This column is our first editorial, where we reach out to those in the know for a first-person perspective on a particular issue. Here Kris Vester, President of Slow Food Calgary, discusses the benefits of local food for Alberta, its citizens and the environment.
Good. Clean. Fair.
I have a long history with these three words. Recollection takes me back more than 30 years to my youth and an outstanding hockey referee in my small Alberta town, a referee who would later become my mentor when I became a ref myself.
“Let’s have a good, clean, fair game!” was his pre-game exhortation to the teams about to take the ice.
It is hard to argue with this approach in sports, professional or amateur, as it is intended to ensure that all parties involved are given their due respect, and that the integrity of this cultural phenomenon, sport, not be demeaned or undermined.
While I was in my early teens growing up in Alberta, in Italy an entirely different series of events was leading to these same three words. Inspired by their love for their diverse regional cuisines and the local agricultures which made them possible, and motivated by a profound disdain for and distrust of the homogenizing culture of fast food and the industrial agriculture which makes it possible, a group of activists, gastronomes, environmentalists and leftists was organizing around and against the opening of the first McDonalds in Rome. Out of this organizing, the Slow Food movement was born. The motto of the movement?
Good. Clean. Fair.
The Slow Food movement grew quickly, spreading first throughout Europe and then around the globe, with current membership estimated at about 100,000 in 150 countries, organized around 1,300 local chapters, called convivia, from the Latin for "living together." Although Slow Food inspired many "slow" trends - Slow Money, Slow Parenting, Slow Journalism, Slow Cities, etc., arguably, Slow Food’s most important contributions have been in initiating public debate about food, its provenance, its deep cultural significance and its future.
Slow Food Calgary was founded in 1999 by a group of restaurateurs, entrepreneurs, farmers, chefs and food writers. It held its first event, Feast of Fields, on Prince’s Island Park in September of that year. Despite an unwelcome dump of wet snow on the day of the event, it was, by all accounts, a success, and the seeds of Slow Food were sown in Calgary’s local culture.
Like many of Slow Food Calgary’s events, Feast of Fields was built on the principle of pairing producers with chefs/restaurants, and was key to many local food producers building lasting relationships with chefs, restaurateurs and the broader public. Its legacy is, in part, the strong foundation of a local food system, which Calgary enjoys today.
I returned to Alberta and to my family’s small farm in 1998, having turned my back on an academic career path in favour of an undertaking that I hoped would be much more grounded, one that would keep me well rounded and more relevant to my fellow citizens.
By 2007 my business, Blue Mountain Biodynamic Farms, had grown to the point where I was no longer working off the farm and somehow, I had come to the attention of the folks who were running Slow Food Calgary. I was invited to be a guest speaker at a Summer Solstice Event and this invitation would not only change the course of my life, as I connected with the extraordinary woman who is now my wife, it would also, in time, change the direction of the Slow Food movement in Calgary.
The gist of my presentation to those in attendance was that while it was all well and good that they could afford to eat this incredibly delicious, local food, it was a self-congratulatory indulgence, one which very few could afford. The "fair" part of the Slow Food motto was not only intended to refer to a food producer’s ability to make a fair living, but was also a reminder to all that social inequity and injustice are serious issues both locally and globally, and that those involved in the Slow Food movement should always be guided by a commitment to fairness, equality and justice.
Although I could see the eyes of some well-heeled Calgarians glaze over as I admonished them for their cavalier acceptance of issues of accessibility to good, clean, fair food, overall my words were received positively. The Steering Committee of Slow Food Calgary invited me to join them at the table and I accepted.
In 2008, I was nominated to attend Terra Madre, Slow Food’s bi-annual gathering of producers, chefs, academics and youth, held in Turin, Italy. The Alberta delegation was Canada’s largest, comprised of nearly 80 farmers, chefs and academics. The experience was transformative for many of us, and the local network of food producers, chefs and others who were in attendance is still strong in Alberta. Whether for business reasons or just for the sake of socializing, the relationships, which grew out of this shared experience, have endured and continue to give us strength through our shared challenges and aspirations.
In August of 2009, our farm, along with many others in our region, was devastated by a hailstorm of epic proportions. More than 95% of our grain crops were completely destroyed and our 4 acres of vegetables were shredded beyond recognition. We carried no crop insurance and the losses were significant enough that I knew I would not be able to survive them financially. Unbeknownst to me, the Slow Food community and our own community of supporters, built over years on the basis of a shared love of good, clean, fair food, organized a fundraiser for us. The outcome of this event was well beyond our expectations, and apart from re-affirming the connection we shared with so many extraordinary Albertans, it allowed us to continue farming. The gratitude my wife and I felt then has never really diminished, and to this day we continue to do what we can to support this community, whether it means volunteering our time or donating products to a good cause, sending funds to those in need or mentoring a younger generation of passionate individuals who dream of becoming farmers.
I became the leader of the Slow Food Calgary convivium in 2010 and in the years that followed, as our board of directors went through a generational change, the direction of Slow Food Calgary changed significantly to better reflect the philosophy and aspirations of its leadership.
What began as an effort to find a place at the table for locally produced foods by creating events that were popular with the fine-dining crowd, has now come to be much more focused on efforts to engage and educate the public on the many complex issues surrounding food and agriculture in the 21st Century.
There are myriad reasons to support the goals and principles of the Slow Food movement, be it for the clear economic benefits which result from purchasing local food as opposed to imported food, or for the less tangible benefits created by a thriving domestic agricultural and culinary sector. Every dollar spent on food produced in Alberta generates approximately $2.20 in spin-off benefits. A vibrant local food scene becomes a destination for visitors from Canada and from abroad, bringing more revenue to local restaurants and food producers and contributing to our shared sense of identity and pride.
Every dollar spent on food produced in Alberta generates approximately $2.20 in spin-off benefits.
The Slow Food movement has been at the forefront of challenging the arrogant claims of linear progress in industrial approaches to agriculture, in preventing the disappearance of the incredible biodiversity present in local food cultures, in advocating for Indigenous peoples and culturally appropriate food and in engaging, at all levels of society, in the important discourse surrounding the true cost of cheap food, the concept of externalized costs, food waste and sustainability of food systems. It has long raised concerns about the inherent lack of sustainability in industrial agriculture and its significant role in contributing to climate change, which threatens to disrupt the relatively stable climatic conditions in which our species arose and thrived.
Good. Clean. Fair.
These three simple words and their relevance in guiding us in the purchasing and consumption decisions we make cannot be understated. These words, understood both practically and philosophically, have the potential to inform and enrich policy discussions around economics, health, food and agriculture. They have the potential to change the world.
Ultimately, just as in the games we love to play and watch, these three words have the capacity to ensure that everyone and everything in our food system - the eaters, the farmers, the diversity of plants and animals and the living ecosphere which supports us all - are given their due respect.
While we might consider these three words to be sensible in sport, somehow it is too often seen as radical or revolutionary when applied to food and farming.
Personally, I say bring on the good, clean, fair revolution! It’s sure to be delicious!