With election day coming up next Tuesday, a food-related ballot issue that may be of great significance to the citizens of central Ohio has been getting a lot of attention: Issue 2, an initiative to create a Livestock Care Standards Board. Our national office has sent us information on the subject. Our friends at other food-related organizations like OEFFA and Local Matters have made their positions clear. We’ve received requests for information about it; people have asked us what our position is, and what we think theirs should be. Our silence on the subject is becoming difficult to sustain. So we thought we should clarify our position.
Slow Food Columbus has no position on Issue 2, except to urge the citizens of Ohio to examine it carefully and to take the time to vote on it.
People on both sides of Issue 2 can agree on one thing: This is an important issue. Its implications for good, clean and fair food in Ohio could be very wide-ranging. It deserves your careful scrutiny and your vote. Please take the time to do both.
Our position may come as a surprise to those who know us individually and know that, as individuals, we do have positions on Issue 2. But Slow Food, historically, has not been very involved in politics, and the issue of how much it should be has been discussed quite a bit over the past year. From what we have been able to discern, the following statement captures the sense of our members: “Slow Food Columbus is not a political organization. We do, however, stand ready to assist anyone engaged in improving the American food system in a manner that is both effective and consistent with our mission.” Of course, we welcome further feedback from our members on this issue.
We did not anticipate that a question like Issue 2 would arise so soon to test our commitment to this principle. But in a way, we’re glad that it has. Because although all of us are dissatisfied with the status quo in the American food system, and most of us would be very happy if Slow Food USA could help bring about positive change in it, we also see great potential in Slow Food’s ability to bring people together at the table, and we believe that preserving our ability to do so is among our very highest priorities.
How, not whether, to bring about change in the food system, is therefore the issue. The main argument in favor of direct political action, quite simply, is that it works. Indeed, it works so well that it has become the default vehicle for special-interest political lobbies in American politics in the 21st century, and many complaints about the inability of American democracy to overcome the grip of special interests are founded precisely on the power of well-funded Washington lobbyists. Given that a restructuring of the American political order is not realistically in sight, it may be most effective to work within the system as it is currently constructed.
There are, however, many daunting arguments against a transition to a more overtly political mode of operation that are worth considering. First is the point that Slow Food has built up substantial goodwill and respect in large part by remaining above politics, and that losing that goodwill and respect would not only be tragic but would cripple Slow Food’s ability to serve as a nonpartisan actor in the world of food policy. Utilitarian calculations aside, each of us has experienced the instantaneous goodwill and spontaneous friendship of farmers, chefs, and food enthusiasts who have just learned that we belong to Slow Food. If we contrast that experience with the polite reserve and occasional outright hostility encountered by members of (say) the American Civil Liberties Union or People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, we can understand what Slow Food might have to lose at the community level.
Moreover, in the political realm, impartiality is immensely valuable, hard to obtain, easy to lose, and, once lost, virtually impossible to regain. Slow Food has largely obtained it by focusing on the table as a meeting place for people of all different persuasions and backgrounds—precisely like the Roman convivia that give our chapters their name. That timeless tradition of bringing people together over food is, arguably, the organization’s greatest strength. Losing it could be both easy and irreversible.
We do believe that change in the American food system is a critical goal, and we recognize that we cannot do so in isolation from the political system. But we are deeply sympathetic to the response of Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini to the question, “Do you intend to be political?”: “Yes,” Petrini replied, “with our own methods.”