Fighting the Drive-Thru Dilemma

How the Slow Food Movement is combating the threats of fast food.

Kings of Convenience

Fast-food restaurants are prevalent in just about every corner of the country. Drive down any street in the United States, and you're bound to pass by more than one of them. Quick, convenient, and tasty, these restaurants are practically the backbone of long road trips and late-night cravings.

Especially with the addition of drive-thrus, the affordable prices of these not-so-healthy items have proved themselves to be nearly irresistible to most of the population. It's the reason why they're found in airports, malls, and even overseas. Despite their popularity and prevalence, fast-food chains have been met with criticism over many years. The nutrition found in fast food, or lack thereof, has come up often in discussion. It was the discussion topic behind the well-known documentary Super Size Me and why many restaurants in the United States now provide nutrition facts for their menu items.

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The Threats of Fast Food

Regardless of its success, the fast-food industry is a giant machine that contributes to multiple environmental threats. Because chain restaurants want to keep consistency with their menu items, their products are mass-produced, with a majority of their animal products coming from factory farms.

Since the average consumer does not harvest their food, there is often a disconnect when it comes to understanding the origins of our food. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals estimates that nearly 10 billion land-based animals are farmed for food each year in the United States. In the case of factory farms, animals often suffer inhumane conditions that deprive them of high-quality life. Not to mention, industrial farming uses a large amount of water and fossil fuels. Cattle feed alone strips land of biodiversity and require significant energy and water resources when it's produced at the industrial level.

The water runoff from crops typically contains pesticides and other chemicals that damage the soil, while the methane emissions from cows eat away at our atmosphere. All in all, these facilities create pollution that is both harmful to the planet and people.

The industry is unsustainable at nearly every step of its process. For anything to be fast and convenient, there has to be a sacrifice made in another area. In the case of fast food, we sacrifice better quality and low-waste meals at home for quick meals in plastic packaging. There are food wrappers and plastic bags to carry the meal. Plastic utensils, condiment packaging, straws, cup carriers, paper napkins, and countless other items that are produced to keep the fast-food experience as convenient and cheap as possible. The result? A never-ending landfill that is full of products that won't break down for thousands of years. In fact, 40% of landfill waste is a result of fast-food packaging.

The Birth of Slow Food

Once popular chains began making their first appearances abroad, it became clear that eating fast food was turning into the norm rather than a "once in a while" option. In 1986, the city of Rome welcomed its first McDonald's. However, the restaurant's arrival was not something to celebrate in the eyes of Italian journalist Carlo Pertini.

His concerns were rooted in the potential loss of traditions and local food cultures. As far as Petrini was concerned, fast-food restaurants were a sign that people had a declining interest in the food they ate. Despite his attempts, McDonald's still opened. However, his passion and concerns didn't end. From his initial protest, the Slow Food Movement sprouted as a long-term response to the expansion of fast food.

Three years later, the Slow Movement was formally brought to life when he and representatives from 15 other countries met in Paris to sign the Slow Food Manifesto. The manifesto condemned what they deemed as a fast life, where speed had become "shackles" to the human population. Although the concept of the fast life goes beyond food, the manifesto outlined that the rejection of a frenzied lifestyle would start in the kitchen.

Slow food's official website shares that its philosophy stems from a hope that one day everyone will have access to food that is good for them, the planet, and the people that grow it. For the Slow Movement, all food should be good, clean, and fair.

The Slow Food Manifesto for Quality breaks down in detail what good, clean, and fair means to the organization. It asserts that modern food production and consumption systems are damaging to the planet, ecosystems, and people. While consumers don't have a direct hand in food production, their choices in how they consume are a "productive act," and therefore, they become a "co-producer." They direct the market and production with their choices. It states food should be good, meaning its production methods do not alter its naturalness. It should be clean, meaning the environment must be respected during production. This includes sustainable farming, processing, marketing, and consumption. Lastly, being fair means the labor conditions are respectful, create balanced global economies, and practice sympathy, solidarity, and respect for cultural diversities and traditions.

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Branches of the Slow Food Movement

The organization exists at the local, national, and international levels. At the local level, they are referred to as communities and plan events in cities and towns. Currently, there are more than 1500 of these communities. Nationally, Slow Food is located in various countries, including Italy, Germany, The United States, Japan, Kenya, Great Britain, and South Korea. Because its founder is an Italian native, the headquarters are located in Bra, Italy, where Pertini was born. Most of the planning for network developments and projects takes place there.

Throughout its history, Slow Food created other organizations, including the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity, in 2003. This body dedicates itself to the preservation of food biodiversity and traditions. In 2004 the University of Gastronomic Sciences opened to provide formal education to professionals in the food industry. It is at this university that the international congress convenes to discuss the "political, strategic, and organizational direction" of the organization at the international level. Over the years, Slow Food has gained the support of notable companies and organizations, some of which are the Meatless Monday Movement, Whole Foods, Whole Kids Foundation, Clif Family Foundation, and Arc Cardinal.

Unsurprisingly, the philosophy of Slow Food fits nicely into the philosophies of sustainability. Many threats to our planet's health are rooted in the industrialization of several sectors, including food production. The movement tackles its objectives in varying ways. There is a focus on the planet's biodiversity, relishing the food we eat, and supporting locally grown food. Looking at a long-term timeline, these goals will hopefully result in the endurance of cultural traditions and cultivate lasting interest in how our food choices affect us.

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Preserving Biodiversity & Traditions

Maintaining Earth's biodiversity is a focal concern for the Slow Food Movement. The organization facilitates a handful of projects that are dedicated to protecting food communities and local growers. One of those projects is the Cooks' Alliance which has brought together over 850 chefs and small-scale producers in the United States. Through this network, cooks learn from each other and support one another through their journey of making their restaurants better for the environment. Creating this unique community opens up the way for food industry professionals to continue building their knowledge on food preservation to avoid extinction.

On the other side of the word, the Slow Food Foundation runs the Gardens in Africa project, whose mission is to cultivate 10,000 gardens throughout the continent. The prioritized locations for these gardens are in schools, villages, and places that are on the outskirts of large cities. Currently, there are 3,544 gardens already created.

Through these gardens, the foundation strives to bring awareness to the younger population on the importance of biodiversity and fresh food. Creating gardens in schools also allows students to understand the value of land and their culture. The project operates on the good, clean, and fair philosophy of the organization in several ways.

The gardens are always full of plants that are native to the land and hold a variety of fruit trees, vegetables, and herbs to maintain biodiversity. The benefits go beyond the health of the land too. Not only are the gardens an inexpensive source of food, but they also serve as "open-air" classrooms, and neighboring community gardens participate in seed exchanges. The success of these gardens is in large part due to community effort and the time taken to observe which vegetation is best for the area. The organizers of the Gardens of Africa make sure to work with a network of local leaders and experts, from agronomists to veterinarians. All these efforts combined keep the oldest traditions alive with the new generation.

Along with education and cultivation, preservation is also a top priority for Slow Food. The conversation regarding endangered species is most often associated with animals, but the reality is that many food groups are also in danger of extinction. The Ark of Taste project specifically centers around documenting endangered, traditional foods, so they are not lost. These endangered foods range from animals to sweets to plants.

The Ark of Taste is a one-of-a-kind undertaking because the approach to preservation is tailored in a specific way depending on the item in question. The website details that "in some cases, products need to be rediscovered and put back on the table, and producers need to be supported and to have their stories told." And in other instances, especially with animal species, the way to preserve them best would be by eating less or none of them.

But exactly why are food traditions in danger of being lost? According to Slow Food, there are a handful of factors at play. For one, industrialization has engulfed the world and altered the way food is produced. Machines and factory farming made it possible to grow and harvest food in mass quantities and as quickly as possible. This system has threatened the small-scale production systems that are often operated by families. Then there are the forces of climate change, migration, a change in consumption patterns, and human conflict that have all had a hand in disrupting agricultural biodiversity and traditional production.

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Emphasizing the Joys of Eating

Combatting industrial farming and fast food companies is no easy feat. That's why the Slow Food Movement tackles the problem through funded projects and by encouraging behavioral changes. To counter the prevalence of fast-food dining, the philosophy of slow food promotes taking the time to enjoy the food you consume. This includes the process of preparing it as well as eating it. The organization calls it the joy of eating.

Fast Food restaurants promise quick and cheap solutions to hunger. Then there's the drive-thru model that frequently leads to eating on the go. Some stores even package meals so that they're easier to eat in the car. In these cases of rushed eating, founder Carlo Pertini believes that dining this way detracts from what the experience of eating should be.

Slowing down meal time by preparing meals ourselves, using quality ingredients, and enjoying each bite allows everyone who partakes to appreciate the food on our plates. Valuing food in this way and enjoying the process would hopefully lead us to appreciate the cultivation efforts it took for the food to arrive on our plates.

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Encouraging Locally Grown Food and Rejecting Factory Farms

Slow food's support of locally grown food is seen in projects like Gardens of Africa. Yet, the organization has also taken additional, deliberate steps to reject factory farming. Regarding the controversies of mass meat production, the organization acknowledges that the current system is increasingly unsustainable for the planet. In fact, if meat consumption doubles in the next 30 years, the system will collapse. For this reason, the organization advises eating less meat of better quality.

The Slow Meat campaign was started to raise awareness among producers about better consumption habits and encourage a reduction in meat consumption. It also strives to promote small to medium-scale producers who care about animal welfare.

"...if meat consumption doubles in the next 30 years, the system will collapse. For this reason, the organization advises eating less meat of better quality."

While not as prevalent in comparison to factory farms, sustainable livestock farming does exist. For Slow Food, for farming to be deemed sustainable, it must occur outdoors on pastures, respect the natural growth rhythms of the animals, not partake in forced reproduction periods, use natural feed, limit antibiotics, and avoid long transportations to slaughterhouses. Animal welfare has to be a top priority, and farming must be done on a smaller scale. Every day the Slow Food Movement works with a list of partners to improve animal living conditions and the lives of the producers. Slow food even has a network of livestock farms that follow their set of production rules.

What We Can Do

Consumers that are interested in buying their food from reputable farms can use sources like the Slow Food Presidia or do their own research on farming options local to them. By shopping local products, consumers help maintain the biodiversity-preservation work of small-scale farmers. Overall, adjusting our eating and buying habits to support the slow food philosophy can go a long way in fighting the fast-food crisis. That means eating local, eating less meat, eating better quality food, and slowing down to appreciate and enjoy the meals on our plates. Mindfulness is at the heart of the Slow Food Movement, and in doing so, we can accomplish what Carlo Pertini set out to do years ago at that initial McDonald's protest.

Business Takeaways
  • The fast-food industry relies heavily on industrial farming systems.
  • These modern food production and consumption systems are damaging to the planet, ecosystems, and people.
  • Supporting local farmers and producers can help combat the strain that factory farming has placed on the planet and its animals.
  • Consuming better quality food, diversifying the meats you buy, and cutting down on food waste will positively impact global food production.