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Slow Food USA

Before Josh Viertel came along, Slow Food USA was without a center. Though it had tens of thousands of paying members across the country, mostly highly educated epicures who revered Alice Waters and ate stinky cheese, it was a loose conglomeration of local “conviviums” organizing the occasional sustainable-food event.

Viertel, a young activist who had headed up Yale University’s complete revamp of its dining halls (the university fired Aramark food services, replaced its corporate-ag goods with produce from local farms, and started an on-campus student farming program), is changing that. Hired in October 2008 as the nonprofit’s first president, he’s mobilizing Slow Food USA’s membership to do nothing short of reform national food policy. “Legislators are happy to see farmers’ markets increasing. But that doesn’t spur them to make the hard decisions they need to make,” says Viertel.

He helped stage 307 potlucks, or “Eat-Ins,” in communities across the country on Labor Day, to draw attention to the National School Lunch Act that’s up for renewal this fall. (The organization’s platform is that more money should be allotted per child.) Next, he’ll try to get members to make noise about revamping the Farm Bill when it’s up in 2010. As a devotee of Alice Waters himself, Viertel doesn’t want Slow Food abandoning its older mission of celebrating things like heritage pig breeds; he just believes hard work and the pleasures of the table can—and should—coexist. “If you do activism well,” says Viertel, “it’s supposed to be celebratory.”

What are you looking forward to in the coming months?
“I’m really excited to see the Obamas keep on talking about sustainable agriculture, and making these issues more public. Seed sales and canning supply sales are off the charts. When you look at that, it’s hard to show that that garden at the White House made a difference, but I think it did. I’m also looking forward to making roasted parsnips.”

Who was your mentor?
“In college, I was writing a lot about physical work, and I didn’t even know if I liked it! So I took a year off and went to Sicily and worked on a farm. There was an Albanian refugee shepherd there named Agro, who herded sheep and made cheese, and had a way of living in the world that I didn’t have. I was almost envious of his fluidity of connection to things, and his ability to build things. He taught me the value in work, and how privileged we are that we get to choose.”

What would you be doing if you weren’t doing this?
“Maybe a fisherman. There’s a great migration of fish on Jamaica Bay near JFK [International Airport in New York]. Striped bass, albacore … it’s really cool to catch a fish with a 747 taking off above you. I have a tiny rowboat that folds up that I put on top of my Jetta. I go out there and fly-fish with my fly rod. My friends think I’m crazy.”

Matt Timms Novella Carpenter Duane Sorenson Sandor Katz Josh Viertel Richard Blakeley and Jessica Amason Ryan Farr Deborah Madison Roy Choi Sam Calagione Bryant Terry Christina Tosi

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