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January 31, 2014

7 Questions For: Richard McCarthy, Executive Director of Slow Food USA

Richard McCarthy_Headshot_MediaThis weekend, the brand-new executive director of Slow Food USA, Richard McCarthy, will tour some of Burlington's culinary hotspots — the Farmers Market, the Intervale South End Kitchen and Hen of the Wood among them.

Why is he here? This year, Slow Food Vermont was one of the top four U.S. chapters in terms of new membership; McCarthy's visit is a reward of sorts.

"I have been so proud of our chapter for the past five years, coming up with good, clean and fair programming for all in Vermont," writes Mara Welton, co-owner of the Intervale's Half Pint Farm and the leader of Slow Food Vermont. "I'm in awe when I reflect on the growth of our chapter, the awareness of Slow Food increasing, and all of our events having such an amazing response. It will be really wonderful to share that with the man himself."

Slow Food USA is a branch of Slow Food International, an organization founded in Italy in 1989 with the goal of preserving local food traditions — or, in Slow Food's words, "to counter the rise of fast food and fast life."

Millions of people worldwide now count themselves as Slow Food members, even as the organization has gone through growing pains with regards to its mission.

McCarthy joined Slow Food in 2001, a few years after working with neighbors and growers to create New Orleans' Crescent City Farmers Market in 1995.

On the eve of his visit, McCarthy took some time to answer a few questions.

SEVEN DAYS: When (and why) did you first get involved with Slow Food?

RICHARD MCCARTHY: I became a member of Slow Food USA back in 2001, when I was in New Orleans working as an advocate for food workers and farmers in the region. I became involved with Slow Food because I believe in a good, clean and fair food system for everyone, and the organization provides a way to support that in a grassroots way.

SD: You were instrumental in getting a farmers market up and running in New Orleans, and served as its director for 17 years. What was the biggest challenge?

RM: There were two big challenges in reinventing the neighborhood public market tradition in New Orleans at the tail end of the 20th century: One, supply, and the other, demand. Few believed that in a crime-filled city, people would support a downtown market. Two, there were fewer farmers than we had imagined, even in our worst calculations.  

SD: New Orleans has been singled out for its food deserts (in Vermont, we have a few as well). What has Slow Food done in terms of improving affordability of/accessibility to local food in the Crescent City?

RM: Maybe it's bioregional, but we tend to think of it in terms of food swamps. There is plenty of bad food around, much of it sold in convenience stores, corner stores and the like. Many neighborhoods are swamped with high fat, high salt and endless sweets to stretch the dollars. After the infrastructure collapsed in Katrina, which flooded the city, it was interesting was to see how few of these corner stores did not have the capital to restart operations. At this point, what was swamp became "desert."

In many ways, this was the age of rural encroachment. Isolation in poor neighborhoods was always an issue, but with scaled-back public transport and very few retail food outlets, vulnerable families found themselves even more vulnerable. However, it also triggered a period of significant innovation: Food trucks rolled into town; new markets and new gardens grew; a convergence of public health and community development yielded new collaboratives. And here, in particular, Slow Food played a role in drawing attention to the role of traditional foods (like red beans and rice) as worthy of praise.

This struck such a different chord than the prevailing public health tone that stresses the irresponsible behavior of the vulnerable. The work I led focused largely around the development of health incentives (for seniors, children and parents on SNAP and FMNP) that reward vulnerable consumers for taking the risks to change behavior — to purchase fresh foods directly from food producers. The other primary investment was to grow innovative school garden programs at charter schools into the Edible School Yard. 

SD: With "farm-to-table" part of the common vernacular, how might you explain Slow Food USA's relevance in today's foodscape?

RM: While Slow Food USA definitely celebrates the farm-to-table movement, our network encompasses a larger scope of today's current food landscape. From fair wages for farmers, to better access to healthy food, to preserving our traditional foods and knowledge, the principles that Slow Food was founded on are still at the heart all that we do: Good, clean and fair food for all.

SD: As the new executive director of Slow Food USA, what do you hope to accomplish during your tenure?

RM: I hope to reinforce to community members, leaders, families and farmers that Slow Food USA is committed to helping communities build a food system that fairly serves everybody, helps connect people, and supports leaders around the country as they come up with creative and effective solutions to some of our country's food issues — access, fairness and industrialized agriculture. It's what is at the root of Slow Food: connecting community members to each other, sharing ideas — and, of course, sharing pleasure in food. 

SD: Have you visited Burlington before? (If not, what do you expect to find?)

RM: During New Orleans' summers, many of us would dream of Burlington and its gregarious municipal life amidst a sparsely populated and green (during the summer) land. I've long been intrigued with how Vermont touches French-speaking Canada and is likely influenced by its close geographic and cultural affinities. And then there's the high level of interest (or at least comfort with) the idea of rugged independence, if not secession. And yet, I've never been. So very excited to finally visit. 

SD: Only last week, you moved from NOLA to Brooklyn. Has anything in particular struck you about the Brooklyn food scene?

RM: The NOLA food scene is largely shaped by a longstanding devotion to tradition, to the Creole blending of cultures into a single (French) cuisine. Of course, the end result is not exactly French, but Creole. Regardless, the excitement is in the blending, the mixing of cultures: African, French, Spanish, Houma nation, Italian, Croatian, German and Irish (to name a few).

By contrast, Brooklyn (and the rest of NYC) is a place where ethnic enclaves work hard not to mix. Rather, it's authentic Chinese, authentic Pakistani, authentic Haitian, etc., but no mixing. The DNA is very different here. Since I crave the various immigrant flavors, I'm loving it. Where you see new, daring food work is in the cottage industry incubation, urban agriculture and a fascinating belief that in an urban core we can produce our own food (on rooftops, etc.). The cottage industries cover the gamut: Sweets, spirits, and tempeh. Though there's a danger of these efforts forgetting the importance of rural food production, thank heavens for the presence of the GrowNYC Greenmarkets. They bring dozens of farmers into town each week. They remind us of the city-state that exists in commerce (if not in politics). 

SD: What did you eat for dinner last night? 

RM: Oh, how funny. I cooked (for the first time in some time) Gado Gado. It's something of a national dish in Indonesia — a boiled vegetable salad served with rice and peanut sauce. Though I respect culinary traditions, I also can't follow a recipe. So I improvise. Instead of peanuts, I used sunflower seeds. Sunflower sprouts and cucumbers; instead of white rice, I used a Filipino black rice (on the Slow Food Ark of Taste of endangered foods); and instead of tofu, I used tempeh. 

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