That we had to go through UNLV’s food court, featuring Taco Bell 49-cent beef crunchy tacos, to get to the slow-food-movement event did not dissuade us from believing that healthy local food has a future in Las Vegas. Much. We didn’t stop for tacos, hungry though we were, because it would’ve seemed gauche to show up at an event featuring lauded organic chef and author Alice Waters with Taco Bell on our breath. In that decision lies this whole story.
The place was packed. There was a line of people 30 minutes before showtime to see this panel discussion of foodies, “Food and Hunger: Eating in America,” hosted by the Black Mountain Institute. Waters was there. Raj Patel, international food scholar and activist, was there. David Mas Masumoto, organic farmer and writer, was there. There was an overflow room for people who couldn’t squeeze into the theater. The front rows were reserved for farmers; they were filled. Food journalists were present. Members of UNLV’s Epicurean Club. Onstage were tables of produce: melons, pomegranates. Several times during the discussion of gardening and food policy and community, Waters—owner of Berkeley’s Chez Panisse restaurant, a founder of this movement—paused, picked up a pomegranate and lost herself in thought.
There’s a weird high-low culture clash present in the slow-food discussions. The movement, which is gaining ground nationally, focuses on biodiversity and sustainability—basically, it’s a return to gardening locally and cooking fresh, a rejection of at least the last 60 years of food industrialization. It’s driven in large part by chefs—in Las Vegas, the Slow Food Movement USA chapter hosted an eight-course dinner with wine pairing event at one of chef Mario Batali’s restaurants last spring. Fresh food tastes better. But it’s also about slowing down to enjoy food and cooking and the “conviviality” that surrounds it. From there, the conversation slips into debates about food policy, economics and obesity rates, and stretches into talk of how food industrialization affects the unwitting consumer, or the consumer who, because of economics, has few choices. Patel and Waters spoke of teaching poor communities to farm for themselves instead of relying on trucked-in, processed food. Waters is convinced that providing all school lunches through local farming will result in healthier kids, better-educated kids, kids who will teach their parents healthier habits, lower health-care costs and a rising level of civility learned at the table.
“It’s about coming back to our senses, coming back to the table,” Waters told the crowd. “It seems to me that that is the place where we learn how to talk to one another, and how we learn how to pass the peas. And in passing the peas, you learn about generosity, and you’re not taught fast-food values. We’ve been eating fast food, and we don’t pay attention to the season, and we don’t care what the person in the kitchen is being paid, and we don’t care what time of year it is, we don’t care what time of day it is. And we only eat two or three things. And so those are the values we’re indulging about everything. About architecture, music ...”
And so at the end of the presentation, when Julie Murray, CEO of Three Square Food Bank in Las Vegas, asked the panel about starting a community garden behind the food bank, it wasn’t a question exclusively about food supply.
“My question is ... how do we do it in the desert? In our food-bank yard, we have a 30-by-30 rock garden, which is just pure rock, inches deep, so if we decide to move the rocks and plant our own garden so that the 60,000 children in this Valley who struggle with hunger get fresh homegrown food, will it work?”
Without local gardening experience, the panelists addressed it philosophically:
Waters: “I’m a picker, I’m not a farmer. But I have witnessed miraculous things around the world. ... We have to find out what grows where we live, and what’s the right thing. I just know that there are huge possibilities when we locally collaborate ...”
Masumoto: “It’s the journey that’s important. ... I think for you to even try planting something, the process of trying to grow something is just as important as the final product that you get. I think if you’re aiming just for product, you’re changing the process into a commodity, and suddenly there’s a question of what’s the economic value of it.”
Still, in Las Vegas, the practical side of the question looms. I called Bob Morris, UNR Cooperative Extension horticulturist and founding member of Slow Food Las Vegas. He said that more than 95 percent of food consumed in Las Vegas is trucked in, most of it from warehouses in LA, where it may have first been shipped from a grower in southern Arizona. “By the time the average carrot lands on your plate, it’s traveled 1,100 miles,” Morris said.
But the local community of small-acre farmers and backyard gardeners is growing. Two years ago, when the slow-food movement was just taking off, Morris said, there were two local producers. Now there are 50 within 100 miles. I asked what could be grown in our region. “Almost anything,” Morris said. “We have a real variety of climates.” As for water use, Morris called it a “hurdle,” but posited that water used for landscape gardening—aesthetics—could be used for vegetable gardens. “It’s about what do you want to get: aesthetics or recreation or food?”
I called Julie Murray to follow up on her plans to start a community garden. She said she got responses from numerous gardeners and landscapers willing to help, and that plans are forthcoming. She sees the potential garden as addressing two complementary issues. Poverty affects more than 210,000 people in Clark County, which amounts to a need for roughly 49 million pounds of food a year. Sixty thousand children here are deemed “food insecure”—which means their food source is unreliable. Adding a garden of donation produce couldn’t hurt in that regard. “I think we can find things that will grow here,” she said.
But also, she said, getting the community more directly involved in addressing poverty and hunger issues is a win-win. “I think the community is hungry for this type of project,” she said.