Pearson: Slow food nourishes culture and community

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Carlo Petrini was slowly being bent out of shape. He loved Italy, especially its food and culture. He became a well-known writer about food in his favourite land but was growing increasingly worried about how the modern food system — its speed, low cost, and ultimately its low nutritional value — was overtaking the best parts of Italian culture.

Petrini wasn’t alone in his concerns, as around the world more research was emerging about how a globalized food system was in the process of altering the way of life of communities that had once been bonded by their natural love of food and its ability to draw people together. But he was perhaps the most exercised about the sea change he felt was stripping cultures of some of their most valued practices of coming together, deliberating, and finding shared commonality. So he did something about it and kicked off what was called the slow food movement.

That was thirty years ago and nothing has dampened what he created. For want of a better term, Petrini has become the movement’s prophet, and its influence has spread around the globe. He had witnessed his own country transform in a few years as a kind of collective alienation emerged around the producing and consumption of food. He elaborated this idea in the Independent:

“The umbilical cord that had once connected the worlds of farmer and consumer was cut. Today, hardly anyone buys their wine directly from their trusted wine maker, or goes to the farm to buy eggs and a chicken or a rabbit. Hardly anybody knows the baker who makes their bread, the charcutier who slaughters the pigs and cures the meat, the man who churns the milk of his sheep or goats to make cheese.”

All this sounds something like a trip down memory lane, a nostalgic wish for times past. But Petrini and the slow food movement have a case to make. There has been a growing awareness that the global food supply isn’t nearly as secure, nutritious or, in many cases, even as economical as the food that is produced domestically.

There are many in the slow food movement who remain concerned over these issues but, for Petrini, the greatest loss is that of local culture. Obviously, in a country like Italy, culture is one of its greatest attractions and building blocks, but even in Canadian cities such as London, the slow food idea is offering us other alternatives.

Proof is readily found in farmer’s markets and specialty food shops. For all their advantages (parking, accessibility, food variety), larger grocery stores find it difficult to develop a local food culture when most shoppers are in and out within minutes. Citizens demand a selection of options, including the larger stores, but it is becoming clear in London that an increasing number of shoppers delight in the atmosphere produced by markets, stalls, food incubators, and “boutique” food shops.

The same holds true for growers and producers. That “umbilical cord” Petrini says has been cut between growers and consumers is joined again as farmers bring their products to local markets, mixing and mingling with the very consumers eager to purchase their offerings. And nothing short of a surge has been moving across London because of local citizens growing and consuming products through an urban agriculture infrastructure that has become an essential component of the London Plan. People don’t just want to consume; they want to grow products for their families and their community.

Petrini intriguingly states that what we call “modern” is actually out of date. Growing food movements are proving him to be right. The antiseptic, packaged, and distant aspects of the prevailing global system are increasingly losing their edge to local networks, suppliers and consumers who yearn, not only for healthier food, but for the culture they bring to all they touch.

It is time to acknowledge and build our lives around the reality that food isn’t merely something we eat but a value that defines us. We are more than mere consumers; we are cultural citizens ready to build our communities around the very food and land we all share.

Glen Pearson is co-director of the London Food Bank and a former Liberal MP for the riding of London North Centre.

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