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Something is Rotten in the State of the Nation

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snailWarning: This is not a piece extolling the virtues of Slow Food Nation '08, so if there are delicate sensibilities out there who can't bear the suggestion that Slow Food Nation is anything other than shiny, happy people eating food, you should probably stop reading right now.

It would be one thing if this rant was all about how I volunteered at Slow Food Nation and all I got was this lousy apron.

That's not even the half of it. In fact, it's just emblematic of the entire SFN volunteering experience as I lived it. It's emblematic of the rudeness, the exclusion, the contradictions between what SFN advertised and what was actual, and the overall disgust I came away with after volunteering. The blog posts about what SFN did right are already thick on the ground, and the praise is prodigious; this is not going to be one of those pieces.

All my life, I've volunteered at various non-profits, churches, and events, and this is the first time I've been made so boiling mad by the attitude and treatment received. Building houses for Habitat for Humanity in the 105° Missouri heat was a more rewarding experience, and we even had one of our newly-paned HFH windows shot out by a friggin' drive-by!

I volunteered at SFN to help a friend and to help a vendor I believe deeply in; my beef is with neither of those parties. They took care of their volunteers the best they could. They celebrated our participation and did what they could to make it a pleasant experience. Not so for the rest of the SFN organization.


Let me get it out there right away that I appreciate the idea of slow food. (Note the lowercase.) It's the execution of this particular event I take exception to. Do I think it's awesome that there were, like, 26 different preserve makers there? Of course. Do I celebrate all 110 olive oils made in the Slow Food way? Well, I didn't get to taste any of them, but who wouldn't celebrate that range of fat? Was I completely disgusted by the way the organization treated the unpaid volunteers? Oh, hell yes!

Slow Food is about counteracting the "disappearance of local food traditions and people's dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from, how it tastes and how our food choices affect the rest of the world." Slow Food Nation '08 "was created to organize the first-ever American collaborative gathering to unite the growing sustainable food movement and introduce thousands of people to food that is good, clean and fair."

But how about how they treat their workers? Their unpaid workers? People who volunteered their time, energy, and bright smiles to support them in their cause? Shouldn't that be a consideration?

Directly from the SFN website:

Slow Food Nation is a community event and we welcome your participation. We’re seeking volunteers to help in all aspects of planning and on site. Let us know if you'd like to join in this exciting endeavor—we promise plenty of fun and food!

In the cold light of morning, after an exhausted sleep following a long volunteer shift, I just have to laugh at that: "we promise plenty of fun and food!" So, the fun is debatable. You make your own fun; I've always believed that. And we did. At our vendor, we joked with each other, with the "paying guests," and we laughed a lot. One of my "paying guests" friends even told me I looked like the happiest person at the entire event. But the food? Sure, there was "plenty" of food, but none of us volunteers were allowed to eat it.

I direct you to the "food" portion of the multi-page dos, don'ts, and behavior modifications we received in advance as volunteers (bolding mine):

CIVIC CENTER: Although some small snacks may be available to our volunteers, please note that meals are neither provided nor reimbursed. Affordable meals are available each day from 15 unique Slow-On-the-Go vendors in the plaza."

FORT MASON: Volunteers wishing a simple meal may take one as available from our sponsor, Whole Foods. No additional concessions are available for purchase at this location. Volunteers are asked to refrain from eating samples from our taste partners, as these are intended for our paying guests and we will run out.

SFN never pointed out where these "simple meals" were, and I never saw them. If they meant the cheese and bread and juice they had at our check-in location, well, that was a-ways away from where we were working and would take more than a 10-minute break to get there, bolt the food, and get back to our post.

Keep an eye out for all the shouting "NOs" and "NOTs" in the additional portions quoted below from what I'm calling the SFN Dos and Don'ts. They make the overall tone quite objectionable. Get an editor and learn how to convey things in a more palatable manner, especially to people WHO ARE THERE TO HELP YOU.

Getting There: Transportation: Slow Food Nation encourages you to travel in ways that minimize our collective carbon footprint. We will NOT reimburse for parking and there is NO official parking partner affiliated with this event – plus it is a holiday weekend!


(Also, given that I have a whole separate post coming about the behavior of the Slow Food Nation "paying guests," maybe SFN should have provided Dos and Don'ts for them.)

After checking in as a volunteer, we were directed to wait in our designated food area. Signs above were labeled "olive oil," "wine," "chocolate," etc. We got our one freebie -- the SFN apron -- and stood around a bit. There was milling. I joked (because the firm, bright smile never left my face ALL NIGHT) to a old friend and fellow volunteer that it's like we were the Joad Family. Day laborers from the Dust Bowl era, waiting to see if there's paying work that day.

A SFN organizer briefly welcomed us, thanked us for our time, and then said no less than five times that we were NOT to ask for food in the Taste Pavilion. If we required food during our 4pm-10pm shift, they had food for us there. However, we had to make sure to ask our managers if we could leave our post and really should consider planning our hunger around a lull.

A lull? Sorry, we didn't see a lull at my vendor. None. Not in six hours. My only lull was a 10-minute break that I used to stretch my legs and call home to report a Top Chef Marcel sighting. We never stopped serving people as fast as humanly possible.

"Do NOT ask for ANY food," he repeated. Again. I turned to fellow Joad Family member and shook a finger in her face, "Don't even THINK about food," I ordered her, "You're thinking about it. I can tell. DON'T!" Because you gotta laugh. Or else you'll scream.

Moving on to the "perks" portion of the Dos/Don'ts, we were told:

Each volunteer will be given a Slow Food apron to wear during their work shift, which is then yours to keep. Please note, however, that aprons only are not valid for entrance to ticketed events. Volunteers will be admitted, with their Managers, to work shifts only and do not receive free entrance to any other events.

Let's put my whines about the lack of freebies for the hard-working volunteers aside. Let's instead consider a case where a volunteer actually tried to BUY a Slow Dough coupon so they could participate in the events. They tried and were reportedly told, "You can't, you're a volunteer."

So, let me get this straight: As a volunteer, I work for free. I work for love and laughs, and I don't get any perks aside from an apron that is probably compostable if I add Slow Food-approved olive oil to it. And as a volunteer, I can't even PAY you to let me enjoy the promised "plenty of food and fun"? Unique.

Maybe they weren't allowed to sell to volunteers in case those volunteers shirked their shifts, but shouldn't that be something the volunteer's vendor policed? Maybe the volunteer was going to use the Slow Dough the next day when they weren't working. Is that not allowed?

When we were herded to the Taste Pavilion to start our shifts, a SFN manager came over to get us. "You [food group]?" she asked unsmilingly, "Follow me." "She's very excited about her job," fellow Joad Family member confided in me. We followed her. We got a warm, happy, and grateful welcome from our vendor.

Since we're still and always on food, I'll quote what the Dos/Don'ts said about water:

Water stations will be located in all locations, so please be sure to bring your own water containers to fill. Individual bottles will NOT be available.

SFN never pointed these stations out to us and I never saw them, so I'm thankful for two things: I brought my own container that I'd already filled at home AND our vendor provided us with filled water bottles. Because our vendor? Is awesome beyond the reaches of the SFN org.

Hand-Outs: Please do NOT give food, samples, or leftovers of any kind to any homeless person, at any location, under any circumstances. Word will spread of free food and we will soon have an encampment. Be sure to clean up all waste at days' [sic] end.

Of course, this is just ironic when part of Slow Food's mission is the professed belief "that everyone has a fundamental right to pleasure."

On two totally separate occasions, two UNPAID volunteers on their 10-minute breaks were ordered quite rudely by extraneous SFN workers not connected with our specific vendor, "Bus that table!" When both volunteers explained that they were not general staff but were working for [specific vendor] and also on their break, the response was, "Yeah. Bus that table!" No please, no thank you. Just an apron.

Maybe I've got this all wrong. Maybe every person wearing a SFN apron -- official ribbons or no -- was an unpaid volunteer who was also working just out of the pure goodness of their hearts. Because they believe passionately in the cause. If so, shouldn't that have brought us together in a more cohesive state of camaraderie where communications are clear, polite, and respectful?

At the end of the sweaty six-hour shift, a bar designer came over to us during clean-up and shook out dozens of cocktails composed of Gin 209, St. Germaine, mint, cucumber, and agave for us. He announced, "I've worked enough of these things to know you guys got nothing tonight." He gave the cocktail some name like, "Multi Spa," but I prefer to call it, "Faith Reviver." Maybe not faith in being a SFN volunteer again, but faith that there are still kind people out there who know how to treat others with respect, dignity, and gratitude.

My parents -- my dad, especially -- didn't raise me to turn a blind eye to the inconsistencies and contradictions of the world. They raised me to speak up and out if changes are to be made to the accepted status quo and not to sit idly by hoping everything will all work out somehow.

Next time you do an event, Slow Food Nation, take better care of the people who turned out to help spread your message. We may not have been "paying guests" in the monetary sense, but we paid with our time, energy, and goodwill and we deserved to be accorded the same respect as those forking over cold hard cash. This was a high-profile chance to show a whole mess of people that you are better than the average food industry expo, and in some ways you did. In other ways, you really didn't.


Bless you and your gleaming cocktail shaker, Bar Designer.

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