MA '01, Food Studies
Erika Lesser is smart, thoughtful, and passionate. Sitting with her in her open office in Brooklyn's DUMBO neighborhood, Erika, Executive Director of Slow Food USA, is describing her recent visit to Atlanta for a day of meetings at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Lesser is careful to emphasize the word prevention in the CDC's title, commenting that the second part of the governmental agency's name is too often left off or forgotten. She explains that the meetings, which featured journalist Michael Pollan as keynote speaker, were two years in the making with Alice Waters' visit in 2007 as a catalyst. The meetings were a sustainable food systems approach to health and wellness.
What is Slow Food? According to the organization's website, "Slow Food is an idea, a way of living and a way of eating. It is a global, grassroots movement with thousands of members around the world that links the pleasure of food with a commitment to community and the environment." Through educational events and partnerships, the company defends biodiversity in our food supply, spreads taste education throughout the world, and connects producers of excellent foods with co-producers through projects and initiatives.
Much of our hour-long conversation focuses on the primary issues: time, money and access. It is clear that through her post at Slow Food, Lesser is committed to changing our country for the better. Her carefully chosen words throughout the meeting demonstrate her ability to see the bigger construct that impacts American's eating habits - policy, legislation, education - and that she wants to do something about it.
A native of Boston, Lesser completed her undergraduate work at Brown University and has worked for Slow Food USA since it founding in 2000. She made a decision to study at New York University's Steinhardt School after taking Amy Bentley's course on Food History and Marion Nestle's class on Nutrition for Food Studies students. She enrolled and earned her master's in Food Studies in 2001.
When asked why she chose the program, Lesser explains it was "a personal connection that I felt to the multi-disciplinary lens to food, and to the role it plays in our culture and our planet. It's not a field that exists [the way] other disciplines do, like comparative literature or environmental sciences. Food studies is still largely overlooked...I came from a liberal arts program and was interested in lots of things, so when I learned about Food Studies I thought, ‘This is something I can do and would never get bored, and will always want to learn more.' " And learn she has.
Having spent a year at Slow Food Internationals's headquarters in Bra, Italy, Erika speaks confidently about the way different cultures approach food differently. She explains, "The international office closes from 1:00 PM to 3:00 PM so that you can go and enjoy your lunch. It is frowned upon to eat at your desk and it's nearly impossible to do anything besides eat during this hiatus because shops are closed." She says that the Slow Food USA staff "does gather at a common table to enjoy each other's company and to embrace the meal, but not for the same time duration."
"Slow Food has been translated all over the world; different expressions, but there is a common idea," says Lesser. The issue the organization confronts is the idea that you have to completely overhaul your lifestyle to adhere to the Slow Food way of thinking, but that isn't the case. "Anyone can incorporate [aspects of Slow Food] into their lives; it comes down to two things. Time and money." She notes that the current economic downturn gives people a good opportunity to incorporate Slow Food into their daily lives because it not only saves money, it is better for your health.
An advocate of being a better-educated consumer, Lesser is a big proponent of farmers markets, which she views as a positive social experience around good food. "I don't know people at the supermarket. It is a solitary experience; a transaction. At the farmers market, it's natural to interact about the food with the vendor and other shoppers...it is a social and energizing experience for the same amount of money and maybe a little more time."
Turning the conversation to the bigger issues -- access, policy, and funding - Lesser explaines that she is currently paying close attention to the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act, which is up for renewal in House and Congress this fall. The Act, which has a significant impact on child nutrition programs in our country, directly plays into the thoughts and theories behind Slow Food. Slow Food works on the local level in schools to educate future generations and to create meaningful experiences for kids around food by introducing them to farmer's markets, healthy cooking techniques, and gardening. It should be noted that since First Lady Michelle Obama planted her garden on March 20 on the White House lawn, Slow Food has been inundated with inquires and interest. Lesser commented, "it has been an onslaught [of interest] and [been] happening really fast...we received hundreds of emails after...and are trying to figure out how to direct energy, organize as a campaign instead of just a program, and fuel the potential to expand."
Another significant concern is linking conservation, environmentalism, food safety and security, to our day-to-day efforts to eat organic and good food. The ideas and issues related to each of these areas have taken rise over the last decade, but far too often we fail to see how closely they are intertwined. Lesser explains that "our current system for food production is a major contributor to our environmental issues. The food system is one of the biggest producers of greenhouse gases because of the way we grow (fertilizers, methane from livestock confinement) and transport our food. There is a big missing link between climate change and our food production system. Industrial agriculture is not addressed in the current efforts to educate the public." Likewise, the systems and backstops in place to regulate how our food is produced are often not addressed until issues arise.
When asked to share some advice on changing eating habits for the better, Lesser offered two things we can all do. "On a day-to-day basis, don't eat alone. Try to eat lunch with someone. Eating at your desk and checking email is not healthy or productive. And think about not eating meat one day per week. Meat production is a big contributor to greenhouse gases. Eat something good in its place. Swap out the steak for an apple...well, something like that."
Lesser hopes that Slow Food USA's emerging alliance with the CDC will help place more emphasis on disease prevention and better educate the average consumer in the US so that we can demand better food. In the meantime, she urges that awareness and education are key.
At present, Slow Food USA has an active dues-paying membership of 18,000 people with 212 volunteer-led chapters nationwide. However, Lesser estimates that the real reach is approximately 50,000 annually, a number she would like to see grow 2-million over the next few years.