Can the combination of Barack Obama and a $500-a-plate meal of grass-fed beef in a rustic guajillo chili sauce and a warm tart of local apples and pears change the world? Or at least the way America eats?
Alice Waters, the renowned chef behind Berkeley's Chez Panisse and the doyenne of the local foods movement, sure hopes so. That's why she and a group of fellow food activists invited a passel of prominent Washingtonians to a series of homey charity dinners during last week's inaugural festivities.
The aim of it all? To ignite a conversation about food policy. With Obama, a man who actually knows the price of arugula, at the country's helm, these activists think they finally see their chance to recast the national debate about food. It's not about organic fruits and vegetables for sunchoke-munching yuppies and elite big-city chefs, they say. It's about healthier food in schools, programs to help food-stamp recipients buy nutritious fruits and vegetables and tax breaks for small family farmers.
But this covers a whole lot of ground. In the world of politics, success means having a clear, focused message. So what message are Waters and company trying to communicate?
"They don't have a central, core message," James Thurber, an expert on lobbying and the director of American University's Center on Congressional and Presidential Studies, told me. That, or they're not getting it out. "Is this about reducing obesity in schools?" he asks. "Is it about pesticides on the farms? It's a wonderful thing to try to change policy, but what policy are they trying to change?"
. . . The movement's diversity does have its benefits. It has successfully raised awareness among a broad mass of supporters. About 85,000 people descended on San Francisco last August for Slow Food Nation, the first national food conference.