Sarah Weiner has an impressive track record of making things happen. After college, she traveled to Italy to work at the Slow Food headquarters. It was there that she first met chef and food movement leader Alice Waters, who eventually hired her as an assistant. She and Waters co-created Slow Food Nation, a 2008 event that was seen by many as a watershed moment in the food movement. It was then, in her role as Content Director of Slow Food Nation, where Weiner’s vision of the Good Food Awards was born.
Weiner’s goal has been to create a way to reward and recognize food artisans not just for making delicious products, but also for adhering to high environmental, social, and ethical standards. In 2010, the first Good Food Awards took place and in the five years since, the awards have grown in scope and size. Since then, the awards have helped hundreds of small-scale artisan food producers reach a wider audience; a recent survey of winners showed sales increases from 15 percent to, in one case, 400 percent.
One 2014 winner, Vicky Allard of Blake Hill Preserves, was new to the business last year. After winning the award, and participating in the Good Food Awards Marketplace, she was able to ramp up her business and is now selling her products in 180 stores nationwide. Emmy Moore of Emmy’s Pickles and Jams in Oakland is another good example. Since winning, she has quadrupled production from 7,000 to 28,000 jars per year. This increase has allowed her to begin buying four times as much produce from local organic farmers in her area.
This year, there were over 1,400 entries from 750 businesses in 11 different food categories, from chocolate to beer, honey, and pickles. The awards will culminate with a ceremony on January 8 with the newly-launched Good Food Mercantile–an “un-trade show for tasty, authentic, and responsible food.” Calling her busy is an understatement, but Weiner recently took the time to talk to us about the awards, the challenges of taking credit for her work, and what inspires her.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you get started working in food?
One summer day, my mother brought home a book called Slow Food: Collected Thoughts on Taste, Tradition and the Honest Pleasure of Food. I was a Save-the-Manatees sort of kid and an unusually avid lover of food. Something clicked when I read those essays. I realized it was possible to save the world while eating good food and there was never any question after that. I studied economics in college and received a grant from Dartmouth to go to a cooking school in Italy that was partly run by Slow Food. I was interested in understanding why Italy had such a superior food system when the U.S. had so much more money.
I ended up at a vineria with the Vice President of Slow Food Italy to celebrate our graduation and shared my desire to do food movement work rather than be in a kitchen. He made a call on the spot at 11 p.m. to Carlo Petrini’s assistant and, before I knew it, wheels were in motion for two internships, one cooking at an agriturismo and one at Slow Food headquarters. It all unfolded from there.
What inspires you to do the work that you do?
Alice Waters once told me we are like quilt makers, weaving together people and projects to create something diverse and textured and ultimately of a piece. I meet hundreds of smart, passionate, talented people and what most excites me is finding the reasons to bring them together into something united.
What has been your biggest victory or success working in the food system?
Slow Food Nation. I was there from the moment Alice Waters had the idea at Origine du Gout in Montpellier, to the moment three years later when 85,000 people convened for the biggest sustainable food event in our country’s history. A whole lot happened in between. I still feel the effects of that event every single day and I know others do, too. Hans Baldauf, the architect of the [San Francisco] Ferry Building and a key collaborator in Slow Food Nation, predicted it would be like a flood that roared through the city and left behind incredibly rich minerals and soil to incubate this movement for years to come. I think he was right.
What has been your most difficult challenge?
I’m much better at doing things than talking about it. I pretty much had a nervous breakdown the first time I had to take public credit for putting something together, like the Organic Food Festival–England’s largest annual sustainable food gathering. One of the reasons I so enjoyed being Alice Waters’s assistant is that it suits me to have the power to make good things happen, but not the public responsibility to be the face and voice of it. I generally believe that the people who matter end up knowing what you are responsible for without having to go shout about it. What I didn’t realize is that there was a downside to staying behind the scenes. Now that I have started fundraising and recruiting allies beyond the community I have known for a decade, I have begun to understand that a certain amount of bravado is expected as a sign of competence and drive.
What do you think is the most exciting work going on in our food system?
I am most excited about collaborations between the food world and the broader world. For example, the LA Kitchen, which combines a food bank with a job training program for ex-convicts with a shared commercial kitchen space. Addressing the penal system, poverty, and food entrepreneurship all together in one space! I love what Barton Seaver is up to for the same reason. He’s a “gentleman chef” influencing large institutional buying policies through his work at the Harvard School of Public Health, pushing sustainable seafood to home cooks through a couple great cookbooks, and encouraging the environmental conservation world to consider food as a National Geographic Explorer.
What is the most important change you would like to see in the next 5-10 years?
Widespread understanding that the food system can not be separated from world politics, the energy crisis, global warming, health care, environmental preservation. And that it is the single key to solving these problems.
What needs to happen for that change to occur?
Seduction of thought leaders through good food. With so much information competing for people’s time, you need to give them a reason to listen to you rather than sending more emails and newsletters. Also, elevation of the people doing good work in the food system to a position where they have influence in their communities and beyond–whether it’s chefs, farmers, food crafters or activists. We need to create buzz around more people so there are more voices delivering the message–particularly people who don’t live in California or New York.
What do you think the food movement needs to do to be more effective?
What is one revolutionary food act you participate in?
Paying well for quality food and not wasting it.
What would you want your last meal on earth to be?
Oysters, dozens of them. Raw on the half shell, BBQ’d and smoked. With Gibsons and good champagne. Outside at sunset by the oyster farms in Point Reyes. With special people. Or maybe just one special person.