In October, a group of Charlestonians traveled to Italy for Slow Food's Terra Madre, a multinational gathering that brought together 5,000 people for five days of workshops and discussions about food — from policies and sustainability to school nutrition and honey bees.
The Olympic stadium in Torino was filled with farmers, fishermen, cooks, academics, and young people from hundreds of countries, who paraded into the venue behind their flag-bearers, much like the athletes do at the Olympic opening ceremonies.
The delegates from Charleston were chosen to attend based on their various roles in our local food culture. Those picked included Chefs Craig Deihl of Cypress and Mike Lata of FIG, Elizabeth Beak and Tecoria Jones of Lowcountry Local First, Ann Caldwell of the Magnolia Singers, educational consultant Dena Davis, Darlena Goodwin of the Children's Garden Project, farmer Gra Moore, Gullah performer Sharon Murray, Alluette Jones-Smalls of Alluette's Cafe, and local farmers Joseph and Helen Fields.
"We've never seen anything like that before," says Helen Fields, a Johns Island farmer who attended with her husband as part of the Savannah delegation. "When we arrived at the coliseum, I thought that we were arriving at the Olympics. I didn't expect that many people all in different costumes holding up flags. It was just wonderful."
For the Fields, the event enabled them to share their considerable experience and wisdom gained from farming the land for many years. "We talked to about 25 young people that are ready for going into farming, and we shared our experiences. We told them the pros, cons. Everything we could think of, we shared with them so they could be successful, and we invited them to come to our farm."
Lowcountry Local First's Elizabeth Beak has been piloting the Growing New Farmers program. At Terra Madre, she connected with people in Austin, Ohio, and Oklahoma, who are experimenting and succeeding with similar initiatives.
"I'm really interested in the seafood connection. I attended a great workshop on fishermen and agricultural groups and how they're working together. There are some great examples and projects in Maine, another one in Brazil. It's so exciting for me to see these different models and then come back here and talk to Megan Westmeyer at Sustainable Seafood Institute at the Aquarium and see how we can work together on this next year."
Darlena Goodwin of the Children's Garden Project stayed an extra three weeks in Italy, touring the country, working on organic farms, and living with various Italian families. The experience solidified her resolve that she's on the right track, teaching children about nature, science, and nutrition through hands-on gardening. And with the recent passage of the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act, she sees some very exciting possibilities for the future. "I have an idea about Burke High School having their own business classes learn about developing a small business in organic gardening and selling at the market and bringing in business people from College of Charleston and the culinary institute."
Dena Davis also works in the educational world, directing the area's Head Start program, which provides early educational opportunities for low-income children. "I talk about building brains; you can't build a brain if everything on the plate is white: chicken, cabbage, bread. So I think in order to improve educational outcome, you certainly have to look at nutrition," she says. "I think it's important that good nutrition is not just for the wealthy. Going to Terra Madre and seeing this as a global issue was really big for me."
Another big lesson she brought home from Terra Madre was that Slow Food is capable of galvanizing a worldwide movement to solve hunger.
"They said, let's not wait for Bill Gates. Let's get Slow Food [chapters] from around the world to raise money to give them seeds and irrigation to make this happen. There's no reason to have hungry children or hungry people in this world," Davis says. "Let's just do it. Let's start doing it on a small scale. And it will grow."
And while these food activists and educators were inspired by the movement, Chefs Deihl and Lata were inspired by the food. It was Deihl's first trip out of the country, and he spent his time eating his way through the Salone del Gusto, a companion food market that showcases artisans, farmers, and producers.
"Talk about your head spinning in circles," he says. "Everywhere you looked was cured meat, porchetta, sandwiches. I was in heaven seeing all of these artisan producers."
After Terra Madre, Deihl and his wife traveled around Italy with Lata for a few days — during the height of truffle season.
"It was intoxicating," he recalls. "At first I didn't get it. But the longer you smell them, the more you're affected by them. It's like crack or something."
Lata was so overtaken by truffle fever that he dropped a boatload of money to buy a white truffle for FIG, launching a week-long truffle extravaganza at his restaurant.
But you can be sure truffles won't be the only after-effects of Terra Madre we'll be seeing in the Lowcountry. The Slow Food Charleston chapter led by Carole Addlestone continues to grow and prosper, combining efforts with Lowcountry Local First and the Coastal Conservation League. Before long, we'll have a mobile abbatoir, enabling small farmers to grow livestock and have it slaughtered on-site. We might also see a CSA farm providing fresh produce to local schools, a program Goodwin witnessed in Italy and is eager to replicate here with LLF's help. And for sure, you can expect to see more and more people dedicated to strengthening our local food web.