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.

Related

Related posts

Explore: , ,

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
  • http://www.cookingwithamy.com Amy

    Wow! I’m all the more amazed at how courteous and polite the volunteers were at the event given that kind of treatment. I think I would have gone awol from all that “fun and food” if I were you.

  • Erika

    The water stations were throughout the pavillion, primarily on the end of the long tables.

    If it makes you feel better, participants who paid $65 to get in the door found themselves in disneyland-length lines for small nibbles of food. When I came through the door I thought I would have to buy more slow dough. But after 2.5 hours of standing in line, and trying a few morsels, and with no hope of cheese sampling, I went home, unhappy.

  • sam

    Great post, Stephanie. Farm volunteer next time instead?

    I am actually still wondering where all the money from the $65 tickets went.
    Were your vendors actually paid for their food contribution? I thought I heard somewhere that the vendors actually had to pay to be there too.

    where is all this money going?

  • http://www.aliceqfoodie.com Alice Q. Foodie

    Volunteers are often treated dismissively at things like this – but I’ve never been told that I couldn’t eat any of the food. Frankly, I probably would have just said I was going to the bathroom and walked straight out if I was treated the way you were!

    I am also curious about where the money went – I keep checking the website for some info about how much money was raised and where it’s going, but haven’t seen any. I did see something that seemed to indicate (rather ominously) that the event was only partially funded by ticket sales – could it be that all the money was spent on the spectacle itself? I would love to see a full financial disclosure from the event, and I’m thinking of emailing to ask for one. We can’t be the only ones who are curious!

  • Julie

    Sorry you had such a lousy experience, Stephanie, but thanks for sharing. I appreciated all the volunteers, producers, and educators who brought their terrific food and expertise to the event, and I had a great time at a class and on one of the day tours. However, the pavilion was overpriced and too crowded to be truly educational or enjoyable. The lines were so long, I wasn’t able to use all my “dollars” (and seriously, 20 food dollars for a $65 ticket?), and I was dispirited to see people like the great Sue Conley (Cowgirl Creamery), who’s so knowledgeable and dedicated, seemingly being used for little more than directing people through queues.

  • Laure

    Wow, what a terrible way to treat people.

    You state “the blog posts about what SFN did right are already thick on the ground, and the praise is prodigious”. However, all the blogs I have read have criticized this event. I’m still trying to find one that found something positive about it.

  • Chris B

    I’m a Slow Food member and possibly getting involved with Slow Food here in Eugene, OR. I have to say, I’m completely embarassed and saddened to hear about your experience! There were a multitude of issues you covered, but at the core, the fact that you couldn’t sample the food, that is downright ridiculous! This is slow food afterall, and the whole idea is to promote the ideas of slow food, the quality of that food, the experience, etc. Volunteers may already have the passion for slow food, but SFN would have done far more to have the volunteers, who have that passion be out and about with the other guests and probably promoting slow food (and Slow Food) even more! Really disappointing. I will be bringing this up with our local Slow Food chapter. Thanks for posting about it.

  • erikawas

    wow – so glad i didn’t bother to attend this circus. so many other ways to appreciate locally grown food than this alice in wonderland ride.

  • http://www.grubreport.com Stephanie

    Definitely farm volunteering next time, Sam. I would have this time, but I really didn’t want to leave my vendor and friend in the lurch.

    I have no idea how any of the money stuff worked for vendors or SFN, but clearly it would be enlightening information to get.

    I also want to make it clear that because my vendor rocked, we got plenty of that vendor’s food. They were more than happy to share. It was the fact that we were barred from trying ANYTHING else that did really rankle, especially given the volunteer advert on the website.

  • bastasia

    Although I witnessed some of this; it did seem like the “event management” at this event had no idea about events or management … maybe it was different for the Bread Baker’s Guild of America organized bakery/pizza shop … maybe because most of us were professionals? Not sure …

    We had food ‘n drink a’plenty, most of which was procured by our Curator and the various managers … then again each of these people run VERY successful businesses and know how to treat “the help.”

    Experiences like the one outlined above are BAD, Bad, bad for the elitist image of SFN … maybe they should hire a professional, (read: capitalist), event management firm next time?

  • http://www.lifebeginsat30.com jen maiser

    Great post, Steph. I have been sitting here reading SFN posts from around the Internet for the past couple hours (work? what work?) and am really amazed at the breadth of experiences. Your volunteer POV is an invaluable addition to the conversation.

    The “do not give handouts” admonition was just such a stark comparison to the alleged goals of SFN. I heard about that part of the volunteer guide a few days ago, and it came to mind so many times this weekend as I participated in SFN. I can see where they’re coming from, but there are better, more graceful ways to handle a potential “encampment.”

    I join everyone in wanting to know where the money is going. I have a feeling it all went into the event.

  • http://www.stilllifecafe.com Barry

    My best friend and partner, Allison, wanted us to go to the event. I hesitated because while I celebrate the concept – I don’t need to belong to an organization that tells me how it should be practiced lord knows the world of food & wine has enough experts who can’t wait to castigate those who don’t do things right. And I mostly just hate any of these food events.

    From reading your description and those of others who are not enraptured with a form of cause that fits neatly into their self-promotion as foodies, I’m glad we avoided it. Instead we stayed home, no airfare-rental car-carbon foot print, we walked to our local farmer’s market to purchase food grown, raised and prepped by the artisans who sell it. We enjoyed two thoughtfully prepared meals with friends and took our time as well.

    Organized ‘Slow Food’ convention indeed! Silly elitists.

  • Karena

    I boycotted SFN and went to the farmers’ market instead. I learned from my fishmonger that the vendors were treated shabbily, too. Vendors had a separate entrance and were told not to enter and exit through the “paying guest” entrance. Vendors were also told not to leave their stations to talk to other vendors and sample their products, and oddly, not to take off their aprons.

    Hey SFN–what a way to dispel the stereotype that you’re not elitist!

  • http://coconutlime.blogspot.com rachel

    While I can believe that volunteers were mistreated (this seems common in situations like this one) I can’t believe that they stopped volunteers from buying tickets to Slow Dough. That’s just insane.

    Frankly, I am suprised that working a 6 hour shift wasn’t enough for them to just give you a free pass to the event, even if it would just cover the day you worked. All of the events I’ve been involved in always comped the admission for the volunteers so they could look around a bit–if for no other reason than to make the volunteers more knowledgeable about the event in case of questions. And no paid parking? Normally volunteering doesn’t require one to actually pay money to do it.

    So much for food and fun!

  • http://www.hertzmann.com Peter H.

    Stephanie, I definitely agree with a lot of what you write. I volunteered the morning sessions on both Saturday (seafood) and Sunday (charcuterie). I found the biggest problem for me to be a lack of consistent communication between the organizers and the volunteers. It started with conflicting emails and remained all the way to the end of the show. It is one thing to have rules—don’t eat the food—and it is another to apply them consistently. In charcuterie, the suppliers had us sample each of the meats we were handing out so we could describe them better. In the seafood area, there was extras at the end that we sampled. I talked with other volunteers that were able to sample the foods of their area and others that were not. But in both, I had to shoo away volunteers wanting to sample—except for those that had slow dough. There was a way for volunteers to get it but it wasn’t publicized. But like you said, even if you had it, the lines were generally too long to use it during a break (see below).

    At both sessions, there was inadequate training and supervision for the volunteers. I saw servers handling food in an unsanitary manner. I also saw food that should have been refrigerated left too long without.

    Many of the booths lacked a delineated path through the area so that the guest would be exposed to the information as well as the tasting. In the seafood area, the food was up front and the informational booths in the back, some behind curtains. There was nothing leading the guest to the informational area other than us servers suggesting that they visit it—which was not too successful. In the charcuterie area, there was very little information about why the items being tasted were “slow food”, and what information that was there was difficult to get too and placed you in the middle of the serving lines, blocking their progress. There was also some information that was plain wrong.

    As to breaks, what breaks? I never had a real one at the seafood booth because leaving my work area would have meant more work for the other two people working the same area. In the charcuterie area, there was time for a break late in the session, but by that time there less than an hour remaining, and it was too late.

  • Carrie

    Hi Stephanie,

    **THANK YOU** for posting this informative behind-the-scenes view of the event. I’m disgusted and saddened. The high price turned me off from the start and I tend to avoid anything at Fort Mason anyway but I find it a real shame that this organization is so tactless and lacking the simple courtesies that could have made this a much better experience for ALL involved.

    I attended the free SFN event at Civic Center on Saturday morning and found that to be quite palatable; free samples were abundant for those nosing about and friendly folks (volunteers? SFN staff? I’m not sure)abounded. Of course, that’s also my ‘front of the house’ view. It’s always, always and ALWAYS important to pay close attention to what goes on in the physical and the proverbial kitchen/back of the house and I sincerely thank you for your post.

    I’ll be finding another way to support the slow food movement (note lowercase!) and steer clear of this hypocritical organization.

  • Karen

    Yeah, friends with the vendor or not, I would have walked out. I went to the Civic Center farmers’ market adjunct thingie and nearly lost my mind — the COFFEE vendor didn’t open until 11. WTF? And apparently “slow food” means that the vendor couldn’t stop arranging flowers and sell me some damned beans that were unlabeled and instruction-free anyway. His neighbor vendor ended up taking our money, and I hope he kept it. Slow Food can pretty much cram their $7 hot dogs up their compost chutes as far as I’m concerned.

  • henri

    Thanks for taking the time to share your experience. I have been a proponent of Slow Food (the one in Italy) for years now. Unfortunately, I find that Slow Food USA has Americanized the organization as American does best…capitalize and market. It was not right how you were treated, and the fact that the event cost 65$ even is absurd. The civic center markets had the feel and energy of what Slow Food is…open air, open to everyone, a central place for people to gather. It’s unfortunate that they turned the first US Taste expo into such a mess. Hopefully you continue to inspire the real slow food movement through your writings and actions. Real slow food is in the community.

  • Ashley

    Thanks for speaking up. I thought I was the only one who had that kind of experience trying to volunteer for SFN ! I did get to go to the closing panel with Waters, Petrini, Pollan, etc and it was amazing; totally redeemed the weekend for me. Too bad the whole thing wasn’t so inspiring.

  • tcduong

    Like Karena, I skipped SFN to walk to my local Farmer’s Market. After reading your post, I’m glad I did. I am sad for you, but really am sad about the vendors. if they are anything like the folks at the Old Oakland farmer’s market, they are totally awesome. I hate to think that people who work so hard to embody the principles of Slow Food Nation are crapped on.

  • sherman

    At $65 a pop, what effrontery to ask for volunteers. This is not a charity, its a business from which Mr. Barnum could learn a thing or 2. Step right up, floks.

  • Maria

    I’m not surprised. I used to be in a Slow Food group and the focus seemed to be on raising money, not the people or the message. I left, disenchanted that the group (both locally and nationally) was a vehicle by which some local businesses could promote themselves.

  • ellen

    Here is a ditto from another volunteer on Friday night. Not only was I told, after I arrived in my comfy/cute INDOOR clothes that I was working OUTSIDE along with 10 others. We shared one coat over our sweaters throughout the night (Since we were all local we had enough sense to have brought a sweater or jacket but we WERE ON THE WATERFRONT, OUTSIDE, AFTER SUNSET). When we took turns going inside we had to sneak away thanks to the cover of our shift supervisor who was like an angel breaking the rules herself and taking it on the chin for her team. One of our volunteers was caught and both he and the lead were summarily taken to task for not being at the assigned station. At the end of the night I raced tot he pizza line, got to the front, I could see it, almost taste it when a screaming woman yelled at them to shut it down, the event was closed. I stood and stared. I didn’t cry because I had a loaf of bread from the sweet bread guy who brought us loaves to give to the volunteers as they left. So…We froze, got the apron that shrunk in the dryer and a bad taste. I believe in the cause, but I gotta say, YUCK.

  • Ann

    I’m so glad I wasn’t alone in feeling frustrated and alienated by volunteering for SFN. I LOVE the concept of slow food and wanted to help out as much as I could. I decided to volunteer stuffing gift bags–a 6pm-10pm shift. Instead of an apron, we were able to get a sample bag, which honestly had a bunch of magazines and pamphlets (hello sustainability?) and a couple of cookies from whole foods. Oh, plus a salami. I can’t forget the salami.

    Anyway, I brought a couple of Clif bars with me, just in case they didn’t have food. I thought I was being overly cautious, it being a foodie event. I was right. They did offer warm soda and crappy chips for our physically strenuous work. Plus, they granted us a 15 minute break so we could see the pavilion. But first, we were warned not to touch anything, take anything or eat anything. Wow, I felt like a child. It was really insulting. I worked a little longer and then took off. I vowed to blow off my next shift and never help those stingy, elitist, thankless people again. They really turned me off to SFN. It’s too bad, because it’s a cause I wholly believed in.

  • Maureen

    It has been interesting both the story and comments. I was the volunteer for another type of event this weekend. We got in for free and each volunteer session was for 2 hours. There was water and snack bars for us. When our session was over we were able to go anywhere in the convention center and stay as long as they were open. There are good organizations, good people who appreciate the time the volunteers gave. The slow food would have been something I would have been interested in – but no more.

  • Pat

    I am so shocked at the stories of how the volunteers were treated. We went to the event, and I just want to say THANK YOU, THANK YOU for your hard work. I have very mixed feelings about the event itself, it was expensive, it definitely had a pretentious feel and the lines were bad, although we worked around that by waiting to go to cheese and chocolate until near the end of the time slot when it wasn’t so crowded (that strategy failed for pizza though, they ran out). We had a decent time, but probably wouldn’t go again. If I had known the volunteers were standing around starving while handing me meat from piled up plates, I would have started a protest.

  • sf’er

    I am totally bewildered that there were even volunteers at all at this event. My wife and I went on Sunday night, and it was a total ripoff. Where did my $120 go? It couldn’t possibly have been for the food, since we didn’t get to eat that much due to the lines. I had thought that, despite the lines and the early-closing-pavilions (coffee and gelato closing before 9PM was particularly classy), I could at least expect that everyone there had been working for a fair wage. For my $120, we could have had a great dinner at a place in the City that serves healthy, sustainable food and offers health insurance to the staff. Instead, I waited in line after line at a 3.5-hour-long infomercial. Man, I’m really sorry for you volunteers…I just blew some cash!

  • Eloise

    Glad to see this. I volunteered as well and couldn’t believe the audacity of the organizers in mandating my attire and undermining my autonomy. Thanks for posting!

  • laila

    I’m a bit shocked at the venom here. Yes, I think volunteering is an often thankless job, and, yes, I expected more from Slow Food. But really? Blowing off a whole organization because of poor execution of an overly aspirational event? Really? I attended a number of the talks and I came away inspired and impressed. And, I can’t speak for more than what I saw myself – but the message I heard was serious and not a bunch of “eat a perfect peach and poverty will go away” BS that seems to be so in vogue in these parts.

    I did attend one Pavillion session and it was underwhelming and too expensive. I also noticed that the crowd was pretty different from one I saw at the Civic Center.

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

    I wrote about this same thing in my blog (That letter! It almost made me not show up.) and someone pointed me here. Good job!

  • Laura Nilsen

    Another volunteer here. After reading the rules and regulations for volunteers prior to my shift I made the “and all I got was a lousy apron” joke to my husband, but I’d promised a slow food friend I’d be there so I packed water in a canteen and a couple of LARA bars and set out, on the bus of course.

    As I walked from the bus stop to the event, I passed the outdoor music venue and I did indeed see what appeared to be a small “encampment” of about ten scruffy freeloaders, just sitting on the grass listening to the music without paying for it. Heaven help us if they’d gotten some food refuse from the event as well. They were so unsightly.

    As it was I got the leftovers. I’m so sorry all you Pavillon volunteers, but I was luckily bumped from the Green Kitchen in your building, the celebrity chef demonstrations, because Alice Waters decided she wanted only her staff giving support in the kitchen. (I hope they got paid.)

    So I was assigned to the Taste Workshops in a different building and I had a wonderful experience. The Slow Food manager, Laura Martinez, was efficient, unflappable, friendly and kind. Between frenzied set-ups and clean-ups, we could sit in at the Workshops. The presenters were gracious and generous. After it was certain there was enough food and drink for the paying workshop participants, we feasted on amazing delicacies. My fellow volunteers were convivial and interesting people. At one workshop, the presenter commended the volunteers and we were applauded. I left feeling very uplifted and full.

    Then, just as I got home, I got a phone call. It was from a man who’d gotten my name from the original Green Kitchen volunteer list. He was desperately seeking three servers for an exclusive $500 plate benefit dinner to be held at the home of a prominent San Francisco food maven. Gavin Newsom would be there and Alice Waters and Petrini, the founder of Slow Food. It took awhile before he mentioned it was an unpaid gig. Okay. I asked him who the dinner was benefiting and he seemed bewildered. He told me, but then he said, “Does it matter? Didn’t I tell you, Petrini going to be there!”

    So there you have it. The attitude that we volunteer minions should gladly lap up the opportunity to serve the luminaries of San Francisco and Slow Food. It left a bad taste in my mouth. Good thing I had that little bag of pork belly tidbits and paw paw preserves.

  • Connie in France

    No kidding something is rotten! There is a giant disconnect between the organizers of Slow Food and the foot soldiers of the movement who have devoted their lives and livelihoods to promoting the stated mission of Slow Food. I wasn’t at the SFN event, but from what I’ve heard, it all sounds very familiar.

    A few years back, the leader of my SF Bay Area convivium resigned and since nobody else wanted the job, three of us volunteers as co-leaders. After less than a year of well-attended and profitable events, the establishment of its first website, a dependable mailing list and overall great fun and success, a small group of people, related by business ties, decided that they wanted control of the leadership, to the sincere dismay of we who had sunk so much time and effort in the new-found vibrancy of the convivium. Those people, far more interested in promoting their businesses (still advertised for free on the new convivium website) ultimately hijacked the leadership of the convivium through a shocking smear campaign accompanied by threats, demands and all sorts of incongruous power-grabbing behavior. For crying out loud, one of them flew to New York to plant poison with the director of Slow Food USA! Which he swallowed, hook, line and sinker, without thinking to check on reality! We three leaders had no idea what was brewing behind our backs until it came to some weird kind of turf war, and in the end my two co-leaders and I, having been accused of everything short of strangling the family dog, were forced to resign amid a crazy whirlwind of insults and insinuations. Frankly folks, no volunteer job is worth this kind of hassle!

    The membership of our convivium never knew how or why they suddenly had a “new leader” surrounded by her enthusiastic business partners…out of the blue, in control of what is purported to be a good cause! Since then, the convivium hasn’t managed, from what I hear, to organize any activities at all, since the new leader is very, very Busy with Far More Important Things, but she gets to say she’s the leader and I’m sure it sounds nice at the country club. And she can lord it over the volunteers at SFN. Strangely, I’ve heard this same kind of story from other former convivium leaders — the lust for power, and the examples of lack of basic kindness, is amazing.

    In my opinion, Slow Food (despite its stated mission which I honor) is an organization designed as a playground for blowhards looking to cram their own sense of elitist superiority down the throats of the real food heroes and their honest supporters in the fight for fresh, clean food, raised and presented responsibly to the public. From what I can tell, from local to international levels, the people in charge of Slow Food are not folks who — shall we say — share my values.

  • Andrea in SF

    Oh my. I had initially intended to volunteer for SFN, but ultimately had to sit this event out. And it looks like I didn’t miss much.

    What really strikes me though, is the snotty, condescending attitude evident throughout the volunteer “Dos and Don’ts”. It’s not surprising that the event supervisors would then humorlessly treat the volunteers like naughty child labor.

    And do you know what this reminds me of–what has my deja vu bell ring dinga dinging?? It’s just like working at a poorly-run RESTAURANT–and I’ll bet you that a good number of those SFN supervisors are bitter and jaded restaurant poopies for their day job. As a life-long waiter, I’ve learned to just quietly back away when I get an employee manual that sounds like your volunteer instructions: there’s sure to be a black hole of a manager just waiting to make your every shift miserable.

    Ah well, the event did give you a bounty of rotten fruit to write a truly excellent blog. I especially enjoyed your “Joad-ian” experiences–keep that fist up in the air!!

  • http://ranchogordo.com Steve Sando

    I only wish that I were surprised by all this.

  • Chef D

    Bravo Stephanie for voicing your experience and to everyone that has chimed in thus far.
    Sounds like a modern day version of Animal Farm in the making. Volunteers and vendors unite!

    For $60.00 + $5.00 Bay Bridge toll, one can do really really well at the Berkeley Bowl. ‘been that way for years.

  • Chef D

    Brava Stephanie for voicing your experience and to all those who have chimed in… sounds like a modern-day version of Animal Farm in the making… volunteers and vendors unite!

    For $60. + $5. Bay Bridge toll, one can do really well at the Berkeley Bowl. It’s been that way for years…

  • http://www.happenstance.net Maureen Forys

    And here I was feeling bitter that even though I signed up to volunteer 2 times, and emailing SFN twice when I didn’t hear back. The first time they apologized and asked me to fill out the form again. The second time I heard nada, rien, nothing back. It sounds like I lucked out actually. I just went to civic center, which was fun. I purchased a few things and was thrilled to meet the actual farmers and producers (instead of the farmer’s market rep) that I buy from all the time.

    One other beef: I am a vegetarian and have been for 15 years. Slow Food and being a vegetarian should be able to mix and flourish, but it rarely does. It’s all about the meat. Which is fine. It is nice that there are responsible producers out there now. But come on. There were 2 paltry choices at slow on the go, and 1 was sold out. Luckily I was still able to snag a tamale (a very delicious one at that) before they were gone.

    I have been a slow food member for a few years now and each year I wonder why. It is because of the philosophy and the hope it is making a difference. I will probably continue to renew, but still be left with an odd feeling that I don’t belong and that somehow we are missing the point. I am happy the word is spreading, I am just not sure the organization was ready to spread it. Maybe some new members who signed up this weekend will help energize and focus.

    Maureen in Oakland

  • Erica

    Great article. I was going to volunteer until I read all those rules and realized I would only receive an apron. I went to Civic Center and tried hard to get samples. So crowded. I liked the garden. I did buy some grapes and endive. I got a free Sunset and Saveur. All was not lost.

  • Isis

    On principle I only volunteer for events I can afford to attend myself. The price tag alone made me queasy, and as a disabled person, living in poverty, there was no way I was going to be a paying “guest”, even though I would have enjoyed hearing some of the speakers, particularly Vandana Shiva and Andrew Kimbrell. The event was hardly inclusive.

    Instead I was outside Herbst Theater on Friday morning and passed out flyers in protest of one of the panelists inside, California Department of Food and Agriculture Secretary A.G. Kawamura, the person who gave orders to spray the people of Monterey and Santa Cruz with pesticides last Fall, under the guise of eradicating the harmless light brown apple moth. Hundreds reported they were injured by the spray, an infant went into respiratory arrest, pets died, bees and birds disappeared for several weeks, and hundreds of dead birds washed ashore as a result of the most dramatic red tide in decades, likely caused by several ingredients in the spray.

    After months of protest, the same untested, unregistered pesticide is still saturating neighborhoods from twist ties and traps, and they plan to shoot it in gobs onto thousands of utility poles and trees, mixed with the deadly insecticide permethrin, throughout the Bay Area and Peninsula. Aerial spraying is still planned for our surrounding green spaces and the people and wildlife living there, and those of us in the city will get the drift. The creepiest part of the program is the research into flies doused in the same pesticide, which supposedly mimics moth pheromones, to see if repeatedly releasing millions of them would confuse the moth enough not to mate. The program is being expanded to almost the entire state of California. For more information about this ongoing pesticide program, one of several the CDFA is involved in, please see http://www.dontspraycalifornia.org/lbam.html

    Why Slow Food Nation would invite such a criminal, who represents slow death, not slow food, is beyond me. Even more beyond me is the censorship at the panel. Those who paid their $20 (representing several meals for some of us) to go inside, were told that this issue was not relevant to food system policy, the focus of the panel, and to keep quiet. Reportedly one woman did take the opportunity to exercise free speech, to challenge Kawamura’s claims of sustainable practices, and to stand up to the censors, and I thank her for giving those of us outside a voice. The rampant pesticide policy perpetrated by the CDFA is absolutely relevant to “food system policy and planning”, and to the safety of our food, soil, water, and air.

    Instead of creating an opportunity for open and honest discourse that included the public, many people with great insight were silenced, many important questions ignored, and a dangerous criminal was given a platform from which to greenwash his toxic image, without making room to be challenged by those he’s harmed. We were there to protest Kawamura. Perhaps we should have been there to protest Slow Food Nation as well…

    If you look at some of the sponsors of Slow Food Nation, the wine industry, the source of much pollution and injury in this state, is surely represented, calling themselves sustainable even when they do use synthetic chemicals. Then there’s Whole Foods, the greenwashed union-buster, Sunset Magazine, which publishes gardening books that advise people to use pesticides, and Marin Organics, which last I heard was offering to put up Kawamura’s toxic twist ties themselves, and help dilute organics standards. Another sponsor, CHOW, has been censoring the posts of the chemically injured about fragrance-free policies at restaurants on their discussion boards, while letting others ridicule the injured and refer to us as fascists for defending our right to access under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

    Michael Pollan and Alice Waters, who were also part of this event, often have much positive to say, but their belief that rising food costs are a good thing, that we should sacrifice our comforts to support organics, when many of us, unlike the two of them, don’t have any comforts, and organics are not so much organic these days, is insulting in the face of desperate food riots happening throughout the world. The rising food costs are actually driving people to eat less local organics, and more fast food. One way to get in touch with reality would have been to make a deliberate effort to reach out to, and share with, the homeless who were being displaced by this elitist, inaccessible event, because that encampment the organizers were so concerned about avoiding by excluding homeless residents altogether, was there long before Slow Food Nation arrived and set up right in the middle of where our homeless neighbors live.

  • http://smallfarms.typepad.com/small_farms/2008/08/slow-food-notio.html Tana

    Stephanie: way to go. I boycotted, with great deliberation, out of failed respect for Carlo Petrini. (We all remember his hoof-in-mouth gaff last year with the “surfing farmer” at Ferry Plaza, right? I think he completely disdains Americans.)

    I was a Slow Food member for one year, and the local Santa Cruz leaders, Cliff and Claudette Warren, could not be more wonderful. Everything they organized was thoughtful and fun, and they are categorically free of the puffery and self-importance that, in my experience, characterizes the organization. It’s SO “let them eat cake,” isn’t it?

    I, too, blogged about it: the URL is linked with my name. “Slow Food Notion: I Don’t Think So.”

    Instead, I spent Sunday at TLC (Tastes Like Chicken) Ranch, with the founder of LocalHarvest.org and some other friends. We had a potluck that included local lamb and cheese, Dirty Girl Farm’s dry-farmed Early Girls in a caprese, and TLC Ranch deviled eggs and frittata. It was nice and slow, and we didn’t have to pay Carlo Petrini to condone our activities.

    I swear, they’re worse than eGullet, and that’s saying something.

  • hungry volunteer

    Can’t say I have had positive experiences with Slow Food folk. I worked at a restaurant that had the “honor” of hosting their group. It’s not like they were the worst customers I had ever served, but I have to say I was shocked at how much food they WASTED (meat not even boxed up and taken home, just thrown in the trash), and the fact that they had a huge party with several young children for whom they expected this small scale prixe fix operation to accommodate with alternative cuisine without giving us a heads up. The wait staff of course got an earful from the chef because we didn’t warn him that kids would be showing up (because we didn’t know). I would expect foodies to be savvy enough to call ahead and let an operation like ours know.

    Nonetheless, I volunteered at Slow Food Nation. I was really taken aback that volunteers were not allowed to try the food. What I find really repulsive is that the vendors all DONATED all of the the food, so it’s not like SFN exactly LOSES any money by allowing volunteers to sample around. Did they really expect volunteers to go purchase Slow Dough to try food that SFN didn’t even purchase? Don’t worry, if you happened to know someone in marketing or on the inside, you got a special stamp and more Slow Dough than you could use. But if you volunteered and actually worked the event, keep your dirty little paws off of our food!

  • Karen S

    I too was a volunteer and had a very different experience. First off, I am sorry to hear about your experience.
    Mine was great. I was treated with respect and was also allowed to taste ice cream from one of the vendors and there was plenty of food provided by whole foods. I also bought a ticket for the taste pavillions for sunday and did receive slow dough, which can only be used if you bought a ticket, it couldn’t be used as a ticket to the event the following day.
    I am sure a lot of the disclaimers printed in the volunteer packet was based on legal issues so it is not entirely fair to pull pieces out of context and draw a parallel to their mission.

  • gpsgrrl

    I was a volunteer at the info booth at the Civic Center on Friday and also went to Taste on Sunday morning 11 sharp. I was sorry to hear that there was no food for volunteers, I kinda thought that was the point. But I was so busy at the booth, I wouldn’t have had time to eat. We went early and got lots of free hand outs at the vendors booths. We didn’t really get enough information from the organizers to adequately answer all the questions we were asked and the Slow Food people really were a bit clueless as well. But the crowd was in such a party mood that no one seemed to care. I had fun.

    Sunday at at Taste, the lines were fine and I got everything I wanted. We got into the cocktail area and those guys ALL let us taste every cocktail on one admission, so I probably got my $65 worth right there. Though in the interests of fair access, this should be cheaper and should have much better line management. There should ahve been more workshops, most were sold out before I even had a chance to look at them. Live and learn.

  • SFNVolunteer

    As a Slow Food pavilion volunteer who also worked the volunteer check-in table, I can tell you the volunteer organizers were in a really tough spot. The event was completely sold out, and I don’t think the Slow Food people were prepared enought for that. Because the food portions and vendor samples were a finite quantity, there was simply no way they could open up the food offers to the volunteers once all the tickets had been sold.

    Add to that the legions of freeloaders getting into the venue, who were all “friends of Chef X” or “friends of sponsor Y,” (including that odious Marcel from top Chef) and it’s a wonder that most of the paying ticket holders actually got anything to eat with their slow dough.

    Slow Food was a success in many ways, but it was also a victim of that success. Simply put, anyone who considered themselves “anyone” in the food scene fought their way in to be a part of the event. See this for a terrible example: http://blogs.chron.com/cookstour/archives/2008/09/guest_blogger_c_1.html

    What I found in the pavilions while working my station was the birth of a community of volunteers. Workers from other stations began bartering leftovers with us for scraps of our items. Booths where the lines had died down were generous with their surplus to any volunteer who walked by. When staying after to clean up in the kitchen, bottles of wine traded hands for pickles, prosciutto, and jams of all kinds.

    My experience was indeed very different, but that’s because I had low expectations and chose to take my payment in experiences; getting to shake Alice Waters’ hand, talking to Traci Des Jardins, and sharing the gift of Bison jerky I received from our awesome vendor with new friends in the Beer Tent after we closed everything down.

    I ended up walking away from the event with my arms full of samples, a wonderful volunteer gift bag, new friends, and memories that will last a lifetime.

    Instead of approaching these events with an expectation of what we will get, we should approach them with the thoughts of what we will give. Isn’t that the spirit of being a “volunteer?”

  • http://www.grubreport.com Stephanie

    SFN Volunteer, I’m glad you had such a good experience.

    As for your final question: “Instead of approaching these events with an expectation of what we will get, we should approach them with the thoughts of what we will give. Isn’t that the spirit of being a ‘volunteer?’” well, like I said, freebies aside, what really irked me was how we were treated. And as I said before, I have volunteered my entire life and not expected anything but a great experience, which I got from those various volunteerings. I also got treated with respect and kindness.

    As for the selling-out aspect, that dos/donts document was sent out way before they were reacting to a “crush” of people.

    I’m glad you took your payment in other ways, but personally, I’d trade shaking Alice Waters hand for common decency. But that’s just me.

  • http://slowfoodcolumbus.org Bear

    Hi Stephanie,

    First, as one of the leaders of a Slow Food chapter, I’m saddened by your experience. Slow Food is grounded in a desire to spread the enjoyment and love of food, first and foremost; I wasn’t at SFN, but it does seem to me that denying that enjoyment to the volunteers is a policy that is antithetical to the organization’s nature and should be reconsidered before the next iteration of this event.

    It also saddens me to read so many comments from people who view the Slow Food movement as promising but see Slow Food USA as narrow, exclusionary, or elitist. Slow Food USA is a member-based organization. It is, in the end, what we, collectively, make it. Speaking only for our chapter’s leadership, we don’t want it to be narrow, exclusionary, or elitist. We want it to be a vehicle for people to learn how to savor their food, and by extension, their lives, and we want it to be a workshop for positive social change. We’re devoting a LOT of time to making our little corner of the organization meet those goals.

    To be completely candid, little is to be gained by just complaining to the blogosphere about how elitist Slow Food USA is. If you love the lower-case-s, lower-case-f vision, don’t walk away from the organization. Join it, and change it. Make your voice heard. Get to know your chapter leaders and tell them what you’d like out of the organization. Start by suggesting freeform get-togethers at a coffee shop or a wine bar or a farm or someone’s house where you can just talk, without any particular agenda. (We call ours “Slow Wine,” and it’s proven to be surprisingly popular.) Keep the lines of communication with your chapter leaders open. They’ll appreciate your feedback, and you might even find that they’re not quite as elitist or snobby as you think. (Or you might not. But it’s worth getting to know them better to find out!)

  • sam

    Bear – this is a very interesting comment and I agree that little is to be gained by simply complaining to the blogosphere, but most people around here can be given credit for trying to do much more than just that. I don’t think we have to join the organisation to make our voices heard. (Many of us have blogs and we use them to promote good ethical food values anyway). There are many, many people who live a slow food life but who feel they don’t need to join an ‘organisation’. (I tried joining SF for a year and gave up on it, because I didn’t find ‘my kind of people’ or events that interested me there. My kind of people I found via my blog instead.) I already know many local slow foodies with a lower case s & f. We already meet up in the kinds of places you mention, break bread together, cook for each other and discuss all the issues surrounding food politics that I imagine Slow Food does too. What does anyone have to gain if this is done under the umbrella of an organisation? I just can’t see that working as well as the current relaxed and easy way of doing things. We have a great network of alike-thinking people, we are walking the talk and we share our knowledge. I think we are better suited not being put in that box.

  • http://slowfoodcolumbus.org Bear

    Hi Sam, and thanks. The answer to your question will vary from person to person because we each to some extent get out of an organization what we put into it, so this will be a rather subjective answer.

    I pay my dues every year, rather than just gathering and cooking with friends, for a few reasons. First, they go to good causes. If you look at the variety of Ark of Taste and Raft programs, not to mention grants, after-school programs, etc., that Slow Food sponsors, they’re doing a lot to promote biodiversity and taste education that I couldn’t hope to do on my own.

    Second, being a part of the organization gives me a bit more leverage than I might otherwise have in terms of helping to promote good, clean, and fair food. One of the Central Ohio producers whom my wife worked hard to get to Slow Food Nation ended up being mentioned both in the New York Times and the Washington Post, and she’s been getting calls from around the country ever since. I’ve just received some coffee samples from Slow Food Presidium producers in Guatemala that I’ll be taking around to local coffee roasters in an attempt to see whether they’d be interested in carrying the coffee. That doesn’t even count the events and taste education seminars we run locally. We just got started in March… and we couldn’t do any of these things without the organization behind us. My guess is that there are some things that you’d like to see changed — whether it’s in your local area or in the country — and that you’d find it easier to do it as part of Slow Food.

    Finally, Slow Food is the most prominent organization in the world that seeks to represent a way of life that I believe in quite strongly, and I want it to remain true to its core values. If you love a “relaxed and easy” way of doing things, you probably want that too. Don’t think of joining Slow Food as being squeezed into a box. If enough people like you join, the box will fit YOU, not the other way around!

  • Paul

    I am sorry to hear that this event wasn’t run with more professionalism, but then this does happen at these types of events. I would have walked if I had to put up with this type of treatment, especially if I had volunteered. But I have to say, that in my 15 years as a professional cook, I have seen restaurants ran with as much consideration for the staff as what you described. Working eight hours straight with no breaks on a crowded line is bad enough, but at least you get paid a few bucks.

  • Pete

    It sounds like you got Slow Food figured out. According to the web site, Slow Food got their 60,000, but then they claim 100 lb of food for the homeless from a vegetable installation that would under the best of circumstances produce maybe 30.

    I left Slow Food in disgust a couple of years ago when a couple of friends were, for want of a better word, deposed. I wasn’t even tempted to go to SFN, and I feel pretty good about a weekend spent in a real garden and a farmers’ market after reading this.

    You don’t need a cult to eat and live well. Slow Food didn’t invent real food and they are not responsible for bringing it back. They just take credit for it. There’s something incongruous about an organization with a mandate telling you how to eat. Creepy, really.