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Jun 2, 2012 09:32 AM

Slow Food Turmoil Continues

This week, Slow Food chapter leaders were notified that Josh Viertel, President of Slow Food USA, is leaving and that a national search will be conducted to find a new President. Here's what the New York Times reported:

Without saying so directly, the article invites readers to interpret that Viertel's departure is not voluntary, but is rather the result of dissatisfaction with his leadership style and/or the direction in which he wanted to take the organization--an interpretation with which I, as a Board member of a Slow Food chapter, agree.

In April, Slow Food held a national congress in Louisville, the first one since Slow Food Nation in San Francisco four years earlier. All chapters across the US were encouraged to attend, but barely more than 25% of active chapters sent someone, although some chapters sent more than one person. I suspect that poor chapter attendance was seen as a vote of no confidence in Viertel and may have been the final nail in the coffin for his presidency. My chapter decided against going because of the vague meeting content. Had Slow Food USA come out with a detailed, compelling agenda a couple of months in advance of the meeting, that might have convinced us to be there.

A couple of months ago, CH had a lively and intelligent discussion of Slow Food USA that started with reactions to the Slow Food $5 challenge (if it was possible to make a wholesome meal out of local, fairly produced food for $5 or less, and if claiming that people could eat well for this price undermined local farmers) and moved on to broader concerns about how people (both members and non-members) perceived Slow Food and what its primary purpose and goals should be. The big changes in leadership that will soon take place within Slow Food USA afford us another opportunity to consider the issues. So some questions:

1. Do you see the transition in leadership as something positive for Slow Food USA? What should Slow Food be looking for in a new leader?

2. What changes does Slow Food need to make (to be an effective advocate for good, clean and fair food; to attract members; etc.)?

3. If you or someone else in your chapter attended the national congress, was it worthwhile? What was accomplished? If your chapter didn't send someone, why not?

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  1. Well, Cheesemaestro, since no one seems to be playing along, I will :-). I am a board member for a high functioning SF chapter. The thoughts below are mine and do not necessarily reflect the position our chapter has (or will) take. We meet this coming Tuesday for our monthly board meeting, I'm sure this will be a topic of discussion

    1. Yes, this could be a positive move for SFUSA, but it will all depend upon what direction the SFUSA board elects to go in. What should SF be looking for in a new leader?
    a) someone with some maturity and a broad array of experiences who can provide direction and organizational stability
    b) someone with some background and/or experience in running (i.e. the day-to-day operations) a non-profit organization
    c) someone with a proven track record in strategic planning, development and implementation
    d) someone with some fiscal experience, who understands the importance of budgets, fiscal responsibility and fund raising

    There is a whole genre of people out there who make their living by running non-profits, they usually go by the title of Executive Director and most of the time they come from outside the organization. I think this would be a good option for SFUSA. Someone who doesn't have a "dog in the fight" who can step back and make operational decisions based on what's good for the organization, not on what's good for a few people or chapters.

    2) What changes does Slow Food need to make? It needs to...
    a) revisit (and possibly redefine) it's vision and mission. Is SFUSA primarily going to be a food justice organization? the pleasure of the table? preservation and promotion of heritage beeds and seeds, a leader in biodiversity? Or can it be all those things, if so, SFUSA needs to prioritize it's agenda and define it approach and commitment to all of these areas and provide the membership and chapters with some guidelines for how it expects to accomplish that.
    b) establish/develop a strategic plan and get "buy in" from a majority of chapters that they can support Nationals agenda. Take a look at the startegic plan on the SF Vancouver web site, it's an excellent document. Does SFUSA even have something like that? If so, publicize it, it not, shame on them, create and implement it.
    c) There are a growing number of young farmers, growers, breeders, producers and other assorted food artisans. SFUSA needs to decide how they are going to support them - if at all - in a way that is meaningful for all sides.
    d) Provide useable tools and resources to chapters so that they can grown and promote themselves in their respective communities. Too many chapters are in the hands of a few individuals who use them as their private domaine (this is true of some International chapters as well), stunts chapter growth and limits the outreach and SF message.
    e) It would be nice if National could recommend some board management tools to chapters where chapter business could be consolidated and accessible to all board members.
    f) get out of the "hey kids, let's put on a show" method of doing business. An organization with chapters all across the U.S. has to have some consistent process and procedure (structure) in order to strengthen and grow. Less turmoil and more structure also helps fund raising efforts since many large donors and corporate donors look at the stability of the National organization as well as the local one they're considering supporting. SFUSA is a business, not a social club to promote a narrow agenda.

    3. Did anyone from our chapter attend the National congress?
    Yes, we had several members attend. They did feel it was worthwhile, particularly in terms of being able to connect and network with leaders from other chapters in our state. What came out of it for us, was a realization and understanding among our state chapters that we all needed to work together to promote a coherent SF message rather than each chapter workign independently. The unspoken elephant in the room was, no surprise, the chasm between the food justice agenda and the old pleasure of the table agenda. According to our members that went, it was not particularly well addressed tho' there was some effort towards the end of the congress to do so through the establishment of a biodiversity committee with a strong committee chair. There was also, apparently, a lengthy discussion of the "Snail of Approval" program.

    SFUSA is in need of stability and a strong leader who can bridge the gulf between the varying agendas and put the organization back on a defined course instead of the unclear and drifting course it's been on for the last year or so. Slow Food has some great programs and can be all inclusive.

    1. Another Slow Food local chapter board member. Our chapter is still new and is establishing itself. We have 6-7 very active and busy board members, so we sent no one. We just had a board meeting and the problems of national were not even on our agenda--we focused on issues associated with our local (and very much infant) chapter. That said, it was the political angle that prompted us to found this local chapter. I'm located in an area where industrial agriculture is king. Additionally, the economy here is quite depressed, with high unemployment and lower educational levels.

      I'm not sure how to solve the problems of national, but I emphatically wish to see SF maintain some sort of activism. Setting priorities and establishing/maintaining some sort of focus is clearly necessary, but please stay away from the perception of elitism, whether true or not. I don't need an organization to simply promote the pleasures of the table and dining--I've already been doing that! In short, I have high regard for Slow Food (he'll, I wouldn't have become a founding member of a chapter if I didn't) and I sincerely hope that the issues become solved. There's a worthy message being delivered and continued infighting will only muddy the dissemination of it.

      1. I stepped down as Leader of our local chapter last year for family reasons. I volunteered with SF for more than ten years. Our chapter didn't send anyone to the conference because of schedule conflicts, without those one person would have gone.

        I am frankly sad about the change. I like Josh a lot and I thought he was a really positive presence within the organization. I appreciated the direction he was moving the organization which was in line with the feelings of our local chapter. Unforturnately, we had a really, really hard time keeping engaged volunteers and a few people cannot run a chapter alone. We were also pretty tired of the barrage of demands from paid members who would prefer dine-till-you-drop type gorge-fests to garden tours and school lunch talks.

        If Josh left or was pushed out because of push-back from people who want to gorge on rare fruit types while kids turn diabetic before our eyes, than I probably need to find another organization. For the last few years, I felt there was honor and space for both groups and I believe in both. But I've found that over time, maybe because I have kids now, I have less interest in the former than the later.

        Er, except at the farmer's market. Get out of my way. Those are my rare boysenberries.