Jerusha Klemperer of Slow Food USA

Mar 1, 2011

Jerusha Klemperer, associate director of programs at Slow Food USA, explains the differences between slow and fast food and discusses food equity--how to make slow food more affordable and more widely available.  

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: Welcome to Just Business, a series of interviews about global business practices. I'm Julia Taylor Kennedy, and today we're talking about worldwide access to food and the explosion of information and activism surrounding food and its supply chain.

I'm here at the Slow Food USA headquarters. We're in a converted warehouse, so if you hear some rumbles and noise, that's why. It's really a great grassroots office space here.

I'm here with the organization's associate director of programs and a prolific blogger, both personally and professionally, Jerusha Klemperer.

Jerusha, thanks so much for joining me on Just Business.


JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: Before we start, let me just say that it's quite fitting that your offices are here in Brooklyn, because the shops, the Brooklyn Flea Market, everything, is full of a hyper-local, hyper-slow focus on food.

Tell me about how the slow food movement arrived here in Brooklyn.

JERUSHA KLEMPERER: Slow food began in Italy in the late 1980s in response to the encroachment of fast-food culture into what had been a really strong and regionally specific food culture up until that time. We all think of Italy as the birthplace of delicious home-cooked food in many ways, and that was the case. Then, suddenly, there was this advancement of fast food and fast-food values into the food culture.

It started as a philosophy and a movement and grew into an international organization that took root in the United States a little over ten years ago. It started with a very small office initially in the original executive director's apartment, then moved to a small office in downtown Manhattan at the French Culinary Institute, and then eventually across the river to Brooklyn, our spiritual home, where we've been for over five years.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: Tell me about what "slow food" means, because a lot of people throw around the terms "organic," "local," and "slow" food and don't really understand the distinction. I would like to know more about it. Specifically what is slow food and what does it mean?

Slow food is the opposite of fast food. Just as with fast food the "fast" refers to how quickly it is made and gets to our mouth, and maybe even how quickly it goes through the system. There's also a set of values associated with it that maybe the fast-food industry wouldn't necessarily own but that the rest of us can perceive from the outside.

The hallmarks of fast food are that it is the same everywhere you go all over the world. If I eat a Big Mac in Cleveland, it tastes pretty much the same as a Big Mac in Tokyo. There's a sense of comfort that people get from that, like, "Oh yeah, I know a Big Mac. Great."

But slow food is regionally specific. Slow food is about knowing where you are because of the food you're eating. You know you're in New York City because where else would you get a New York slice?

Also, fast food is a product of an industrialized food system. For those people who've read Schlosser's amazing book Fast Food Nation, you know that story of the industrialization of potatoes to be made into French fries, the industrial meat supply system that's very efficiently made into those burgers that we can get all over.

Slow food is more about small-to-mid-size food production. It's about shortening that distance between the producer and the consumer. It's about a food system in which it is much easier to know the story behind your food. When you eat fast food, it's unlikely that you could understand or piece together how all of those pieces got to you.

Finally, there's that culture piece, which is fast food is what you eat on your own when you're in a hurry. Maybe you eat it in your car, maybe you even eat it walking down the street, or alone at the restaurant quickly and then go. Slow food is really about food that you make together and that you eat together. It's about community building.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: Is it possible to eat slow and eat out?

JERUSHA KLEMPERER: Absolutely. It's important that slow food not be didactic. It's not about "don't eat this" or "this can't be slow" or "that isn't slow."

On the one hand, there's an obvious answer, which is that the number one trend last year, according to the National Restaurant Association, was local, sustainable. Whether or not a restaurant is actually making good on that is another story. But in terms of restaurants around the country, probably focused mostly in the big cities, there's a real trend towards chefs paying attention to where their ingredients come from and providing food for their customers that's local, seasonal, and sustainable. The customers are demanding it, and so restaurants are having to answer that demand, which is great.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: How did you get involved in slow food?

JERUSHA KLEMPERER: One of the things that's a common thread between all the people who work here is that none of us are here because it was like, "I wanted to do something and there was a job available there." We're all here because we have a strong personal passion about the issues.

For me that started as I was more and more interested in the story behind my food. It probably started with an early stint with vegetarianism. That was based on concerns that I didn't feel comfortable killing an animal myself. I didn't even feel that comfortable at the time handling a whole chicken. I was definitely, like all of us, very much a victim to the "Oh, it's shrinkwrapped and it's cut up," or whatever. I knew that there was something not quite right about that, and until I made peace with that process, I was going to just not eat meat.

Once you start asking one question about your food and the process of how it got there, whether it's about, "What was the experience like for this animal?" it's kind of hard not to start asking a lot more questions, like peeling away the layers of an onion.

That personal journey led me to a career shift. I said, "This is really important to me." At the time—this was a little over five years ago—the food movement—probably we wouldn't have even used that phrase "the food movement"—was really nascent, burgeoning, one of those words, a part of this transformation and this growing movement.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: You've written a lot about ideas of food equity. One of the major criticisms that has grown up around this local food movement is that there's a premium on local, organic, and sustainable food.

How can we bridge that gap to bring local, sustainable food to people of all classes, food deserts, and to parts of the city that may not have access?

JERUSHA KLEMPERER: It's a fantastic question. It's the most important question right now; all of the other ones matter half as much as this one.

As with most things, the approach that I'm interested in right now is coming at this from all sides. There are changes that need to happen in federal food policy. The farm bill, what we like to call the food environmental, is coming up in 2012. There are essential changes that need to happen in that bill. That's a big piece of legislation that houses everything from the subsidies for commodity crops, which really affect food pricing, all the way to the snack program and the WIC program. All of this funding for low-income people, for the national school lunch program, it all gets determined in the food and farm bill. There's a lot of power right there in that piece of legislation.

At the same time, there are also things that can and are and need to happen on a grassroots level. That's everything from local to statewide efforts. In New York City, Greenmarket is the organization that runs a lot of our farmers' markets, and they've made a huge push in the past couple of years to make EBT machines [Electronic Benefits Transfer; debit cards for food stamps] available at as many farmers' markets as possible. At the same time, they have also made pushes to spread the farmers' markets and have them in more neighborhoods.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: EBT being food stamps?


You can have that on a local level. Also these become demos for other communities to see what's possible as well.

In Detroit, for example, and I think all around Michigan, the Fair Food Network is a relatively new organization that has the Double-Up Food Bucks Program. There's a few examples of this in other places around the country. An organization called Fullsome Wave is working on that.

New York City has a Health Bucks program that's similar, which incentivizes people who are using the snack program and food stamps to get double value or extra value for fresh fruit and vegetables, which is such an amazing idea and program. Programs like this are multiplying around the country, which is fantastic. The more we have these really innovative pilot programs that can demonstrate that they're working, the more they will spread. That's a great example of things that happen locally and then in the federal structure.

Then there's this mid-range, which is about infrastructure changes. One of the reasons that slow food, as it were, is more expensive is because everything in our food system has been consolidated in such a way that really favors scale. Part of why it is so costly, especially for small farmers and producers to get their food to market, is because all of that small-scale infrastructure, like slaughterhouses and processing facilities that used to be there, is no longer there. So it's quite expensive. They're re-inventing the wheel on local levels all the time. It means that cost is high.

Innovation is out there, and all kinds of things with the pooling of resources, that can make a difference. But then we also need infrastructure changes on a larger level.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: When we're talking about infrastructure changes, it sounds like you think that the push really needs to come from the government. Do you think there are things that the private sector can be doing as well to change these models, or does there really have to be a fundamental shift in legislation?

We need both. It's funny. Our president at Slow Food, Josh Viertel, had a piece that came out just today online about his frustration with the answer he got from Obama when he posed a YouTube question to him during his live YouTube interview the day after his State of the Union address. He basically said, "Right now it's more expensive to feed your child fruit than it is to feed your child Froot Loops. What are you going to do to address that?" His answer was really inadequate, frankly.

It's hard to have a tremendous amount of faith in the government's ability to make all these things right, but it is an essential piece of the puzzle. At the same time, the private sector and grassroots movements need to be in there making change as well.

There's a lot of opportunity in the food business. There's a lot of opportunity in recreating some of that infrastructure. It's not a very glamorous or sexy proposition, but examples are opening a slaughterhouse, community kitchens, some of these businesses that are connecting rural farmers to the cities instead of each farmer having to individually drive into farmers' markets, and doing more of a consolidated effort of building storehouses where farmers can then drop off their stuff. Then there's one company using a fuel-efficient vehicle to drive into the city.

A lot of what makes things hard for farmers in rural areas is the disappearance of services like tractor repair, selling a lot of the equipment and the feed, and whatever these farmers need.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: There's a dearth of large-animal vets, for example.


In some ways it's going to be getting back into the business of things that we used to be in the business of. So there's a lot of business opportunity there.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: Do you worry that the slow food movement could go out of style? It could be, "Right now you need to pay attention to this cause," but in the future people won't be scrutinizing it as much?

In human rights for a while child labor was a big flashpoint and then it kind of faded. Are you worried about that happening with food?

JERUSHA KLEMPERER: That's a legitimate concern. I'm not sure how much it changes the work that you do. If you really believe in what you're doing, you build what it is that you're doing.

When I started Absolute Food almost five years ago, I would give interviews and people would ask me the same thing. I have only seen interest escalate since then.

The average person in the United States has so much more awareness of these issues than they had before. They have so much more interest. The number of farmers' markets has proliferated. Big businesses have made accommodations to these desires from consumers, everyone from Walmart to the proliferation of Whole Foods around the country. I am hopeful that this is something that is deepening and growing.

Consumers can be fickle. I have a little more hope in the idea of the movement growing and strengthening and that all of these little parts of the movement who may have been separate at one time are in the process of coming together and unifying, building strength.

I'm hopeful for growth and ascendency. We'll see.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: Why do you think that people have grabbed onto the concept of local sustainable food in a way that maybe hasn't happened with other consumer goods?

JERUSHA KLEMPERER: Food—I'm quoting someone else, I think probably Josh—food is a gateway drug. It's a real prism for all of these other issues.

First of all, everybody eats, hopefully at least a few times a day. It's something that means something to everyone, whether they know it or not

It's also the prism for issues like economics, personal health, environmental health, health-care issues in general, which are all big and important. It's really a way that you see all of these different things play out, and also a way that you can see solutions that solve through patterns. When you work on transforming the food system, you can make positive steps for environmental and human health all the way across the board. So because it's interconnected to all of these other issues, it means something to people.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: We've talked a lot about the U.S. I want to talk a little bit about the globe as well. As you mentioned, this is an international movement and it started in Europe. How has it caught on elsewhere beyond the U.S.?

JERUSHA KLEMPERER: I probably won't know as much about this, but I can speak a little on it. There are around five national associations around the world, which means, like us, there's an office and a more formal structure. But slow food has some kind of presence, even down to a few members or people who are engaged in some way, in over 150 countries around the world.

There's a conference that Slow Food International runs every other year, called Terra Madre, which brings about 5,000 people together from around the world to talk about small-scale sustainable food and farming issues.

This has traction in a lot of places.

There are still a few small, lovely enclaves in the world where they don't need slow food because they just are slow food.


JERUSHA KLEMPERER: We have someone on staff who used to work here who is from Nigeria. She just always used to say, "For my family there is no slow food. It's food, not slow." Oh, sweet, Nigeria.

But those corners of the globe are harder and harder to find. I think of this Burger King ad that came out, probably about two years ago— it was the "Whopper virgins" ad.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: No, I haven't seen that one.

JERUSHA KLEMPERER: It really incensed me. They basically found a few extremely remote corners of the Earth, including a little hamlet in Mongolia, where people had not ever tasted a Whopper—"Can you believe it?" They went through all of these great lengths to get a Whopper from the closest possible franchise and then put it in a hot-pack bag and whisked it to this small corner of the world where someone could taste a Whopper for the first time.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: I studied in Chile for a while, where of course they've had Whoppers for quite a long time. Chile is a huge exporter of food; lots of produce comes from Chile, grapes, et cetera, yet within the country of Chile those export foods were actually quite expensive because there were incentives to export it rather than keep it in the country. Is this something that happens elsewhere? Can you tell me a little bit about those incentives?

JERUSHA KLEMPERER: I'm not much of a world food economist, and there are people who could speak more knowledgeably about this. But it is absolutely true that countries, especially in Latin America, have had their food systems co-opted by world trade, by the export needs. Mexico is another great example, where there was a really strong local agricultural system and now all of that has been transformed into more big exports, and then that food is not affordable for the people who live there. It's problematic.

There is a world of thinking and a movement called Food Sovereignty, which is very much about looking at how can we get food production back into the hands of the people who live there so that that food is their food and that all of their agricultural knowledge and all that is spent on creating food will no longer just get exported and will be accessible to the people who live there.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: On the flip sign of the coin, Chile has done quite well economically, and for a lot of developing countries exporting food to the U.S. has been a source of economic benefit. This has always been a question for me; a way to support developing world farm production is often to support exports, right? How do you square that with the local food movement?

It's complicated. In all these things it always seems to me as a naïve grassroots—

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: You're not naïve at all. You're much more educated than I am on the subject.

JERUSHA KLEMPERER: It always strikes me that there is balance. There's a reason that we talk about slow food and that this isn't called "local food," because the local food economy of a place is often very much about specialty products that get shipped abroad as well.

Let's say I love olive oil, and that olive oil is going to come from Italy. Or let's say balsamic vinegar, which is a great example because much of it is made in this one little small region of Italy called Modena. The idea is that yes, when it comes to these specialty products that are really only made in one place, you want to support their local economy, which is about creating this specialty product and exporting it.

But then, getting my apples from Mexico when I live in one of the great apple-producing regions of the country, and maybe the world, doesn't make sense.

That's a really small-scale example that might not scale up when it comes to an entire agricultural economy for a place like Chile or Mexico. There are products for which it makes sense to import from elsewhere and products that it doesn't make sense.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: We just need to find specialty products from all of these developing countries to foster.


Sometimes it's about produce. As an American living in the northeast—and the truth is I don't eat a lot of these fruits as a result—but I love bananas, mango, and papaya. They do not grow anywhere near here. If I'm going to eat those things, they are going to be coming from abroad.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: You've mentioned that you see a lot more restaurants catering to this, that it was mentioned as a major new niche for restaurants to go into. How does a consumer find a restaurant that says it's slow and local and actually is? How does a business, on the other side, communicate that to their consumer and make sure that the consumer knows that this is the real deal?

On the most basic level, there's a couple of really good websites out there, like the Eat Well Guide or Local Harvest, where you can type in your Zip Code and it will tell you all of the local and sustainable purveyors, restaurants, and farm stands that are near you. Tools like these search engines are great.

Then, the other thing you can do is see if there's a Slow Food chapter near you. A lot of our Slow Food chapters on their website have a few places that they recommend.

Then it's really about asking questions. It feels awkward at first, no doubt, but ask your server, "Where did this come from? What's the story with this fish?"—especially fish is a huge one.

You'll find that a lot of the times your server doesn't know. If they do know, you're dealing with a restaurant that is really thinking about these things, because part of the way that they're talking to their servers is to say, "You need to know this stuff, the source of our food is important."

In other cases, it's important to the chef, but they haven't quite communicated to the staff, and the staff will go back into the kitchen and find out, then come out and let you know.

Then, there are people who are just sort of capitalizing on the phenomenon. What you can do is just ask questions and see what you can find out.

The most important thing for me is to say that as consumers we should ask a lot of questions and then we should just be savvy and street smart. I'm a New Yorker, so maybe I'm doubting everyone all the time, but I always think it's funny when people go to a local seasonal sustainable restaurant in New York City and they just totally assume—you know, it's February—everything on this menu is grown locally. You have to understand a little bit about the way that growing works and about what that means.

For a restaurant that's really committed to sourcing locally, seasonally, and sustainably, what that means is that from the month of May to October, if they're in the northeast, they're sourcing maybe 10 percent of their stuff locally—sorry, reverse that.


JERUSHA KLEMPERER: October to May they're doing maybe 10 percent locally. Then from May to October they're bumping that up to maybe 65-70 percent and doing a lot better. That's really reflective of the way that I eat. In the winter, I would have nothing to eat, I wouldn't have much to eat, but lots of root vegetables. My shopping habits are slightly different in the winter from what they are in the spring, summer, and fall.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: Those are times when you can build up a reservoir of local goodwill.


JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: When you are looking at that menu, you mentioned fish as a key menu item to watch out for. Are there other red flags that are hiding on grocery shelves or on menus?

JERUSHA KLEMPERER: Yes. We should all be deeply suspicious of any poultry or meat that we don't know exactly where it's coming from. That's not to say that I completely eschew those things all the time.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: You're a recovered vegetarian.

JERUSHA KLEMPERER: I'm a recovered vegetarian. But in my home I really try to be very particular. That's because the more you learn about industrial meat production, the more terrified you can and should become. The number one thing you can do is to decrease your meat consumption.

Industrial meat production is one of the more terrifying carpets one can start to peek underneath. As a result, it's a great starting point for a person who wants to make a change to their diet, to say, "Number one, I'm going to decrease the amount of meat I eat in general, and then that meat that I will eat I'm going to really focus on knowing where it comes from. I will make my best effort."

Obviously, this isn't possible for everyone, but for those people for whom it is a possibility—"I will do my best to buy my protein directly from a farmer at the farmers market, or off the farm, or from a butcher who is really clear about where they get their meat, or eating at a restaurant where they have made very clear where they're getting that meat."

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: I just wanted to end by asking you again about the equity question. You mentioned the bill that's coming up in a year that you're looking at. In the meantime, how can people get involved in their community to try and bring local food to underserved populations?

JERUSHA KLEMPERER: There's a few different ways. Farmers' markets and CSAs [community-supported agriculture] are really a very small part of a big fix that needs to happen.

But, that being said, there is room for the consumer/activist-generated farmers' market and CSA, that as a community member if you're not seeing these things you can be part of starting a push and a movement to get these things in your community.

Also, if you find that your local supermarket is not carrying fresh fruits and vegetables—it's not obvious in a lot of supermarkets whom you talk to to get things to change, but there is someone there. There is a supermarket manager, there is a buyer, there is someone. If you feel like the fruits and vegetables in your market are not fresh, if you're not seeing ones that appeal to you, if you have some desires or hopes or dreams, you should go in there and talk to the local manager. If it's part of a chain, get in touch with someone in the chain.

All of these places are catering to the consumer. I really do believe that as a consumer, regardless of your status in society, of your income-generating abilities, you have power in that your dollar, even if it's not $100.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: On the other end, the way to make the businesses more profitable you see as a legislative fix?

JERUSHA KLEMPERER: Yes. It's not necessarily a federal legislative fix. There's all kinds of things with zoning on city levels and state levels. People want to get involved in their community board. There are all different kinds of things. It's something that's really on the agenda of a lot of cities right now, especially to address food deserts. You can get in there and have your voice heard.

This issue of food deserts is on the national agenda as well, and there will be—and maybe already is—a lot of funding available for helping to get new retail ventures into food deserts.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: Great. Jerusha Klemperer, it has been such a pleasure to have you here on Just Business. Thanks so much for joining me.

JERUSHA KLEMPERER: My pleasure. Thanks.

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