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Preserving biodiversity, promoting local foods: An interview with Slow Food-USA’s Gordon Jenkins

Gordon Jenkins is the Network Engagement Manager with Slow Food USA. Gordon joined Slow Food in 2009 to help organize the Time for Lunch campaign. He grew up in Berkeley, CA, eating McDonald’s Happy Meals and boneless skinless chicken breasts. In college, he worked as a student farmer at the Yale Farm, where he began to see food activism as a very local, personal solution to the world’s many crises. He has worked in Alice Waters’ Office at Chez Panisse and as Content Coordinator for Slow Food Nation, which took place over Labor Day 2008 in San Francisco.

Why is it important to preserve America’s food traditions and safeguard food biodiversity? How does Slow Food-USA work to achieve this goal through its network of local chapters?

The Slow Food chapter in Memphis started a farmer’s market in a neighborhood without many healthy food options. (Photo credit: Slow Food Memphis)The Slow Food chapter in Memphis started a farmer’s market in a neighborhood without many healthy food options. (Photo credit: Slow Food Memphis)We live in an era where a single pest can wipe out an entire region’s harvest, because that region is only growing one or two types of crops. Our food traditions are not only a big part of our identity, they also provide the diversity that is integral to healthy, resilient ecosystems. They’re the foods we enjoy the most, and they’re also the environmental solutions that are going to shape the future.

I love that in my community I can buy hand-made tortillas, heirloom apples and heritage pork–these foods are all more delicious than the standardized processed foods I can find in any supermarket. And when I buy those foods, I help farmers build healthier ecosystems. As an organization, Slow Food works to preserve biodiversity by helping people find local foods in their region. Across the country, Slow Food chapters organize food meet-ups and workshops and help producers get access to new seeds and ingredients.

What are some of the activities and events that local chapters organize to encourage better/healthier food habits within local communities?

I’m inspired every day by what our 225 chapters in the United States do to make their communities more like they want them to be. Slow Food Denver, for example, runs a network of 35 school gardens to teach healthy eating to public school students. Slow Food Memphis has started a farmer’s market in a neighborhood without many healthy food options. And in the Seacoast region of New Hampshire, Slow Food organizes regular potlucks so people can trade recipes and shopping tips. These chapters are all volunteer-led. It’s amazing what groups of committed people can do together.

How is Slow Food-USA working to promote these values in schools and harness the youth’s potential in creating a fairer, cleaner food system?

We dream of a world where there are more school gardens than McDonald’s.

I think it’s possible. There’s so much energy, especially among parents, for improving children’s food environments. Last year, Slow Food chapters helped start or expand over 300 school gardens, reaching more than 50,000 kids. And what we’re finding is that as soon as children get involved in the planting and cooking, they become a lot more willing to eat the fruits and vegetables they used to think were yucky.

In December 2010, President Obama signed the Healthy, Hungry-Free Kids Act into law. What progress has the government made and what are organizations like Slow Food-USA doing to ensure that students across the country eat healthier lunches?

The school lunch legislation that passed is a step forward and I think it softens the ground for some bigger changes to come. But it’s ultimately up to the people – to you and to me – to make sure those changes happens. Our Time for Lunch campaign was a milestone for Slow Food—we had a flood of new people join because they wanted to do something about school food, and with those people we were able to send over 150,000 emails and phone calls to Congress. We’ve need to maintain that pressure and make sure that Congress makes school food a public priority.

How does Slow Food-USA engage communities politically around the idea of food? What are some of the ways that your organization works to make food issues an important priority for the government?

There are millions of people who’ve read Michael Pollan’s book or who’ve seen their family farm decline, and many people are now aware that government subsidies and policies have played a big role in creating this unhealthy, unjust food system. We work to open doors and give people opportunities to do something about it. Whether it’s creating a national campaign, pushing elected officials to raise school lunch standards, or helping local Slow Foodchapters push their own political agendas, our role as an organization is to use our collective power for positive change.

The U.S. Food and Farm Bill – the government’s key food and agriculture policy tool – is up for reform this year. What are some of the most important changes that you hope to see?

I think we’re approaching a historic opportunity with the next Food and Farm Bill. As far as I can remember, never before have so many people been aware of its impact on their daily lives and the food that is available to them. I hope to see the next Bill prioritize making healthy food more available and affordable. And I hope it levels the playing field for farmers who want to make a living growing food they can be proud of.

At Nourishing the Planet, we are researching local innovations in agriculture that can be scaled up or replicated around the world. How does your organization (through its broader international network) promote food activism as a way to address the many inter-connected problems around the world?

Food is at the core of so many of our global problems, including hunger, obesity, energy, climate change, economic disparity, and on and on. But it’s also something that unites us— everyone eats. We all have a stake in fixing problems in the food system— and we all have the ability to participate in the solutions. We can participate as individuals, by the food choices we make; and we can participate as communities and countries, by the actions we take together to create the world we want to see. There’s power in working together and eating together. That’s what Slow Food is all about.

Janeen Madan is a Communications Associate with Nourishing the Planet.

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