By Sophia Schoderer
“Tell me what you eat and I shall tell you what you are.” – (Brillant-Savarin, 1949)
Food, glorious food
Food habits differ all over the world. The availability of resources and geographical characteristics has led to the evolution of different food and eating traditions around the globe. In some parts of the world, food might only be important in terms of ingestion- a source of energy to get through the day. And in certain cases, food gets of an importance that goes beyond our current “western” notion of it, it gets a basis for life. For others, who live with the privilege of having plenty of it, food can have a meaning and importance that goes even further then kilojoules and calories. Since a lack of it will never threaten their existence, people can assign other values to it or even use it in terms of self-portrayal by posting their meals on social media with a “foodporn” hashtag. The latter can be seen as an example for the various changes that have occurred over the last years in how food is perceived by a part of the world population. These changes can´t be understood without linking them to the shift in food production in the last decades. Today, nearly everything we eat is industrially produced and that has consequences beyond the always filled-up shelves at the supermarket.
In recent years, a growing awareness of both climate change and the environmental, social and health impacts of industrial food production have led to the emergence of several food movements, mostly in the Global North. One of these movements is the Slow Food Movement which was founded in Italy in 1986 by a group of activists around Carlo Petrini after a demonstration on the intended site for a McDonald’s restaurant in Rome. It was a reaction to the increasing presence of fast food, the standardization of food and taste and the fact that people have lost touch with what they eat. The initial aim of the movement was to defend regional traditions, good food and gastronomic pleasure. In 1989 the Slow Food Manifesto was signed by delegates of 15 countries and the international Slow Food organization was officially founded, which Slow Food Netherlands joined after its creation in 2008. In the manifesto, Slow Food laid the foundation for its philosophy which can be described in three words: Good, clean and fair. Their vision is that everybody should have access to food and be able to enjoy food that is good for all three: oneself, the producer and the planet. Over the course of two decades with increasing globalization, Slow Food has turned into an international food movement. This led to a widening of its focus to include world-wide and universal issues like sustainability. Today Slow Food is involved in projects and connected to people in over 160 countries, among them a Youth Food Movement, which is the Slow Food Movement for youth that also exists in the Netherlands.
Me = Food Lover
I see myself as a so-called “food lover”- I enjoy eating good food, but I am also conscious about the kind of food I buy. This might be due to how I grew up and the kind of attitude towards food that is prevalent in my family. Food has always been important for us and eating was and is considered quality time that the whole family spends together. Therefore I am used to the notion of eating as a social act and I have always been conscious about the kind of food I consume, since my family grows many of the vegetables and fruit we eat in our own garden and we still make our own jam and juice from those. However upon moving to Berlin, I noticed how much harder it is to get information on where the food is coming from in a bigger city. Since then, I have been taking part in many food events and markets, but even though I care about food issues, I have never been a member of a food movement. When I think about an explanation for that, I guess that I have always considered myself too busy or not enough into it to really get involved.
However, this made me curious about the exact point when people decide to turn their interest into an active involvement in a food movement like Slow Food. Who are the young people who actually do take part in these movements, what motivates them and gives them the push to get involved? Being a member of a movement certainly requires time and effort, so that there must be a goal that those young people want to achieve. What do they hope to achieve with their involvement? Do they still pursue the initial goals of the Slow Food Movement or did these change over the years? I was also curious about how present the convictions of the Slow Food Movement are in the daily life of its young members and if they are really taken into account when it comes to grocery shopping, for example. Many young people don´t really seem to care about what kind of produce they buy, as long as it’s cheap, tasty and good-looking, but does is this also true for young Slow Food enthusiasts? How do they negotiate slow lifestyles and the dominant consumption patterns in their surroundings?
In this research paper, I analyze the Youth Food Movement of Amsterdam by using semi-structured interviews I conducted with three members of the movement that I met while joining some events they organized: Jan, Marieke and Laura. In addition to that I will use the answers from two members who replied to the online survey that I had send out to all members of the Youth Food Movement: Pim and Camille, as well as my own experiences while conducting the research. All of my respondents have different roles within the movement and have been active for different time spans. I will take a look at the dynamics within the movement and the individual experiences of my respondents to find out what the members’ goals and motivations are, as well as the points of friction between the Slow Food convictions and dominant consumption patterns according to my respondents. In the end I will combine these findings with my observations when visiting the Amsterdam Food Festival, where I talked to people who went to the Slow Food stall and the information staff behind it.
Counterculture, New Social Movements and Lifestyle
Luca Simonetti’s analysis of Slow Food considers the movement to be a “descendant of the countercultural and anti-consumerist movements of the 1960’s and 70s.” Slow Food’s opposition to fast food and its ambition to return back to local goods and a slower pace of life can be seen as a “position deriving from the counterculture of the 60s and 70s as many other contemporary social movements” (Simonetti 2012: 170). The movement’s origins in counterculture are apparent in Slow Food’s conviction that the future can be “modified and guided by the consumption choices of individuals” (Petrini 2005: 80) as stated in the movement’s manifesto. Apart from that, the Slow Food Movement can be considered one of the new social movements that have appeared in the Western societies alongside post-industrial capitalism and globalization in the last 50 years and that aim to bring about social changes through identity, lifestyle and culture. But what distinguishes Slow Food from other critical consumption or anti-globalization movements?
According to Simonetti, the difference is that Slow Food combines anti-consumerist positions like downshifting and fair trade, with pleasure and taste. As mentioned above, Slow Food also focusses on changes in identity and lifestyle and encourages its members to take action in everyday life and in the civil dimensions of society to promote a certain kind of slow lifestyle. It can therefore also be seen as a lifestyle movement which Haenfler et al. conceptualize “as the conjuncture of the private and public forms of enacting and living the social change” (Wahlen and Laamannen, 2015: 397), with lifestyles being “salient and instrumental to consumption.” It could therefore be argued that the combination of lifestyle, pleasure, taste and consumption patterns is the primary difference between Slow Food and other similar movements.
A Night Out with Slow Food
It’s Thursday evening and I have made my way to Amsterdam East after class to join the Youth Food Movement Amsterdam’s monthly “borrel”. While looking up their website to figure out how to get in touch with them, I found that the movement’s members meet up once a month at Instock, a recently opened restaurant which uses produce that they pick up from Albert Hijn to save it from being thrown away, and everybody is welcome to join. I have always wanted to try that restaurant and a “borrel” seems like a relaxed way to get in touch. So here I am, aiming to make the most out of the night and to hopefully meet some people to interview.
The first thing I realize when I enter the place is that the interior design as well as the people dining there all look quite fancy and I feel a bit misplaced carrying around my school bag. It’s also quite new to me to show up somewhere all by myself, so I quickly head to the bar to order a drink. With something to drink in my hand, I already feel less awkward. After a while I find out that the Youth Food Movement is having a special event tonight, combining their meeting with watching a documentary about Food Waste, which sounds interesting to me but also makes me worry about whether I will actually be able to have a good chat with any of the members. Slowly the place starts to fill up and I realize that everybody is a lot older than me. The fact that one of the owners of Instock is also a member of the YFM astonishes me but also proves my spontaneous assumption that most of the people in the movement are already working. This doesn’t only show in their age, but also in the office clothes that some of them still wear.
When I decided to write about the Youth Food Movement, I pictured myself investigating a movement with people around the same age as me or even younger, but apparently my expectations don’t meet reality. Still, I get to talk to people rather quickly. Most of them are members of the movement, which makes me aware of my outsider position, but everybody is very friendly and the atmosphere is quite relaxed. Some people are still having dinner, the rest is standing in circles, chatting. After a while a person my age enters and I decide to make use of the opportunity and start talking to him. It is funny and weird at the same time how much easier it is to connect to somebody if the person has the same age. In any case, I have found my first respondent: Jan.
Our conversation gets interrupted by the start of the documentary. The whole group is watching “Taste for Waste” and discusses the film and the topic afterwards. Even though it’s really interesting, it takes a long time and it starts to get late, so I am quite relieved when the discussion has officially ended. I start another chat with the person sitting next to me and it turns out that Marieke is my second respondent. As it is quite late at this point, I decide to make my way home and ask some other members whether they would be open for an interview with me at a later point. We agree to meet again at the Food Film Festival in a couple of weeks.
While I’m cycling home, I reflect on the evening: It might be harder to get people to interview than I initially thought, but I still had a really nice evening.
Getting Started: Motivations and Aspirations
When I ask my respondents about why they decided to get involved in the Youth Food Movement, only Marieke names taste as a reason. Having grown up on a farm in the countryside, she has always been used to fresh and self-made products. That’s why the preservation and cultivation of taste and the pleasure of eating is something crucial to her movement involvement. The others name broader subjects that reach from sustainability, health and an interest in responsible consumption to a certain kind of critical thinking that Jan identifies with and that attracted him to the Youth Food Movement. Most of them got in touch with the Youth Food Movement through related events like the Food Film Festival, so that it seems to me like coincidence played a big part in how people got to know about the movement and started to get involved. All of them agree that they didn’t specifically choose Slow Food over other food movements in the beginning, even if some of them completely identify with the Slow Food convictions or slow lifestyles by now.
All the movement’s members I have talked to have been active in the movement for different time spans and have different roles in its organization. These reach from chairman to communications liaison or even short-term trainee, as is the case with Jan. Despite these differences all of them seem to have similar aspirations and goals that they want to achieve with their involvement.
“I want to spread the message that we make a choice that affects the food system every time we eat. Young people should be more aware of the underlying food system and have more interest, respect and love for the food they eat.” (Pim)
Raising people’s consciousness and awareness seems to be one of the main goals that young Slow Food enthusiasts want to achieve as well as the formation of a community that brings people together who are conscious about the same things.
Glocality: Acting Local on a Global Basis
In recent years, a general shift from local to global aspects in Slow Food’s focus has been evident in the emphasis on word-wide issues like sustainability or health, which is stated on the Slow Food website but also reported by my respondents. Local aspects are still present, but more in a way of building up local communities and connecting them to each other in a global sense. The emphasis on taste and pleasure seems to have diminished or at least isn’t as important to young Slow Food members anymore, which also implies that the goals of the movement’s younger generation are less individual than those of the initial ones. Making people aware of the system and changing it goes further than just one’s own plate or personal consumption and addresses a broader audience, what implies an extended sense of agency.
Performing and Constructing Identity
Identity plays a central and multi-layered role in each movement’s mobilization strategies. Individuals can build new identities through movement participation, (Hayes-Conroy, Martin 2010: 79), so that people may join a movement in search of identity but also because they strongly identify with the movement’s convictions. Therefore self-definition and identity can be seen as strong motivating factors for participating in a movement, maybe especially for more diffuse movements like Slow Food that focus on action in everyday life.
This is the case for some of my respondents as well. Almost all of them state that they have always considered themselves responsible consumers, so that they already identified to some extent with Slow Food’s convictions. Getting involved in the movement could be considered a performance of this identity. But as identity is a fluent concept that can be constructed and changed, participation in the movement also shapes the member’s identities. Laura for example talks about a process of exploring different sides of herself, as the movement stimulates or inspires her to experience new things, like for example trying out another lifestyle. She describes with enthusiasm her life as a vegetarian for one year that according to her wasn’t only a fun experience but also brought her personal gain.
Self-actualization is therefore also crucial for any movement, as it can also be combined with larger goals. Apart from that, identity is also constructed within the group, as all members learn from each other and experience the same difficulties and struggles which make them grow together and develop techniques to overcome these troubles. According to Marieke, there is always a point of frustration which is shared by almost all members even though it can have different causes. In her case, it is mostly due to the question whether you can really change people and make them aware, which arises for example when there are few or no visitors for events. However, being surrounded by people with the same interests who are passionate about the same things help to deal with these frustrations. Fun and a sense of community can therefore be seen as aspects of group identity which also develop in the course of movement participation.
What I find really surprising and interesting is that the majority of my respondents considers themselves activists, even though Camille points out some differences.
“I see myself as an activist but not so much as a screaming hippie with a handmade banner in the streets. More an ambassador of good, clean and fair food, reaching people with cool events and a solid story to tell. The vibe is positive, it’s about showing people what power they have, what choices they have and how almost everything is entangled in food.” (Camille)
This calls into question the stereotype of an activist which many people still share and shows how the members of the Youth Food Movement define and see themselves. Consumer activism can be practiced differently, for example through protesting or boycotting (Wahlen & Laamanen 2015: 97) but basically it means to resist something collectively. That the Slow Food members see themselves as activists implies that they are opposed to industrial mass food production and its impacts on the world and on its people. It also entails that they separate themselves from the undiscerning mainstream society and its dominant consumption patterns, which they still try to influence through teaching and raising consciousness.
Camille’s statement also shows that she redefines activism for herself as a concept that isn’t limited to protest, which might be true for other Slow Food members as well. The notion of activism also changes the perception of the Slow Food phenomenon, as anything being related to organic food previously had the image of being gray and boring. Considering it as an activist movement, gives it a more positive, empowered and youthful appearance and might attract more young people.
Negotiating Lifestyle and Consumption Patterns
One of my main points of interest upon starting this research paper was how strictly along the Slow Food convictions members of the Youth Food Movement live and how present these convictions are in the daily lives of my respondents. Although I care about food, I am not always keeping up the responsible consumer attitude and I end up getting the non-biological burger or the apples from Chile, so I was wondering how the young Slow Food members negotiate lifestyle and consumption. Consumption can be seen as a complex relational activity (Featherstone, 1991), people “send messages to others with their consumption choices and also adapt them in light of others’ perception of them.” (Pietrykowski 2004: 308). It was really interesting how the responses varied with each person I talked to about their way of dealing with these choices. Few took up the Slow Food convictions as an entire lifestyle that applies to all consumption choices, not just food. Marieke for example mentioned that she also avoids shopping at big brands like H&M and showers only for a certain amount of time not to use too much water. But the majority admitted that they don’t always follow the Slow Food convictions. However, they are still constantly aware of them, so that they always judge their consumption choices according to the Slow Food principles, which Laura summed up nicely for me.
“Slow Food makes me think more and be more conscious. Sure I don’t always follow the convictions when I go shopping, sometimes other things just get priority. Sometimes there is no time or no money to be conscious. But then I am at least aware of the fact that I consumed irresponsibly or badly.” (Laura)
Jan, who was my youngest respondent and who is still a student even said that it is impossible for him to adapt his lifestyle to the Slow Food principles, as he can’t afford it. According to him, he has to set priorities and at this point in life, he’d rather invest in something else even though he would like to consume more responsibly. He still reflects on what he buys even when his convictions don’t dominate his consumption patterns.
All respondents agreed on the fact that they would always live after the Slow Food code of conduct if that were financially possible. This could be due to a strong identification with the Slow Food principles but might also be caused by a desire to show this part of their identity publicly. After all, one of the main psychological motives of critical consumption is a drive towards identity and self-gratification, which results in an increase in symbolical consumption choices (Simonetti 2012: 171). Apart from that people might answer differently while being interviewed, to let the movement’s principles and their individual behavior appear as congruent as possible.
The answers my respondents gave indicate that the negotiation between Slow Food ideology and consumption patterns is solved individually and that there seems to be a spectrum in this. The convictions might function as a guideline that everybody is aware of, but the degree to which it influences consumption patterns is subject to individual decisions. These also indicate to which degree Slow Food is adapted as a lifestyle. In some cases, an identification with Slow Food doesn’t lead to an identification with slow lifestyles in general, even though Slow Food promotes a consciousness of other topics. Apart from that, the current state and status of life also seems to play an important role, but I will get back to that aspect later.
Developing Agency: Movement vs. Network
“I think the large network of young people, farmers, fishermen and other small scale producers, but also other people interested in a more sustainable food system, is really special. We are connected throughout the whole Netherlands and the world, and thereby have a great impact on the future of food. It makes me believe we, our generation, want and can change the food system.” (Pim)
When I ask my Slow Food friends about the strong and empowering aspects of the movement, they all have the same answer: the network. The combination of people involved in Slow Food and the wide-spread reach of the movement is its most powerful aspect according to my respondents. This can be linked to globalization and an increasing importance of world-wide networks in general, facilitated by the internet and social media which Pim also refers to while explaining why this generation has more power than previous ones. From his point of view, this generation is much more connected than those before, which makes networking easier and strengthens the movement. In the case of Slow Food the broad network of people with different professions and from different parts of the world leads to a large representation in diverse areas, what also increases the sphere of influence.
Apart from that, Slow Food prepares food in a hip and palatable way, which means that the members can experience and connect to the principles personally, through tastings and workshops. According to Laura, the Youth Food Movement tries to organize a lot of fun activities which are popular and make the events attractive for young people.
“We want to show them that we are having fun and a good time while being active and doing good stuff.” (Laura)
This can be seen as a mere instrumental device, aiming to attract more young people, but it also resonates with the sense of self of many of the members, as mentioned above. The softening of projects as well as the non-confrontational form of activism make Slow Food palatable to many, as do workshops, tastings and lectures that are all easily accessible and comfortable kinds of social action. However, it also raises some doubts about the effectiveness and impact that the Youth Food movement’s activities ultimately have. Consciousness about personal decision could be raised by these events, which definitely has an impact on an individual level. But what about the effectiveness of these events on a broader scale? When sharing these thoughts with my respondents, I get the following answer:
“There is no certain picture that anybody has to fulfill, we are open to everyone, we don’t predict a certain way of how to be active. Everybody has to find his own way of making a difference, everybody who wants to be part and wants to do something is welcome to do whatever he feels like.” (Laura)
This emphasizes the fact that in theory, the members are largely free to believe and live in ways that feel good to them while celebrating whichever aspects of the Slow Food ideology they find pleasing. On the one hand this inclusiveness could further broaden the network and thereby strengthen the movement, but it could also result in a diversified movement where its most important, its larger goals are neglected, if everybody can define them individually. Stephen Schneider also relates to this aspect. He is “drawing the attention to the difficulty in building a movement based on individual lifestyle choice, particularly when such choices are understood only as individual lifestyle preferences” (Schneider 2008: 396).
Nonetheless, consumption practice itself embodies agency and can be seen as a way of constructing a socio-economic and cultural surrounding through everyday activities. And as lifestyles are both salient and instrumental to consumption (Wahlen& Laamanen 2015: 397), agency also lies in the promotion of slow lifestyles by the Youth Food Movement.
In the end, all the strategies the movement applies and the events that it organizes are only relevant if there is an audience that they can address. But what kind of people does the movement attract, is there a specific social group that they are mainly talking to? In order to explain this better, I use Bourdieu´s concept of cultural capital and his notion of habitus. Cultural capital refers to the knowledge, practices and familiarity with the rules and norms that govern everyday life, including consumption behavior, within a given social class (Pietrykowski 2004: 313). The habitus entails a set of embodied habits, predispositions or capacities of an individual, developed through one’s encounters with the world and highly mediated by one’s family of origin, as well as one’s class, race, gender and other social markers (Kennelly 2009: 300). The fact that all my respondents went or are still going to university raises the question whether participation in the Youth Food Movement requires certain cultural capital that could be restricted to highly educated young people. Apart from that all the members I talked to came from Dutch middle or upper-class families, which could also be important considering audience and movement participation. Jan also mentions financial status and refers to his own life and surroundings as a student when he says that money issues could keep young people from joining the movement. Interestingly when I address this question while talking to Laura, I get another answer.
”Most of the people joining the movement just finished studying and started working, so we are mostly young professionals. I think that it takes time to realize and get aware of stuff that is going wrong. Some people start to get involved with food because of their work, others are too busy while studying or have other priorities which keep them from joining.” (Laura)
The switch of the objectives of consumption, from material subsistence to social signaling through responsible consumption only occurs in countries where the living standards are high (Pietrykowski 2004: 308). In countries where that is the case, this could be applied to individuals whose socio-economic status is relatively high. Slow Food or in this case the Youth Food Movement could be a producer of cultural capital, which can be acquired through tastings, seminars and living after the principles of the Slow Food Movement in these settings. Nonetheless, getting in touch or becoming involved in the movement could also already require a certain amount of cultural capital.
The movement´s audience therefore seems restricted in certain ways, as the movement might be exclusive to people who gained a higher education and are of higher socio-economic status. In the end, this is what allows them to privilege symbolic use value over material use value. Still, my respondents agree on the fact that they want to ensure the movement stays open to everybody and that they want to address a broad audience, as I mentioned above.
“We have the network and the movement, but the people who are participating in the network also support the movement, which makes them part of the movement as well.” (Laura)
In this case the network could function as a link between people who are interested and the movement´s members, as participating in the network doesn´t require any capital and still supports the movement. But despite that, the question remains whether people actually get to hear from or get in touch with the movement and whether communication in this sense exceeds class and in-group boundaries.
A Day Out at the Amsterdam Food Festival
After visiting certain events organized by the Youth Food Movement and talking to different people about it, I am excited to see how all of this looks like when it comes to real life or practice: food. And I admit that after everything I have heard, my expectations are quite high.
The Food Festival itself is a four-day long festival with different food trucks, food markets and music. But the most interesting thing for me are the Slow Food stalls, which have been announced on the Facebook event. Even though it is Slow Food Amsterdam and not the Youth Food Movement, I am very interested in how they present their movement on this festival.
When I get there, I am surprised by the huge amount of people visiting the festival, as there is a line in front of almost every food truck. The whole event seems to be quite hip, there are many young people, the music is some kind of electro and techno mix and the whole atmosphere is relaxed. After the big online announcement of the presence of Slow Food at the festival, I am quite disappointed when I find out that they only have one stall. And when I get there, I am even more disappointed as they only sell kitchen gear or cooking books instead of food and give away information folders. The hip and palatable aspect that I have been talking about with the Youth Food members is completely missing and the only thing you can taste is a traditional biological Dutch cheese. All the other food trucks seem to attract more young people than the Slow Food stall. This is confirmed by one of the women behind it, who tells me that mostly families or people above 35 frequent their stall. After some chatting about the event she tells me that Slow Food doesn’t go to festivals very often and that next time they also want to offer food to attract more people.
”The people coming here want to taste something, they want to try out food. Next time we also have to offer more than just information to attract more people, also youth.” (Slow Food)
As there is not much to see at the Slow Food stall, I do as the other young people and get some food from one of the trucks. While enjoying some organic Taiwanese street-food I observe the whole scenario some more, before heading home.
This paper has not only examined different aspects of the Youth Food Movement in Amsterdam, but also marked my own journey into this movement. Even though I knew some things about Slow Food, it turned out that only some of my expectations met reality, while others definitely didn´t.
Young people´s motivations to join the movement differ, however most of them felt a lack of information about the food they eat and the products they buy. By joining the movement, they wanted to learn more about the impacts of food production and their own opportunities for responsible consumption in today´s society. Apart from that raising other people´s consciousness and building of a community was central to most of the members in terms of aspirations and goals. In this sense, a shift has occurred from the more individual focus of the initial Slow Food goals towards more abstract and world-wide issues. Since this addresses a broader range of people and topics, it implies an expended sense of agency.
As with every movement, identity definition and construction also plays a central role in the Youth Food Movement, being a motivating factor as well as an outcome of participation. Interesting in this case is the redefinition of activism and the adoption of an activist identity by the majority of the Youth Food movement’s members, which gives the whole movement an empowered and positive notion and changes the image of organic food and food movements, which have long been considered boring and little youthful.
This is also where the movement’s agency lies. By making food an issue in a hip and palatable way, they give the movement a fun and positive image, which helps to attract people. Another strong point of the movement is its large network and combination of people being involved in it, what increases its sphere of influence – geographically and functionally. As consumption patterns and practices also embody agency and Slow Food promotes a certain lifestyle including consumption principles, individual agency lies in the personal consumption behavior of each member. In fact, every member negotiates between slow lifestyles and consumption patterns themselves. The Slow Food principles function as a sort of guideline in this case, but there is a spectrum in how much they influence the member’s consumption practices.
Even though the movement’s goals seem to be more open than the initial ones and it aims to address a broad public, a certain amount of cultural capital is required for people to participate. Therefore, the movement is still struggling with exclusiveness and some critics might even accuse it of elitism. However, the Youth Food Movement tries to lose this image and welcomes everybody to participate in the way they want to. Still, the current members and audience prove that the boundaries are little fluid and that the ability to put symbolic use value over material use value might not be open to everybody.
The fact that Slow Food and also the Youth Food Movement don’t oblige its members to participate in a specific way but rather invite them to live their activism whatever way that suits them could also lead to another difficulty: a diversified movement, whose larger goals might be neglected as everybody defines them personally. As I witnessed on the Food festival, Slow Food also still struggles with losing the rather boring image of old people in exclusive circles sitting around a table, drinking select wines and eating expensive cheese.
But the young generation of Slow Food does their best to break this image and to make people aware of something important: we have a choice in what we buy, eat and support. Food nourishes, but it also signifies.
 The respondent’s names have been changed fort his paper.
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