Faces & Visions of the Food Movement: Lilia Smelkova | Civil Eats

Faces & Visions of the Food Movement: Lilia Smelkova

As Campaign Manager for Food Day, a project led by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Lilia Smelkova has a lot to do before the October 24 debut of this nationwide effort that hopes to advance the momentum of the food movement.

Good thing this isn’t her first time at the rodeo.

Lilia worked for Slow Food International for 10 years and not only initiated the Slow Food network in Eastern and Central Europe as well as Canada, she also worked on the core team (of five!) that planned the first Terra Madre, a meeting of food communities from 150 countries. While at Slow Food in Bra, Italy, she also supervised international communications and directed the launch of an international education program that birthed the first European network of sustainable school cafeterias.

Originally from Belarus, Lilia holds a BA from Minsk Linguistics University, a Master’s in languages from Turin University and a Master of Science in Environment and Development from King’s College London, and is fluent in Italian, Russian, English, French, and Spanish. She also earned a certificate in environmental management from UC Berkeley, where she co-authored a nutrition education study and recently guided an expedition of Italian scientists along the Silk Road to research food preferences and genetics. Lilia, an enduring idealist, believes that food is among the best ways to experience the world, especially Uzbek pilaf, Pamir mountain mulberries, and Transylvanian jams.

What issues have you been focused on?

I’ve focused mostly on food education and taste education. Taste education is about developing taste buds and the senses so that people can recognize good food. If you educate kids to taste food, they tend to change their interest and cravings for salt and sweets for example. Since moving to the U.S., I’ve focused more on policy. Food Day is really about how to change policy and how we make the work of non-profits easier and make Food Day work for policy change. I’m also getting into the Farm Bill because I think it’s key for the states. I’ve always thought that’s it’s personal choice that influences change; the more I work here I realize it’s not enough to address personal behavior through education, but we should work on food access, especially in food deserts, so there needs to be more done to improve policies. I’ve changed my opinion recently.

What inspires you to do this work?

When I was a kid in Belarus in the 90s, we had really bad food because when the Soviet Union collapsed all the junk came in and we didn’t have a lot of choice. I didn’t realize we didn’t have variety and quality. When I ended up at Slow Food, which was sort of an accident, my taste changed and my vision of the world changed. It made such a big difference for me personally. Initially, I started to work in Eastern Europe and I wanted to teach the kids there because I saw the difference in me and wanted to share that with them. Then I realized it’s not just an Eastern European thing, it’s everywhere. What people eat in the U.S. influences the world, so changes here can have a big impact. So, I just want to change the world.

What’s your overall vision?

I think I’m quite idealistic and I think that works. When I work I think of an ideal world and how that should be. So for Food Day, I start from there: Who do I want to get involved? What does the ideal event look like? If I hear it isn’t possible I will do anything it takes to make it possible. It’s more of a work style to set goals high and try to reach them. If I don’t arrive, I feel sad I didn’t but I know I did a lot to try.

What books and/or blogs are you reading right now?

I like Michael Pollan and Marion Nestle very much. And, I found Momentum and The Tipping Point useful. I’m reading now Fair Food by Oren Hesterman. And of course Carlos Petrini’s books – they are always good to read again.

Who’s in your community?

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When I was with Slow Food, it was mostly colleagues and friends there. I get very close to people I meet through work and there are people in Canada, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. For the first time in my adult life I am working with people who talk about more than food. It’s fun to see how people not in the food world talk about food. I’m also very close to my sister. Here in the U.S., it was rather hard and took a while to build a group. I met a lot of new people like bloggers, community gardeners, educators, and chefs.

What are your commitments?

My work is my hobby. And, I’m lucky I’ve always done what I like. Dialogue is very important because sometimes there is very little. I like building networks and putting people in touch and trying to tie differences together and getting people from different sides together to talk. Wonderful things can happen. I appreciate an honest approach in everything.

What are your goals?

I would love Food Day to become at least as big as Earth Day and to change how kids are educated at schools. I’d like to see more food education in schools.

What does change look like to you?

It’s hard work of course and takes a lot of time and I think change is viral. When something happens and there is a critical group of early adopters of a new concept it can snowball. The trick is to get the critical group. I don’t know exactly how it happens. To give an example, when I started European Schools for Healthy Food–a network of 11 countries to improve food in the cafeterias, financed by the EU–I started by telling people whom I hoped to get involved that there was a network, before one existed, and so it was created.

Regarding the practicalities of enacting change, what planning is involved? What kind of outreach?

Seeing what ideally will work, having a vision and talking to people and asking for feedback, and sharing and seeing it as a structure and seeing how it actually takes shape. Once it does, I let it go. I know it will go well and it’s in the hands of people who know what they are doing.

What projects are affiliated with yours?

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To date, for Food Day we have 45 states involved and more than 700 activities planned. We have major involvement from school districts (LA, Boulder, Denver) and public health departments in LA County, Seattle, and the state of Colorado. There are different events ranging from a huge festival in Savannah, GA to a progressive dinner along the Santa Cruz River in Tucson. There will even be an event in Union Square in New York. All of the events can be seen here.

Where do you see the state of agriculture/food policy in the next 5-10 years? Is real policy change a possibility?

I think so. With Food Day we have created six policy priorities. There’s a petition on our Web site and information about the initiatives. If you think there will be hundreds of events around the country with thousands of people participating, I am optimistic that momentum will be good. It’s hard to say what will happen in five to 10 years, because I don’t have a deep understanding of U.S. food policy, but maybe in six months I can answer that.

What does the food movement need to do, be or have to be more effective?

There should be more dialogue. Groups need to get out of their silos, recognize the expertise of those of different backgrounds, share information and look for common goals. For example, in California I was talking with groups separately about Food Day, so to make it easier we had a conference call with several organizations together and they came up with a joint policy statement for the Farm Bill that was inspired by just one phone call. They will promote it on Food Day, a very common sense document on a large scale policy platform from groups of different backgrounds.

What would you want to be your last meal on earth?

I was thinking about this the other day. It would be cottage cheese pancakes my Mom makes with sour cream and kefir. It’s something I had as a kid before school. It’s a combination of tastes I’ve been missing for at least 12 years since I left home.

Jen Dalton is the editor of the Local Eats series, which features how cities all over the United States are rebuilding local food systems from the ground up and conducts interviews for our Faces & Visions of the Food Movement series.  Jen co-produces Kitchen Table Talks, a local food forum in San Francisco and heads up Kitchen Table Consulting which provides strategy and communications services to promote and support sustainable businesses, local economies and good food. Jen is also serves as the Cheese Chair of the Good Food Awards and was the Programs Director for Slow Food Nation '08. Read more >

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