movement is best lived at a local level, and frankly I was a bit baffled by the thought of it as a mega-event.

    But perhaps these are the birth pangs and first steps and the next event will be better. I do hope so, and I hope they take to heart your commentary, and that the next event is both better organized. I also hope it will be far more vertical with fewer tent shows and more local events. I am imagining a version of the Worlds Fair, with many many local vendors and shops doing small events all over the city or region – or even (like Earth Day) the country or world.

  • http://slowfoodcolumbus.org Bear

    Hi Mandy,

    No need to apologize; clarification much appreciated. I’m not sure how to address “disconnected” (from what or whom exactly?), and there are quite a few possibilities, so I’d rather not speculate. As to “overly ambitious and simultaneously lacking focus,” though, I think much of that rings quite true — perhaps even lacking focus BECAUSE overly ambitious. I bet if we took a poll of people who are in general on board with the (however-capitalized) slow food movement, the considerable majority would be happier being members of Slow Food USA, or would be more likely to join, if SFUSA became less ambitious and narrowed its focus.

    The problem, I think, would lie in the answer to the follow-up question: What should that focus be?

    Some would say Slow Food should be a locavore movement. Others think that it should emphasize the environment. Still others think that it should serve the underprivileged first and foremost. Others would say taste education and biodiversity should be the core of what Slow Food does.

    I tend to see the movement in more holistic terms, with good food as its lodestone — not because I’m a slave to my tongue, but because everything else flows from that. If you really value good food, you’ll eat more locally, not just for the sake of eating locally but because it tastes so good. You’ll eat meat that was raised with care, because it’s better. You’ll become an environmentalist, because food and the environment are intricately linked. You’ll work to improve the food system for everyone. I know I’m preaching to the converted on all of this, right… but the point is, narrow your focus to any one of these things, like local food or biodiversity, and all of the others DON’T necessarily follow.

    So I take the point that SFUSA lacks focus. But when I try to imagine an alternative — a latter-day gourmet society without environmental values, or a hunger group, or a locavore group, without everything else that Slow Food entails — I personally find it less appealing. Maybe the downside to a lack of focus is a lack of efficacy in particular areas… but if the upside is an increase in appeal, it might be a wash. I really don’t know. In any event, that possible tradeoff is definitely worth pondering further.

  • grace

    i thought about going to the event , esp. the tasting event, but decided against it b/c of the steep txt price. i grew up in asia eating slow food–local foods produced by local people. in asia they call it “street food.” it’s usually the cheapest kinda of food you can find. street food is popular among the economically minded. for example , it is popular with teens,students and lower-middle class , who are often on shoe-string budget.

    nowardays it might be different but just like the farmers market in europe in asia there’s alot of “permenant farmers’ market ” as well. where local farmers and food producers have permenant stalls to sell their goods year round. at least when i was growing up. this type of market was cheaper than shopping at supermarket where you’re paying for the packaging and shipping cost..and the savvy housewives and grandmas knows which specific vendor in the market to go to get the best tasting fish/freshest free range chicken or seasonal veggies.

    it’s funny the slow food movement in this nation is actually completely opposite. more elitist and more expensive..i donno why that is..

    also i often say to friends when we’re out eating in restaurant that more american restaurants should open a side window where they sell smaller amounts of food (ie. a sandwich version of their famous steak, which would be smaller and cheaper and on the go) instead serving everything sit-down style as a complete meal.

    in this economic hard time serving in cheaper and smaller portions and on the go woudl not be a bad thing.

    going back to the street food in asia. often the portion served is very small. but since usually street food congregates and there are many vendors at the same location. you go thru one vendor after another tasting everything(very much like slow food pavalium except you pay vendor individually for what you eat instead of the steep $65 price to the organizer ;-) and you know what, at the end of the evening you prob. spend $65 as well btw you and a friend but you’re both super full and entirely satisfied b/c you prob. tasted about 10 different items..

    it’s similar to , food court in malls except with smaller portion, and smaller price. and instead of chain restaurants it’s local food vendors..

    why isn’t there something like this here..

    i have to go back to asia every few years mainly b/c i miss this street food experience.

    this relates to