“Think globally, act locally” is a mantra of our times. It is hard to imagine a need more universal than good, clean, fair food, or a place as local as a church basement on one college campus. The basement at 1127 University Avenue is where you’ll find many of the activities conceived and operated by the University of Wisconsin, Madison, chapter of Slow Food (SFUW.) But the story of SFUW, and their cause, does not begin, or remain, in a church basement.

The Global Picture: Slow Food International and Slow Food USA
Slow Food is an organization whose stated mission is to be an “international grassroots membership organization promoting good, clean and fair food for all.” It began in Bra, Italy in 1986 as a sort of protest against the encroachment of a well-known American fast food restaurant on the Italian food landscape. Bra is the hometown of Carlo Petrini, Slow Food Founder and President, who says “Slow Food unites the pleasure of food with responsibility, sustainability and harmony with nature.” Slow is the opposite of fast, “beginning with the table.” In 1989 the organization was formalized, in Paris, when 15 member nations designed and signed the Slow Food Manifesto.

The Manifesto points an accusing finger at the “virus” of speed, and asserts that the “fast life fractures our customs and assails us even in our own homes, forcing us to ingest ‘fast food.’” The “vaccine” to counteract the fast life, “…will start in the kitchen, with Slow Food. To escape the tediousness of ‘fast-food,’ let us rediscover the rich varieties and aromas of local cuisines.” The means to that end would include, “…cultivating taste, rather than impoverishing it, by stimulating progress, by encouraging international exchange programs, by endorsing worthwhile projects, by advocating historical food culture and by defending old-fashioned food traditions.” The Manifesto closes with the selection of a mascot: “With a snail purposely chosen as its patron and symbol, it is an idea and a way of life that needs much sure but steady support.” (All quotations from www.slowfood.com.)

Although conceived by an international conclave, the organization always envisioned an underpinning of independent convivia, or chapters, working on projects to defend, support, and enjoy their own local food culture. A Board and International Council govern the international group. In addition to operating multiple projects, they host a periodic Slow Food International Congress (the 6th Congress was held in 2012), publish books and journals, give awards to outstanding Slow Food practitioners and advocates, raise money for programs, and so forth, i.e., your basic overarching-organization type functions.

They have also expanded, refined and restated their organizing principles beyond the original manifesto. The Fifth International Congress, held in Puebla, Mexico in 2007, yielded an eloquent document called the Declaration of Puebla “as a pledge to continue the journey started 18 years earlier.” It concludes with the statement that, “This path we embarked upon in 1989 has moved from food to soil, from pleasure to justice, from quality to daily shopping, from the promotion of products to equal dignity for cultural diversity. We have reconfirmed it at Puebla thanks to the presence, reflections, energy and imagination of 414 delegates from 49 countries, representing more than 80,000 members from five continents.” Next, the Slow Food Manifesto for Quality introduced the concept, “good, clean and fair food” as the movement’s mission and slogan. Quality food, it says, should be:

  • GOOD: Food’s natural flavor and aroma should be enhanced, not altered, by producers; seasonal, local diets are encouraged
  • CLEAN: Agriculture and food production must be sustainable, protect ecosystems, biodiversity, and the health of consumers and producers.
  • FAIR: Social justice should be promoted in the treatment of agricultural labor and small-scale producers, the creation of balanced global economies, and respect for cultures and traditions.

The projects supported by the International organization are far too numerous to detail, but generally fall into four categories:

  1. Defend food biodiversity, principally through the Slow Food Foundation of Biodiversity, which promotes sustainable agriculture, and identification, protection and increase of heirloom plant and animal varieties and local processing traditions. The “Ark of Taste” project is a juried worldwide catalog of unique, “threatened” foods, both raw ingredients and processed items. The Ark program is also a marketing effort.
    The U.S. list currently totals 200 foods, ranging from the Amish Pie Squash to wild rice on the plant list, and Cotton Patch Duck to Tennessee Fainting Goat (!) on the animal list. You could spend half a day perusing the Ark items’ stories at www.slowfoodusa.org/index.php/programs/details/ark_of_taste.
  2. Terra Madre is the name given to the network of “those players in the food chain who together support sustainable agriculture, fishing, and breeding with the goal of preserving taste and biodiversity.” The thrust of this program is communication and marketing among Slow Food producers and supporters.
  3. Food and taste education, emphasizing farm tours, gardens, dinners and tastings for all ages. In 2003 Slow Food created the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Italy.
  4. Connecting producers and consumers, through major and local convivial food events and an international project called Earth Market. Earth Market recognizes and certifies farmers’ markets that feature producers attuned to Slow Food principles and programs like the Ark of Taste.

Since the beginning of Slow Food International, seven national organizations have formed to coordinate and fund Slow Food activities and projects in their geographic regions. Slow Food USA was established in 2000 and is headquartered in Brooklyn, NY; their project structure mirrors the four categories described above. They maintain an extremely informative website at slowfoodusa.org. Slow Food USA is a membership organization, the donation to join is tax-deductible, and a portion of the donation goes to your choice of a local chapter. SFUSA claims 25,000 members, 250,000 supporters, and 225 local chapters (there are 5 chapters in Wisconsin, including an active group in Madison.)

Acting Locally: Slow Food, UW Madison
Let’s leave the global picture and fly back to University and Charter, to the campus chapter, the smallest unit in the Slow Food (SF) universe, but the largest, and one of the first, of the 46 US campus chapters.

UW graduate student Genya Erling, who at the time already had a passion for SF principles, involvement with SFUSA, and one international Terra Madre Conference under her belt, established SFUW in 2007-2009. Genya, a rural Wisconsin native, and her cohorts wanted to bring local foods to campus, one meal at a time. They started with small group dinners held in the bottom of Science Hall. In a 2011 interview with Edible Madison magazine, Genya said, “one goal {for the SFUW} was to prove that local food doesn’t have to be elitist. I also wanted to create a group with a sense of community, and for people to learn from cultural experiences rather than just having things taught to them. For example… Slow Food UW helped sponsor the first Celebrate South Madison Festival, which kicked off the summer farmers market with art, film, dance and workshops.”

In a few short years, and with a changing cast of volunteer student leaders at the helm, SFUW has grown to an organization boasting more than 2,000 internet followers, with 32 dedicated (unpaid) student interns focused on five major projects. The core leadership interns commit to an academic year with a project, and work with dozens of interested students and community volunteers. The interns have faculty contacts they work with to garner academic credit, otherwise faculty input is minimal. Each week during the school year SFUW serves hundreds of students, and others, low cost, freshly cooked meals made with locally grown and sourced ingredients. The students also participate in off-campus service projects, “working with food as a vehicle for social change and a way to build a stronger community.” These are the five projects they pursue:

Family Dinner Night
SFUW leases a basement community room, complete with adjoining fully equipped and health-inspected kitchen, at 1127 University Avenue (The Crossing campus ministry) to accommodate most of their on-campus events. It is here that Family Dinner Nights and the Slow Food Café lunches, SFUW’s two dining projects, are planned, prepared and served. Monday Family Dinner Night is the older tradition, but the number of folks dining together has grown from a group of 25 at Science Hall to a regular seating of 100-130; diners reserve a spot online for the inexpensive, usually themed dinners (early birds who volunteer to help with clean-up get a free meal). “The Family Dinner Night interns work with student organizations, local Madison chefs, students, staff and faculty to provide a different experience each week.” (SFUW.com/family-dinner-night) The organizers shop at farmers’ markets for fresh ingredients or source them directly from local farmers, and in the winter use canned and frozen ingredients, prepared in season by interns and volunteers, and kept in the basement kitchen. Ingredients they cannot source locally, like bulk spices and baking products, are purchased through the Willy Street Co-op. The purpose of the dinners? To demonstrate that a full plate of healthy, fresh, locally sourced food can be had on a student budget. And the dinners are relaxed, social affairs that build community and support local businesses.

Slow food café lunches
Slow Food Café began in 2011 with similar goals, but was also envisioned as an opportunity for the students to experience, by doing, the operation of a cooperative, non-profit, environmentally and socially conscious food business. According to the SFUW webpage, “Our goal is for customers and volunteers to learn about the people and places we get our food from and to discover the positive community impact of a cafe where students prepare fresh food using ingredients from farmers in south central Wisconsin.” The students gain experience in restaurant-level cooking, business management, and finance, and may also receive academic credit. The Café is open from 11:30am-2:00pm on Wednesdays when school is in session. Lunch is served on a drop in basis, with upwards of 300 people dropping in for the delicious and inexpensive fare. The weekly menu is put on the website and Facebook a few days ahead, and usually includes multiple entrée and side dish choices, dessert and beverages. Prices for entrées are around $5, coffee and dessert cost about $3. There are posters about Wisconsin farms prominently displayed in the dining room, and each table sports brochures about that day’s food providers, including the Co-op. Local businesses may set up tables publicizing and/or selling food and fair-trade merchandise.

I ate at the Café on April 17th; a special brunch menu was served that day. I feasted on donut pancakes (imagine a pillowy soft pancake covered with maple syrup icing), root vegetable and potato hash, berry fool on a homemade graham cracker and Just Coffee coffee. It was all good. I’m not a food expert, but Stephanie Bedford, restaurant reviewer for the Capitol Times, has credentials; she had these things to say about the Café’ in her Let’s Eat for $7.70 column review published last February:
“I’ve fallen head over heels for the Slow Food UW Café, which pops up every Wednesday at lunchtime in the basement of a campus church…The ambience was like an anti-corporate version of Disneyland—substitute Alice Waters for Mickey Mouse…The sandwiches rivaled anything I’ve had from a high-end professional kitchen at lunch anywhere in town…Maybe you don’t believe in love at first sight, but for me and the Slow Food Café, It’s the real thing.”

After my meal I chatted with intern Amy Verhey, Café and Membership Director, and social media coordinator. She filled me in on the other SFUW ongoing projects and we talked about what impacts she thought the organization was making on the local, sustainable food environment.

South Madison
The project called South Madison is a collection of off-campus activities with a predominantly service emphasis, and seeks, in part, to provide a deeper connection between the student participants and the nearby community. Volunteers distribute SFUW information and help with events at the South Madison Farmers’ Market, patronize the market for the dining projects, and encourage other folks on campus to visit the market and local South Madison businesses. Beyond the Market, and in partnership with the Boys and Girls Club, students organize Teen Cooking Nights, featuring fresh-cooked but simple dishes using market ingredients, provide home-cooked brunches for Family Voices participants (a Saturday educational program), help in classrooms and assist with youth gardens. This project has received grant money and faculty direction from the Community-University Exchange (CUE) program of the UW Morgridge Center for Public Service.

Farm to University Project
Getting more fresh, local food into the hands and stomachs of UW students is the overarching goal of the Farm to University project. The students have worked with the dormitory food services to host periodic “locally-sourced” meals in dining halls, and tirelessly advocate for a larger share of local foods in the giant University food stream. A free guidebook to local fresh food sources, envisioned as a giveaway to all dormitory residents, is in the works. SFUW also partners with Growing Power, a nonprofit organization based out of Milwaukee that works to provide high-quality, safe, healthy, and affordable food to Wisconsin residents. Their Market Basket program consists of weekly deliveries of fresh fruits and vegetables; SFUW facilitates online orders for the program, and their room at the Crossing is a pick up location.

Outreach project
Lastly, the Outreach project is an amalgam of efforts to take the Slow Food message to the campus community. Students do cooking demonstrations in the dorms, hold movie and munchies nights, invite chefs and farmers to give lectures, organize farm tours, and partner with other like-minded student organizations to demonstrate and spread the Slow Food message.

I asked Amy Verhey, how is SFUW making an impact here? She told me for starters, the weekly meals are an affordable, real alternative to most of the food students can buy on campus. Slow food comes with stories and transparency about who, where, by whom, and how it was grown and prepared, and it tastes good! Outreach helps students eat fresh and local foods, even in the dorms. Connections and experiences gained through SFUW stay with the participants long after graduation. SFUW buys a lot of meal ingredients; they are steadfastly committed to supporting local food producers and suppliers, from farmers to businesses like the Co-op and Just Coffee, with their food budget. For some small market growers an SF order has significant financial benefit.

SFUW doesn’t grow their own garden because they want to give a farmer a customer. They also personalize suppliers with Café literature, and meet and greet events.
We all know that students will work hard for experience and meaning, and their presence in a community produces positive results. In the 2011-12 school year, 13 SFUW interns rendered close to a 1000 hours of community service to the South Madison project. Here is a partial description of their impact, by intern Cara Ladd:
“The collaboration between the Slow Food UW and Family Voices in South Madison resulted in the children who were enrolled in the program being able to participate in food preparation as educational enrichment while expanding their palates to include more fruits, vegetables, meatless main courses and lower sugar treats. The parents looked forward to the new and delicious meals that their children helped prepare and sometimes serve. Similarly, the Slow Food UW students’ passion and enthusiasm for cooking during the Teen Cooking Nights attracted young students into the kitchen to help cook, tell     stories and bond over food preparation and sharing.” (cue.morgridge.wisc.edu/slow-food-uw-expands-work-in-south-madison/)
Fortunately, the campus community has not overlooked the efforts of SFUW. In April, 2013, Slow Food UW was awarded the Dean’s Award of Excellence, which is presented annually to the student organization that excels in three criteria: The Wisconsin Experience, discovery, and innovation. Congratulations, students!
SFUW also garnered status this year as a national 501(c)3 not-for-profit organization. This means they can accept tax-deductible donations, expand their fundraising efforts, and they get a tax rebate for the past two years. They see their new status as a real opportunity to expand their future good, clean, fair food mission.

I also asked Amy how the Reader audience could help SFUW. She said, talk about SFUW, spread awareness of what they are doing; donate a talent or materials to the Outreach program, teach a cooking class or give a talk or demonstration on a food topic. Donations (now tax deductible) are always welcome, or volunteer for an activity. You can get more information and follow them on social media, take your pick of Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, or the weekly newsletter at slowfooduw.com. Be sure to visit slowfooduw.com for the student profiles and the events calendar. There may be a few SFUW summer activities, but readers, watch for the return of the weekly meals in the fall, you’ll want to give them a try.

Me, I’m headed to the penultimate Wednesday Slow Food Café. Some seared asparagus is calling my name; I hope I’m not too late to get some! Bon Appetit!