I am in the process of inquiring into what a wide array of environmental organizations are doing to find common ground with one another and, in addition to that, with groups working on issues that are outside the scope of environmentalism, per se.

Such alliances may lead sooner or later to a mass movement for environmental and social sustainability. It may be strong enough to counteract politically powerful players that are entrenched in the status quo, such as the centralized, capital-intensive coal, oil, nuclear, natural gas, and agriculture industries.

A mass movement for environmental and social sustainability may take its place in history alongside other movements. All of us can play at least some part in making that happen.***********

Viertel: Slow Food sees our issues as everyone’s issues. Whether you’re talking about food sovereignty internationally or food access in the inner city or public health or having a vibrant economy, you can’t really deal with it without dealing with the food we eat and the way it’s produced. So for us there really are a lot of natural alliances that emerge out of common work. For instance one of our partners on a campaign around improving school lunch in our public schools 350.Org.

So Bill McKibben, who I think is brilliant at this, sees that you can’t deal with Climate Change without dealing with food and agriculture, and that even something as straight- forward as school lunch is completely linked to Climate Change.

So they’re going to support us in doing a better job at addressing climate change and we’re going to support them with doing a better job with food and farms as it pertains to Climate Change. So we’re all related. I think it’s natural. I think it has to happen.

F.P.: What are some of the things that might get in the way of that? I have talked with a local activist here in Columbus. He said sometimes there is competition (among environmental groups) for volunteers and grant money. Have you seen any of that?

Viertel: I really feel like it’s a question of where you start as a person. If you think of yourself in a framework of scarcity, and you imagine the world in competition with you, you’ll think of the organization in that way.

I feel like we do so much better financially and in terms of impact when we think of every organization whose mission overlaps with ours--we’re part of their organization, they’re part of ours. We’re defined more by our mission than by our 9-90. For me that’s fundamental…but not everyone feels that way. I think the non-profit sector sometimes in particular gets caught up in self-perpetuation.

But when you look at where real change is happening, I think there is a sense that people are motivated by a desire to see the world different than it is, not by a desire to see their organization bigger or more populated by volunteers. They want to see things actually change in the world. So anything that will help that happen is good for them. Anything that won’t, isn’t. That’s how really impactful partnerships emerge.

F.P.: In your work with food, do you have a way to work with cities around the country?

Viertel: We have chapters that are local with members in every state. We have 220 chapters. Some of them are urban. Some of them are rural. They do work that is relevant to their place. So, in a city that doesn’t have a farmers market, they might create a farmer’s market organization and set up a market. Where there are no gardens in the public schools, they might develop those gardens. So the work is local and often that means working with city employees, working closely with public schools in those cities or NGOs in those cities. The same is true in rural communities.

F.P.: Here in Columbus, Ohio there are a lot of gardening sites and different groups, but at least so far, I don’t have a sense of any entity pulling all of these efforts together in terms of people sharing tools, sharing volunteers or other resources. ******I didn’t think of it while speaking with Viertel, but the Growing to Green program of the City of Columbus may be facilitating the work of a variety of community gardening organizations.********

Viertel: I don’t think that alliances for alliances sake really necessarily make sense. It generally comes from doing work. For example, if you’re in a rural community, you wouldn’t just ask everyone to work together. Instead, you’d ask everyone to work together to raise a barn. So I think the barn has as much of a role in the alliance building as the willingness to build an alliance. That need for shared work is really important.

F.P.: I think that what you’re getting at is that specific projects will bring people together.

Viertel: You got to have something to actually work on. Then you got to find out where your interests genuinely align. Sometimes it makes for really funny partners. Sometimes you’ll get--I don’t know--the Sierra Club, the NRA, and Ducks Unlimited working together, even though most Sierra Club members might be strongly in favor of increased gun control regulation. But because habitat is a concern for hunters and hunters are a big constituent of the NRA, you see these natural alliances building out of actual shared interests. But if you took all those people and said “hey, let’s all work together,” they’d probably disagree on too many things to start.

So, an example from us , we have this campaign right now called Time For Lunch, and it’s about changing the way school lunch works in our public schools. There’s a bill that’s going to be reformed and that bill determines--it has to be reformed by the end of the year-- what 30 million kids eat every day in our public schools. These are 30 million of the poorest kids. Right now they eat food that makes them sick.

So, when we started doing this campaign, we were very careful not to brand it as Slow Food’s push for real food in school. We created essentially a separate brand and that was a deliberate alliance building move. It was a move so that any organization that was feeling insecure about supporting another organization could just support a campaign. The research that they put into it can feed back into their organization. They don’t have to feed back to us. What matters for us is changing the bill (The Child Nutrition Act).

So if our identity means that people are somehow going to feel that they have to support our organization, I don’t need our identity anymore. We’ll create another identity that everyone can support, so that they can support their organization and support the change that we need. That’s been really successful. We have a day of action coming up on Labor Day.

We have 245 events planned in every state except Mississippi. 48 percent of those events are planned by individuals or organizations that don’t have anything to do with Slow Food. For me, that’s a sign of huge success. That means that we picked an issue that matters to everyone. We weren’t so focused on growing our organization that we forgot about our mission. We created room for lots of citizens and organizations to get involved with making change.

F.P.: Could you say a little bit about the bill?

Viertel: The Child Nutrition Act determines the reimbursement rate and regulations for oversight of dietary guidelines for school lunch and it also makes, in theory, funding available for farm-to-school programs and school garden initiatives.

We have three things we’re asking for. One, is you got to increase the reimbursement rate so schools can afford to buy real food. Right now, when schools get fully reimbursed they get less than a dollar to spend on ingredients for lunch, which is obscene. So, we want one more dollar per day.

(Two) We’re asking for dietary guidelines applied to all food served in schools. Right now, vending machine and other fast food companies can sell food in schools without being regulated. Harken and Woolsey have sponsored a bill that pushes for that regulation.

(Three) We are pushing for mandatory funding for farm-to-school programs, to get schools set up to buy local food and mandatory funding for grants so that schools can set up gardens. Various organizations relate to these goals differently, but these goals were in common enough that local organizations felt that they could become part of the campaign.

F.P.: Am I overreaching if I say that the way the laws are set up now, big corporations have a lot of influence in terms of what type of food ends up in the schools that have government-funded lunch programs? I asked Viertel this because I suspect that a theme that many environmental and social justice causes may have in common is this: too much power in the hands of too few people.

Viertel: Absolutely. Right now our schools are basically the dumping grounds for the leftovers of corporate and industrial agriculture, and the law is set up to reinforce that. Another set of laws governed by the farm bill makes that food really cheap, and we need to change those laws as well. ******By the ‘Farm Bill’, Viertel is referring to the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008.******

But in the 70s and early 80s, Congress made it possible for the school lunch program to be basically run by private companies and they used that as an opportunity to move really inexpensive, low quality product, but also to establish their brand.

So, when school lunch went to fast food, obesity peaked and so did brand recognition for fast food. So, kids started thinking that what it was to eat was to eat a burger and fries. That was great for the business model for fast food companies and created customers for life through our federal public school system, but it also made our kids really sick.

F.P.: A pretty commonly accepted idea among local food advocates is that this food that’s cheap to make and highly profitable for large food companies is not nutritious and bad in other ways. High fructose corn syrup comes to mind. Like you say, it makes sense in terms of the business model for industrial agriculture, but it’s not good in terms of nutrition and in terms of having thriving local economies.

Viertel: It’s also not good in terms of Climate Change. It’s also not good in terms of public education or for the future of our economy if you have 1 in 3 kids growing up with diet-related disease, which is what we’re going to have soon--1 in 3 kids under the age of 9 will have diabetes. That will be really bad for our national economy. We won’t be very productive. It’s bad for healthcare costs.

Really every single national priority relates back to the food we eat and the way it’s produced, particularly when it comes to our kids.

F.P.: You might even go a step further and say that children perform better in school if they have better nutrition.

Viertel: There’s a whole slew of studies that show that. The CDC backs that up. It’s a no-brainer. It (local food) is good for test scores. From test scores to Climate Change, this is good news, which makes it easy to build alliances around. Who’s against giving kids real food, food that doesn’t make them sick?

F.P.: So, if I understand you correctly, what’s gotten in the way is that the business model of agricultural conglomerates is based on getting a product that is relatively cheap to make, to a mass consumer base which you have in these government administered school lunch programs?

Viertel: Yes, although I would go a step further and say that the business model is co-created by, and co-dependent on, federal policy. That business model depends on bad federal policy and bad federal policy was made in part because of very strong support from corporate interests.

F.P.: I don’t want to over-generalize but you might say that a theme common to the work of a wide variety of environmental groups is that too much power is in the hands of too few people, and that this is tied to the influence of major corporations on our political process. Do you see that dynamic going on? Actually, I think I ought to know your answer to that question by now, sorry.

Viertel: That happens, but what’s very exciting is that, whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, this is an administration which is calling up people with the kind of values we have and asking for our help and our advice.

So, whether you are very right leaning or very left leaning, if you believe that food, agriculture and the environment are connected, and that we should have a food system that’s good for people and good for the land, this administration wants to hear from you. They’re supportive of those endeavors.

We’ve been very pleasantly surprised to be on a lot of phone calls and in a lot of meetings with the executive branch, but also with legislators about how to change legislation that determines what kind of food system we have.

So, yes corporate interests make it hard, but we’re in a place right now where I think that there’s interest in Washington in changing things.

F.P.: I have two questions. How much collaboration are you getting from major corporations? And two, it seems to me that you’re for getting beyond a partisan mentality?

Viertel: When corporations do the right thing, we need to applaud them. And then we need to say “here’s the next step.” We are basically a grass-roots organization. We have citizens all across the country in every state who care about these issues.

We’re never going to be beholden to corporate interests. We would never take sponsorship money that changes the decisions we make about the programs we run or the work we do or the way we advocate. That’s just a non-starter for us.

But we know that corporations need to change their behavior in order to meet our mission. So we’ll absolutely push them to do the right thing. We have to work with them, but we’re not going to work for them.

You had another question about non-partisanship, right? I think that (non-partisanship) is absolutely important. I have met people who are from extreme libertarian to extreme socialist who believe in what we’re doing.

We are about real food that’s good for the environment and that’s good for people. Anything that’s for that, we’re for. Anything that’s against that, we’re against. We believe very strongly in a culture and community that grows out of having real food. We believe that food that’s good for people and good for the land is a right, not just a privilege.

This isn’t just about convincing wealthy people to change their shopping habits. We find that there’s support for these ideas in rural communities, in urban communities, in right leaning communities and left leaning communities.

So I think that bipartisanship is absolutely right. I think that the left has a slightly stronger history than the right recently on these issues, but in a big picture way in terms of the Farm Bill, that’s not necessarily the case.

There are people on both sides of the aisle who’ve made horrible decisions about what policies to support, and people on both sides of the aisle have made a really good attempt to change things. So, I don’t see this as a Republican or Democrat issue at all.

F.P.: Right, no matter who you are, whether you consider yourself Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, conservative or progressive, and so on, the vast majority of us are significantly invested in our current way of doing things, whether it’s in terms of our dependence on industrialized agriculture, our energy-intensive transportation system, or how we use energy, most of which is generated by burning coal.

So, it would seem that it’s not a partisan issue because all of us are tied into this. If there’s going to be a solution, we’ve got to get beyond the left-versus-right mentality.

Viertal: All of us eat. All of us live in the world and all of us are connected to the world through the food we eat and the way it’s produced. So we have a common interest in doing it right.

F.P.: You mentioned earlier that the left has traditionally been more in-tuned with the local food movement than the right. What are some of the ways to connect with people on the right of the political spectrum in terms of food issues?

Viertel: The right is diverse, just like the left is diverse. But I think that there is a significant group of Republicans who would be very concerned about the federal government intervening in a major way in markets in order to support major corporate interests, with no concern for small and midsize businesses.

That feels very un-American to a lot of Republicans. They want to see the federal government not intervening in markets and not intervening legislatively in ways that make it harder to be an independent, small-businessperson.

If you look at agricultural policy-whether it’s regarding food safety or farm subsidies-- you see over and over again that federal policy intervenes in a way that consolidates production, distribution and processing in a way that favors a very small number of individuals or corporations at the expense of a very large number of individual, small, independent business owners and small independent farmers.

That flies in the face of what I think of as mainstream Republican values. So I think there’s huge overlap from a values perspective around that. I also think that in rural communities the notion of community, culture and hard work is very alive and needs to be respected and that resonates with a more right-leaning American base. So, there are a lot of ways in which I see overlap.

******I asked Viertel why there isn’t yet a big movement for local and organic food. Many of the people I encounter don’t care much about it and don’t know much about it. Many of the people I talk with seem to think mostly of taste, convenience and how much it costs to buy the food from a super-market chain. The healthfulness of the food factors in somewhere for many people, but most people I encounter don’t seem concerned about the environmental and social justice issues related to food. *******

F.P.: The principles that you’re presenting--- still I don’t hear a lot about in the mainstream print or broadcast outlets. They’re hinted at, but it isn’t something that people are accepting as a given.

That’s what I’m curious about--why there’s not a broader movement. That’s why I contacted you in the first place. I am trying to get a sense of what’s preventing our society from having a broader implementation of these principles.

There’s a lot of talk about this and a lot of things written about this, but we’re still going full speed ahead in terms of our industrialized agricultural system, in terms of our resource-intensive transportation system.

I’m not being fatalistic. I’m just curious about what you think some of the obstacles are -- or what are the solutions, to say it in a positive way.

Viertel: If you look at popular culture right now, we’re almost ahead of ourselves. I passed by a billboard the other day. I think it was for Chevron. It made a claim about being local. It was a gas company which I think means that it’s local because the gas station is where you have your car parked.

The billboard read “it’s local-the way it should be,” which of course is silly. If I stop at a gas station in Park Slope or Greenwood Heights where I live in New York City and it says “it’s local, the way it should be” and all it means is that it (the gas station) is where I am, it doesn’t really say anything about its production or what it means for the environment or local economies.

It just means they have an outlet there. There are potato chip companies that are working to make sure they’re able to say that their products are locally grown.These ad campaigns are build on an incredible quantity of expensive market research.

That says that Americans want local food right now. Americans want to support local businesses right now, and they’re willing to change their purchasing behavior for it, otherwise corporations wouldn’t be bending over backwards to prove that they are local.

So that’s one thing. Another thing which I think is really important to recognize is that the food system that we have right now, the way food and agriculture works in America right now… is a culture of fast food.

The culture of fast food has consequences such as diabetes, obesity, failing independently owned family farms, global warming. We can’t afford those consequences anymore. Once you recognize that, then a different kind of food and farming starts to be appealing.

F.P.: If I may interpret, you can even add to that list of things, Peak Oil, in terms of the liabilities of industrial agriculture. There’s a book called The Oil We Eat, I am sure you’re familiar with that. So, a question is whether our response to that is commensurate with the challenges. It seems that the (environmental) challenges are towering above us. Our responses seem dwarfed by the challenges.

Viertel: I think that’s right, but I also think that in that circumstance where it’s David- versus- Galliath, that’s where David really performs. So, we’re little right now, but we are--by ‘we’ I don’t mean Slow Food--I mean this whole broader movement--we are on to something. It’s an idea whose time has come. What that means is that you have an enormous amount of power. When vast corporations are imitating your language in order to sell their products, you’re on to something.

So we’re seeing an incredible amount of change. We have to roll up our sleeves and get to work. We have to step it up as organizations to engage in national advocacy, but also as citizens, and I think that together we can make a lot of change.

That brings me back to the place where you started--alliance building. You started by talking about whether folks were too concerned about competing with each other to build meaningful alliances that could build a base of power that could get change to happen. From my perspective, we just don’t have time for that kind of thinking. We have really important work to do.

F.P.: So, I guess that to start the process you have to just do it. For example, I have a garden I am growing with cucumbers and tomatoes. Some for me, some for the raccoons.

Viertel: You share

F.P.: I’m sharing with the raccoons, yeah. We don’t sit down and dine together, but the raccoons are having a good part of it. Next year I’ll know better. I think they can get their food somewhere else. But, it’s a matter of doing it on an individual level and doing what you can to connect with others doing it on a broader scale.

Maybe, part of my problem is that I expect there to be solutions immediately. A guy that does a show called “Deconstructing Dinner” with Kootenay Co op Radio up in Canada-- I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of him--John Steinman. He’s a journalist up in Canada. He quoted a lady by the name of Frances Moore Lappe.

Viertel: Oh yeah, I know Frances.

F.P.: He was saying that she said that we really don’t know where these processes will lead (and that) there’s no guarantee that these processes will be successful in addressing some of the macrocosmic problems such as Climate Change or Peak Oil.

(My guess is that) what we do know are some of the immediate results such as an improved sense of community, improved public health. We know that much, but beyond that we don’t have guarantees. And we know that it’s the thing we need to be doing, and we don’t know every twist and turn along the road, but we still have to go in that general direction even though there is no guarantee of our ultimate success. So I think that’s maybe one way to make sense of this.

Viertel: That makes sense

F.P. : I guess what’s motivating me in the broader sense is that when you look deeply into environmental challenges, there is a temptation, maybe not in your mind, but in my mind, to think “Is it worth it trying? Can we actually meet these challenges?”

If you get beyond the superficial greenness we see in the mainstream media, and look more deeply, it seems that a lot of our challenges are really incredible. It may be tempting to think that it’s not worth trying (to address our environmental problems).

But then again, well, that’s just a mood I get that comes and goes. I don’t know if you yourself have ever had that sense that the challenges are so great that the prospects for solving them are not good.

******I think that what I was trying to get at while speaking with Viertel is that on many occasions during the past couple of years, I have imagined streets filled with bicyclists, instead of mostly single-occupancy internal combustion-powered vehicles; the bounty of organic gardens filling most suburban and urban plots, instead of chemically treated lawns; solar panels on most rooftops; and windmills on the horizon. ********

Sometimes I think that if only all the environmentalists and social justice activists did a better job of working together, we’d create a mass movement to realize that vision. That is what I think on a good day when I’m hopeful. On a bad day, I suspect humankind may be doomed. ******

Viertel: Well, I don’t see it as a process that has an end, and for me that makes it much more appealing. I think you do good work trying to make the kind of change you want to see in the world.

We all have to work to make the difference between the world we live in and the world we want to live in. And that work in and of itself should be rewarding. We should be engrossed in that work. If you’re having a great time making the kind of change you want to make, then you’re living a full life.

Worrying about whether at the end of the day you’ll get there, to me is much less important than being authentically engrossed in trying to make the kind of changes you want to see happen.

Actually, I’m very optimistic. I see so many people all over this country who are pushing for exactly the kind of things I’d be pushing for if I were in the same situation. It makes me feel that I am part of a very big, powerful, but decentralized community. That’s the sort of social movement--I mean it’s not an over-powering charismatic individual. It’s not some big organization. It’s an ecosystem of all these things together and I see that coming to pass.

F.P. Sure, that’s what I said in my email to Brian (Director of Communications for Slow Food-USA) . When I am thinking of alliances, I am not thinking of a centralized---

Viertel: Powerbase

F.P. : Right, not a centralized powerbase where everyone is lockstep in their philosophies and practices. I think that centralization is part of the problem in the first place.

Viertel: Especially after the internet. You can’t do that anymore.