Are you a responsible traveler wondering how to effectively support local economies while traveling? Epicure & Culture caught up with Richard McCarthy, the executive director of Slow Food USA, to learn some delicious ways to do this on the road and go local.
1. How and why was Slow Food founded?
Slow Food was created in Italy in 1986 by Carlo Petrini and a group of fellow activists after staging a demonstration opposing the opening of a McDonald’s at the Spanish Steps in Rome. The initial aim of the group was to defend local food culture against the homogenization of food choice, champion good food and the pleasure that goes along with eating it with friends and family, and to celebrate a slow pace of life.
In 1989, Slow Food went international, and the movement really began to get underway, though it wasn’t until 2000 that Slow Food USA was created.
2. What is the mission of Slow Food USA?
Today, Slow Food USA is one of 150 countries in the global movement to bring communities together in support of food that is good, clean and fair for all.
It is our goal to preserve and share local foods and cultures; to promote the enjoyment of food with friends, family and community members; and to support the farmers, ranchers, fishers, food workers and producers that make this enjoyment possible.
3. How does slow eating when traveling help support local economies?
I think that more and more, travelers want to go local and experience a destination from a local perspective rather than a “tourist” – which is a great way to get to know a place, meet people who live there and uncover the everyday beauty of a destination rather than just check off the boxes on a list of tourist attractions. And seeking out a more local experience for meals while on the road not only helps you explore the “real” destination, but also offers the added benefit of supporting local businesses. For example, rather than having breakfast in your hotel, why not ask around and find out where locals get their morning coffee? Is there a fruit /produce vendor on the street nearby? It might not be what you’re used to eating for breakfast, but supporting a mom-and-pop operation where you might experience new flavors and will likely meet local residents could end up being one of the highlights of your trip.
The smaller, locally owned and run restaurants and shops often get their produce and ingredients from nearby, which means less transportation costs/emissions, fresher food and an income stream for surrounding farms and producers. Find out what’s in season in the area you’re visiting, and eat that!
4. What are some rules travelers can live by to ensure a more slow food-focused trip?
a) Eat seasonally, ask questions. For example, if you’re in the Caribbean and are craving mangoes, ask if they are in season before piling them on your plate. If they aren’t but you still see them on the menu, skip it. They are likely being shipped in from elsewhere.
b) Also, go local and go where the locals go. It’s probably where the most authentically local food is being prepared and served, at the best prices and with the best company.
c) Try to avoid eating a lot of meat. This isn’t a plug for vegetarianism, but because it’s true that when traveling it can be difficult to know exactly where your meat is coming from, you might be better off skipping it. Large-scale meat production can make meat inexpensive and readily available, but there can be environmental and health costs associated with it.
5. How can travelers put these rules into practice and ensure they’re supporting local economies when they’re eating?
a) One tip is to look around and see where the locals are eating. Try to avoid those places that cater to tourists by putting items on the menu that are obviously not local (i.e. bagels and cream cheese in Bangkok).
b) Another great idea is to check out Slow Food’s “Ark of Taste” website. The Ark of Taste project is a living catalog of foods and products that are in danger of becoming extinct. The global list of foods are categorized by country and include small-scale, culturally significant products including fruits, vegetables, animal breeds, cheeses, breads, sweets and more. By being aware of these endangered local foods and food practices, you can help preserve and protect them. In some cases that might mean buying and consuming them, and in others (such as the case of endangered species) this might bean eating less or none of them.
c) Also, depending on where you are, do some research and see if there are any farmer’s markets happening while you’re visiting. Farmer’s markets are a great way to buy locally, meet people and get a feel for the destination. If you see something that’s unfamiliar, ask what it is and how it’s prepared – it’s a great way to start a conversation and learn about a culture’s food traditions.
d) Finally, there are some fantastic opportunities popping up lately to have meals with locals in their homes (i.e. EatWith, Feastly and others). Obviously you should do your due diligence when considering using one of these services, but the idea of connecting food lovers to share a home-cooked meal in a local’s home is a great way to get to know a destination, learn about the regional cuisine and make a few friends along the way.
6. What are some common harmful eating practices travelers take part in that hurt local economies?
Over-frequenting conglomerate chain restaurants, forgoing local produce for shipped-in produce that is not in season, eating endangered species.
7. What is a lesser-known fact about eating while traveling that travelers may not be aware of?
According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, over 75% of edible plant varieties in the world have been irreversibly lost, and in the United States, that figure is 95%. It’s imperative that we safeguard the biodiversity that we have left. Learning about the local food production and traditional foods of the place you’re visiting can help you make food choices while on the road that not only help the economy, but also help the environment.
8. If you could tell travelers who want to support local economies three things they should be aware of when eating on the road, what would they be?
a) Get out of your hotel for meals – make meals a focus of the trip as a way to learn about the history and traditions of the destination.
b) Ask a local for recommendations.
c) Eat what is in season.
How do you support local economies while traveling? Please share in the comments below.
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