News » Social Justice

From farm to fork: A Slow Food journey


1 comment

Anita Spencer leads me to a large outbuilding, its door held in place with a cement block attached to a long rope.

"This is the mushroom barn," Spencer says. Inside the barn, dim lights reveal hunks of musty-smelling earth lined up on long shelves, shitake mushrooms protruding like miniature trees.

"We get the blocks in, we soak 'em and put 'em out on the shelves," Spencer explains. "Within seven to 10 days we have a crop, and within 24 hours, it doubles in size." Spencer's husband, Steve, harvested a crop that morning, she tells me, and the mushroom blocks, composed of sawdust and grain, will yield two or three more crops before they're crumbled back into the fields outside as compost.

When Anita and Steve Spencer, along with Steve's brother Jeff, made the decision to grow and sell food on a few acres of the family homestead almost ten years ago, they began with mushrooms. Over the years, Homestead Growers, located about 25 miles northwest of Indianapolis, have added a variety of crops such as tomatoes, greens, turnips, beets, radishes, peppers, eggplant, and winter squash.

"We love to try new varieties," Anita says. "Especially heirloom varieties." The Spencers sell their wares, including a line of canned products called "LocalFolks Foods," at local farmers' markets and a few small grocery stores — the demand often exceeding the supply.

Spencer's farm, which comprises 15 organically farmed acres attached to a conventionally-farmed, 100-acre swath of corn and soybean fields owned by Anita's in-laws, offers a progressive alternative to mass-produced corn and soy, and the kinds of processed foods derived from them – an alternative that is, ironically, based more on traditional methods.

"The farm has been in the family since 1838," Spencer said. "Steve and Jeff are the sixth generation. We all live on the farmland."

The food produced by local farms like Homestead Growers – which offer organically-grown, nutrient-rich food that not only tastes better than the conventional variety but also leaves a more sustainable footprint on the landscape – is more than an indulgence. As smaller, family-owned farms are swallowed by their big, industrial competitors, traditional operations like this one may actually be more crucial than ever to our future.

Snail's pace of change

Homestead Growers offers a one-stop education in the possibilities and obstacles to consuming "good, clean, and fair" food in Indianapolis – the slogan of the international Slow Food movement.The notion that food should be "good, clean and fair," is at once vague and ripe with promise. But as consumers become more aware of just how tenuous – and even dangerous – our industrially-grown food supply has become, it's clear these are very serious notions as well.

That idea – that slowing down and savoring a meal put together with local, sustainably-grown food is a worthwhile lifestyle choice – is at the heart of what the Slow Food movement is all about.

The Slow Food movement, founded in 1989 as an antidote to "fast food and fast life," began after Italian journalist Carlo Petrini and others set out to protest the building of a McDonald's restaurant by the Spanish Steps in Rome.

Today, the worldwide organization, with over 100,000 members in 1,300 "convivia" — or local chapters — supports a network of 2,000 food communities who practice small-scale and sustainable production of quality foods.

The original Slow Food Manifesto, penned by founding member Folco Portinari on Nov. 9, 1989, states, "Our century, which began and has developed under the insignia of industrial civilization, first invented the machine and then took it as its life model. We are enslaved by speed and have all succumbed to the same insidious virus: Fast Life, which disrupts our habits, pervades the privacy of our homes and forces us to eat Fast Foods. To be worthy of the name, Homo Sapiens should rid himself of speed before it reduces him to a species in danger of extinction."

While Slow Food has always been about the relationship of"the pleasure of good food with a commitment to (one's) community and the environment," its leaders have not consistently stressed the notion of extinction. The doomsday language may be absent in their decidedly more abstract "good, clean, and fair" motto, yet the threat is still implicit, and even at the forefront, depending on whom you talk to.

The recent film Food, Inc. and Michael Pollan's books, The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food, have renewed attention to the fact that a handful of multinational corporations control the vast majority of food production in America. Monoculture crops of corn and soy are grown uniformly across vast, industrial-sized tracts of American farmland, often genetically manipulated so that, among other things, they can't be naturally reproduced, forcing farmers to buy new seed from the same monopolistic source – companies like Monsanto – each new planting season.Grown with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides that rob them of vital nutrients and damage the soil and watershed, they dominate the marketplace, resulting in cheap, nutritionally deficient food. (To find out how Pollan and members of the local Slow Foods community are involved in Indianapolis' Spirit & Place festival, Nov. 5-14, see the side bar on pg. 12.)

As Food, Inc. also revealed, large-scale meat producers like Tyson and Smithfield rely on livestock raised in Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), where animals are abused and mistreated, fed corn their bodies aren't naturally suited to eat, and pumped full of synthetic growth hormones and powerful antibiotics that follow the meat and byproducts all the way to the dinner plate.

Anita Spencer understands, though, that mono-crop farmers, including her father-in-law, face the same struggle for livelihood as smaller-scale farmers like her, her husband and her brother-in-law.

"To them, especially with the depression and everything, a clean field means prosperity," Spencer tells me, referring to fields that are weed- and pest-free. "That means better yields and they'll be able to make the farm payment."

Although she makes it clear she respects her father-in-law's position, she has a different view: "When we see a clean field, we wonder how many chemicals have been put on it."

But that perspective took time to evolve. When the Spencers first started farming, they didn't start out organic. "We loved Miracle-Gro back then," Spencer laughs. "The vegetables were so big!"

One day a family friend, whom Spencer affectionately dubbed a "tree-hugger," asked if they had ever thought about growing broccoli organically. As Anita tells it, "We laughed at her." But a year later, after doing some research, she was completely converted. "It's amazing how one word can plant a seed in you."

Food (in)security

Farms like Homestead Growers that serve their local communities — say, within a 100-mile radius — help them to become more self-sufficient and less dependent upon food that is grown and transported from thousands of miles away. When times are bad, as in the case of a famine, natural disaster or even just a spike in oil prices, suddenly that California lettuce or North Carolina pork is no longer available — or it's too expensive.

Buying locally grown food, when it's available, can be equally or more important than buying organic. Organic may offer a better nutritional profile than conventional, but if that organic broccoli is grown in China — not an uncommon find in today's grocery stores — there's another price to pay from the extra carbon emissions and energy consumption associated with transporting the food long distances.

SustainLane ( tracks U.S. Department of Agriculture data to rank cities for the availability of local food and agriculture, which is another way of saying "food security." Indianapolis weighed in at 29 out of 50 comparable cities. By comparison, Minneapolis came in first, with Cleveland and Boston second and third, respectively.

Indianapolis seems to have just begun a conversation about this issue of "food security" in recent years, and April Hammerand wants to make sure that conversation continues. Hammerand, who relocated to Indianapolis less than a year ago after accepting the position of program director of the Indianapolis Food, Farm and Family Coalition, educated me about the concept of "food security" over beverages at the locally-owned coffee shop Hubbard & Cravens, on the city's near north side. (See sidebar, pg. 12.)

The Coalition, which focuses on growing Indianapolis into "a more food-secure city," was initiated by Earth Charter Indiana (, an organization that works to further the transition toward, as the Web site states, "a more sustainable and equitable society right here in the Hoosier state." The Coalition was put together in order to mobilize local farmers and others to the common cause of making local food accessible to Indianapolis residents from all socioeconomic backgrounds — not just those who have the means to pay for it. As Hammerand put it, "I have an agenda, of course – everyone has an agenda. I have an agenda for getting people to think about local food and think about the options."

Indeed, the Slow Food movement has been criticized for only appealing to upper-middle-class and wealthy consumers. There's certainly some truth to the criticism: Simple economies of scale mean that local, organically grown food, unless you grow it yourself, is more expensive than conventionally grown and processed food – including, and perhaps especially, fast food.

The Slow Food movement has certainly worked to address this: Initiatives in public schools, for instance, try to introduce the differences in food's origins with its quality, taste, and nutritional value, which go hand-in-hand, to children from all socio-economic backgrounds. Other initiatives support community agriculture and urban farming, both of which are growing movements here in Indianapolis.

Urban farms like the Devington Community Development Corporation's Green Acres Farm, grown on five acres east of a Kroger grocery store in Devington Plaza, at 46th St. and Arlington Ave., serve specific neighborhoods, offering either community supported agriculture (CSA) shares or, in other instances, garden plot access on which residents can grow their own fruits, vegetables and herbs. When excess produce from Green Acres Farm was sold at the nearby Kroger, a Green Acres farmer told me, it sold out right away — faster than the conventional produce shipped in from afar.

Yet when it comes to conventional agriculture, there's no shortage of food grown in Indiana, no lack of CAFO lots where animals are raised for meat. On the drive up to Homestead Growers, I couldn't help but notice the juxtaposition of acres of corn across the street from subdivisions. I had to wonder, where does all the corn go? As a commodity crop, it seemed as far removed from the residents across the street as a bag of corn chips processed at a Frito Lay plant.

Indiana has a lot of farmland. According to the Indiana Field Office of the USDA and National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), nearly 15 million out of Indiana's 23 million acres of land were used for farming in 2009. Indiana ranks 4th in the nation for its production of soybeans, and 5th for corn grown as grain. We're the nation's second largest grower of popcorn.

And those farms are big. The average farm size was an immodest 241 acres. Farms such as Homestead Growers, with its 15 acres, seem miniscule when compared to these larger farms — which produce vast amounts of food that often travel great distances, and are manipulated into many forms, before they are sold as food or, in some cases, biofuel. In the end, the food grown on these larger farms may not end up on our kitchen table at all, unless it's in the form of a food additive such as high fructose corn syrup, which many scientists are now linking to the catastrophic rise of type 2 diabetes in America.

Meanwhile, some of our other big crops, including snap beans and cucumbers, are grown primarily for processing, according to the USDA. So if you end up having corporate-farmed Indiana beans or corn for dinner, you may need a can opener. (To view the complete Indiana crop rankings, visit

Urban farms or farms serving cities from nearby can't compete with this scale, and organically-grown crops are unlikely to achieve the same commodity status — their yields are too unpredictable. They are more likely to follow transparent routes to the dinner table.

The faces of local food

As a way of encouraging the growth of such local initiatives, Growing Places Indy strives to connect consumers with choices, while educating them about growing food in their own communities.

The Slow Food Garden at White River State Park, which took root after Growing Places Indy's Laura Henderson was awarded the $10,000 prize for her presentation to Pecha Kucha Indianapolis a year ago (, just completed its first full growing cycle. Laura Henderson, who also teaches yoga and Pilates and manages the Indy Winter Market Farmers Market (, is among the prominent public faces of urban agriculture in Indianapolis, along with her husband, Tyler, and co-farmer Matthew Jose of Big City Farms. (See sidebar, pg. 12.)

On a warm Sunday afternoon in mid-October, Laura Henderson and Matthew Jose are pulling weeds and the last of the okra, peppers, and brussels sprouts from the 6,000-square-foot Slow Food Garden. "One of our express purposes of this garden was to promote slow food, both Slow Food Indy and Slow Food USA," Laura Henderson tells me as she trims an okra stalk.

Local food and slow food are not one and the same, even though they intersect philosophically: Local food is not necessarily grown sustainably; farmers who sell direct to consumers don't always grow without the use of chemical fertilizers or pesticides.

When it comes to such distinctions, though, Laura Henderson adds, "We don't want to create an 'us versus them' in this conversation."

Like Anita Spencer of Homestead Growers, Laura Henderson became interested in growing organically, and therefore more sustainably, because of a conversation. Laura Henderson first began to think seriously about sustainability while doing environmental management coursework in Tasmania. Her focus shifted completely after meeting Debbie Apple, who was then helping run the Apple Family Farm in McCordsville, Ind. The farmers there raised dairy cows and sold their milk in a cow-share program, where consumers could buy portions of a cow's fresh milk production -— a practice that continues today.

"They didn't vaccinate, they didn't give them antibiotics; and the herd flourished," Laura Henderson says. "I just found (Apple) incredibly fascinating and inspiring. Everything she said connected to my soul. There's no other way to say this."

Mention "urban farming" in Indianapolis and Jose's name inevitably comes up. Jose is considered by many the "go-to guy" for growing gardens, and is now in charge of his own – Big City Farms, in the Cottage Home neighborhood – in addition to his work with Growing Places Indy. Most of the produce is sold through a CSA program, and whatever remains is sold through the Indy Winter Farmers Market.

When Jose worked on a farm and training center for Heifer International in Rutland, Mass., several years ago, he was charged with the task of educating the public about the realities of our food supply and the necessity of making the transition to more sustainable agriculture. Jose recalls telling visitors, who were often overwhelmed by the magnitude of issues surrounding food, "If you were to buy, in season, one item a week that is locally grown or produced, that's enough."

Urban farmers like Jose and Laura Henderson earn a modest living, pieced together from a number of sources, and are producing food for a relatively small number of people. Most of the food from the Slow Food Garden is sold to area restaurants; but the working garden, front and center in a high foot-traffic area of the White River State Park, offers a small glimpse at what it takes to make the larger puzzle work.

One backyard at a time

The Slow Food movement seems to have spurred a renaissance of sorts in backyard gardening.Older generations recall with fondness the Victory Garden, when families grew their own vegetables out of necessity during WWII. And while such shortages are not outside the realm of possibility (and, indeed, some might say they're inevitable, when cheap oil runs out), there's a more immediate appeal: The best way to know you'll have something to eat, and to know what's in it, is to grow it yourself. With a few seeds and even a small plot of earth, a backyard (or side yard, or windowsill) can yield surprising results.

Bob Sander and his wife Nancy Barton, who live in the Rocky Ripple neighborhood of Indianapolis, grow all manner of produce, some of it year-round: from traditional salad greens to lesser-known edible plants such as French sorrel. Fruit trees, blackberry bushes, flowers and winter squash complement the main garden.

Barton teaches stress management and wellness classes in the School of Physical Education and Tourism Management at IUPUI, and Bob Sander is arguably Indianapolis' best-known storyteller (and co-founder of Storytelling Arts, Inc., with his wife and Ellen Munds). You can also find Nancy selling her homegrown flowers at the Broad Ripple Farmer's Market on Saturday mornings in the parking lot of Broad Ripple High School. "I sell flowers to buy food that we can't grow here," Nancy says.

The family, which includes three teenagers and a foreign student, devotes a great deal of effort and energy to the food it consumes. With an extensive backyard garden and a plot in the neighborhood community garden they helped found, food and its preparation are a sort of nexus from which life radiates.

When it comes to dinner, "It takes two and a half hours to fix it, 15 minutes to eat it, and 30 minutes to clean it up," Barton said. "That's just the way it is... [although] we try to make the time eating it longer. Bob plays the guitar usually at the end, but then one of the kids will vanish... You have to trust right now that you're providing a base that they'll come back to later."

As Sander tells the story, Indianapolis caught onto the Slow Food movement about ten years ago. "I was sitting on my front porch with my wife Nancy and our (then) much younger three children when my friend Conrad Cortellini and his wife rode up on their bicycles and said, basically, 'We want to start a chapter of Slow Food here in Indianapolis and you guys already live this philosophy, so why don't you come along for the ride?'"

In addition to pitch-in dinners featuring local food, central to the chapter's founding was a desire to educate the public about the benefits of eating local. Slow Food Indy was also instrumental in bringing together growers and restaurants, building relationships that continue today.

Conrad Cortellini, who was born in Italy and immigrated to the United States with his family at the age of nine. The Cortellinis' backyard is modest by American standards, and yet Conrad and Patty have managed to put it to good use growing food. Pole beans hang from the room of the garage; two cold frame boxes offer refuge for greens—the Swiss chard is served up for lunch.

Cortellini believes Slow Food is at the center of a much larger issue, which is global warming. With CO2 levels beyond what scientists have considered sustainable, there's no turning back.

"It's very difficult to confront the industrial food complex," Cortellini says. "You go up against them, and you don't work."

As he sees it, though, this is exactly what Slow Food should be doing. "Let's change the world," he said. "Let's confront the corporations. And let's become activists."

Sustaining the movement

The Slow Food movement can be interpreted several ways: Enjoy what we have, because we face certain extinction, as Folco Poltinari suggested in the original Slow Food Manifesto more than 20 years ago; or take on the big corporations, as activists in direct protest, as Cortellini would suggest – voting with your fork, as Pollan puts it in The Omnivore's Dilemma. Or both.

To explore these dinstinctions further, I caught up with Todd Jameson, owner of Balanced Harvest Farm and current president of Slow Food Indy (see sidebar on this page), as he was preparing to leave the country to participate in Terra Madre, the international Slow Food gathering in Turin, Italy. As a farmer himself, Jameson pays attention to how food is grown as an indicator of its sustainability.

"Another word that's bandied about quite a bit is sustainable," Jameson says. "Our definition of sustainability is of course using as few off-farm inputs as possible – to create an incredibly healthy, alive soil, to produce nutrient-rich fruits, or a grass that feeds a cow or an animal, [where] there are as few off-farm or synthetic elements that are brought onto the farm as possible."

But here is where Jameson and others in the movement part ways philosophically. "That's not to say that Slow Food only embraces organic farming," he says. "Everyone is free to make up their mind about what farming they're comfortable with, or what type of food production system they're most comfortable with."

The theme of Terra Madre, which brought together more than 5,000 representatives from around the world (Laura Henderson and Matthew Jose also attended), was "There is no single model of humanity. There is no singular ecology that applies globally. Thus, a single model of culture, of agriculture, of food, of economies or society does not exist and cannot not exist without the destruction of humanity and ecology."

You could say Slow Food's original doomsday language is back — suggesting a full-circle journey for a movement that is still evolving. As Laura Henderson put it in her email, "There is something that connects to people when they hear not just 'good, clean, fair food for everyone' but the deeper expression of fellow farmers, new and experienced, fellow eaters young and old, fellow humans from all over the world who believe that food is one of the most essential ways we express our humanity day to day."

The drought that hit much of the Midwest was particularly brutal to central Indiana. For farms such as Homestead Growers, a drought is more than in inconvenience. While beans did well this year, other crops didn't fare so well, Anita Spencer tells me. The brown fields nearby smaller green crops are a reminder of both our vulnerability and the promise small farms offer.

Next year, though, as their LocalFolks Foods product line continues to grow, the Spencers plan to bring their acreage down. They no longer sell CSA shares, and sell their produce only at Farmer's Markets. The LocalFolks Foods products are produced at three different plants with produce from local farmers. "We bring in laborers when it's green bean season and we can't keep up," Anita Spencer says. Otherwise, it's mostly Anita, Steve, and her brother-in-law Jeff doing all the harvesting, which makes for some pretty long days in the field.

As if to assure herself, she adds, "If every little community would feed themselves, you wouldn't have to feed the world."


Weston A. Price meets Slow Food

When National Geographic magazine first started turning tribal cultures into curiosities, a dentist in Cleveland, Ohio, became more than curious. It wasn't the painted faces but rather the brilliant smiles—straight, white teeth and good jaw structure—that really captured his attention.

Why did those who were "civilized" have such bad teeth?

In order to answer his own question, Weston A. Price traveled all over the world studying these so-called "mighty warriors," and found that they shared a common attribute: they ate diets wholly devoid of unprocessed foods. Instead, raw milk and organ meats were staples. When it came to meat, what today's Western carnivores would consider choice cuts were for the dogs — literally.

Though Price died in 1948, his legacy lives on in the Weston A. Price Foundation, a global organization with about 13,000 members, including a local chapter here in Indianapolis.

Member Mark Cox co-owns Fermenti Artisan with Joshua Henson and also serves on the board of Slow Food Indy. He became excited about naturally nutrient-dense foods and the way they made him feel after a friend turned him onto Weston A. Price about five years ago.

Raised in Lafayette, Ind., on what he calls "the Standard American Diet, or SAD for short," Cox recalls, "I ate a bunch of convenience foods, fast foods; I grew up on soda pop."

Cox was a soccer player, and says that he never had any energy outside of sports. It was like starving: you have plenty of calories, but they lack nutrition—and, for that matter, taste.

This is where Weston A. Price and Slow Food intersect: In addition to shared goals for promoting agricultural practices that are sustainable, the two organizations share a focus on eating local and synthetic chemical-free foods for taste as well as health. Both organizations host pitch-in dinners featuring locally grown food, sometimes together.

To learn more, or to get involved, visit or Sample Fermenti Artisan's cultured vegetable blends and probiotic beverages, made from homegrown vegetables and inspired by the work of Weston A. Price, Saturdays until noon at the Binford Farmer's Market (

-- Julianna Thibodeaux


This Week's Flyers

Around the Web