Photo: Lauren JongSay you want to eat healthy. You even support the idea of a more sustainable food system. But really embracing either might mean breaking out of an entrenched microwave meal routines, carving a big slice out of your budget, or — gulp — learning to cook.
How about a trial run? That’s the idea behind Saturday’s Slow Food USA $5 Challenge. It’s an invitation to gather friends, family, and neighbors together for a “slow food” meal that costs no more than $5 per person, or around the price of a typical fast food value meal.
In case you need a refresher, Slow Food USA’s Jerusha Klemperer defines “slow food” as food that’s “good for the people who are eating it, good for the people who produced it, and good for the planet. And on top of all that, delicious.”
Taking the $5 Challenge can mean simply eating a family dinner, but with the commitment to spend no more than $5 per person and use as many local ingredients as possible. Or it can mean gathering a larger group of like-minded people to shop, cook, and eat together, as Portland, Maine’s Slow Food chapter plans to do. “What’s so cool about it is that the looseness of the parameters means that people can really take it and make it their own,” said Klemperer.
Other groups in line with the slow food philosophy have found creative ways to participate, expanding the event beyond the limits of the Whole Foods-frequenting foodie stereotype sometimes conjured by the term “slow food.” For instance, the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC), an organization that advocates for the rights of restaurant workers, will host a meal and discussion at the restaurants they run in New York City and Detroit. ROC promotes worker ownership, provides training for restaurant employees to advance their careers, and offers sustainable, locally sourced menus at their restaurants. They’re planning a panel discussion, focused on issues of workplace justice in the slow food movement, at their Detroit restaurant. As Minsu Longiaru, director of ROC-Michigan sees it, “being able to ensure that the people who are growing, cooking, and serving your food are treated with dignity” is integral to the continued success of the Slow Food Movement.
The restaurant also will serve a $5 “values” meal that night. “Many times there’s the argument that you can’t serve a meal that’s affordable and healthy and pay the workers decent wages,” Longiaru said. “Having a restaurant like [ours] participating in the $5 Challenge shows that this is possible if we come together as a community and have the determination to do it.”
Klemperer said that the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a worker advocacy group in Florida that has been working for justice for tomato workers for nearly two decades, will participate in the $5 Challenge during a training they’re hosting this weekend.
A group of food trucks in Louisville, Ky. will also offer $5 meals at their Food Truckus Ruckus, an occasional gathering of local street food vendors.
The idea for the $5 challenge came from the University of Wisconsin’s Slow Food chapter, which for several years has maintained a tradition of hosting weekly $5 meals for students, prepared with local ingredients in campus kitchens. Jen Bloesch, leader of the UW chapter and now a senior, started participating in these “family dinner nights” as a freshman. She said they’ve grown from about 40 attendees per dinner to 80 – 100 every week. They’re now so big that they have students sign up to take turns as “guest chefs,” instead of opening the kitchen doors to anyone who wants to cook. (You know what they say about too many cooks … ) The student chefs shop at local farmers markets and food co-ops, and have learned that buying in bulk and getting to know farmers pays off, literally. And they budget for around $3.50 per person, per meal — proof that the $5 challenge isn’t hard to achieve, if you know what you’re doing.
“One of thing we’ve noticed out there in the national conversation is that, in spite of [the] challenges, there are people all over the country finding ways to make it work,” says Klemperer. College students are a notoriously time- and budget-crunched population, so the fact that they can find a way to eat slow bodes well for the widespread success of the movement.
“There’s this great saying,” says Bloesch. “Do the best you can with what you’ve got where you’re at.” Changing your personal eating habits — or reforming an entire food system, for that matter — is much less intimidating when taken in small bites. Bloesch started by simply switching to whole wheat bread. “Figure out something you can do, and feel good about that, and be constantly looking to do more,” she adds.
Klemperer acknowledges that the $5 Challenge may sound way more accessible to some people than others. But that disparity is part of the point. “We’re really interested in looking at those underlying institutional and structural and policy-driven things that make it harder [to afford even a $5 meal] for some people than others,” she said. “In a perfect world, we wouldn’t have to do a campaign like this, because this kind of food should be available and accessible every day. Our hope is that the conversation that starts around the meals [on] Sept. 17 will help us make a road map for the kind of work we need to do to get there.”