In the Kitchen with... Spring 2011 Issue

Genya Erling

By Susan Gloss | Photo By Jim Klousia 0

When local food activist Genya Erling looks around the kitchen in the Madison home she recently purchased, she sees potential. The house was built in 1929 and, like many homes of that era, has a square, closed-in kitchen. She’d like to knock out a wall and open up the space so that preparing and enjoying food becomes a focal point in the house, just as it is in her life. Genya’s vision for the future is not limited to her kitchen, however. She’s invested herself in the future of Wisconsin’s food system as well.

In 2007, while in graduate school for environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Genya founded the UW chapter of Slow Food International. Slow Food is a non-profit organization created in Italy in 1989 as an antidote to fast food’s increasing global influence. Slow Food International has grown to over 1,300 chapters worldwide and focuses on sustainable agriculture and educating consumers. Through its Ark of Taste project, Slow Food also catalogs and promotes traditional produce and livestock in hopes of saving dwindling varieties from extinction. Slow Food’s conservation efforts can be seen right here in Wisconsin; several local foods have been cataloged in the Ark of Taste, including the Beaver Dam Hungarian heirloom pepper, Lake Michigan whitefish, and the Sheboygan tomato, a variety first cultivated by Lithuanian immigrants.

Genya founded Slow Food UW because she saw a need for a new generation to bring energy and perspective to the movement. Since earning her master’s degree, she’s no longer a member of the UW chapter, but sits on the board of Slow Food Madison. Genya also performs with the Limanya Drum and Dance Ensemble. When I met Genya for a cup of tea on a bright winter day, she was getting ready for a trip to Guinea with the ensemble, but she was happy to take a break from her trip preparations to talk about food.

Susan: What motivated you to start the UW Slow Food chapter? 
Genya: I was living in Germany in 2006 doing graduate research on urban gardens, and I had the opportunity to attend Slow Food’s Terra Madre conference in Italy. There were people there from all over the world and you had a choice of listening to the presentations in six different languages. I felt like a UN ambassador. One of the messages that struck me was something a speaker from Africa said on the Women in Agriculture panel. She said that the people fortunate enough to be there had a gift of knowledge, and it was our responsibility to share it.

S: Did you have any particular goals in mind when you started Slow Food UW? 
G: One goal was to prove that local food doesn’t have to be elitist. I also wanted to create a group with a sense of community, and for people to learn from cultural experiences rather than just having things taught to them. For example, last June, Slow Food UW helped sponsor the first Celebrate South Madison Festival, which kicked off the summer farmers market with art, film, dance and workshops.

S: Can you pinpoint when your interest in food began?
G: My mom was a founder of the Kickapoo Exchange Natural Foods Co-op in Gays Mills. I went to work with her and hung out in the back of the store. Then we moved to Atlanta, which was really different from Gays Mills, where a lot of people were farmers. I developed bad eating habits and a bad relationship with my environment. I started thinking about urban and sustainable agriculture as a way to solve that problem.

S: What’s next for you, now that you’re done with school? 
G: I’m continuing my work with the South Madison project. One thing that grew out of the Celebrate South Madison Festival was the idea of a children’s urban agriculture/urban arts camp. I’m also working on the Thousand Gardens in Africa program that was started by Slow Food International to sponsor gardens in schools, villages, and on the outskirts of cities in Africa. The idea is to educate a person locally who can teach others about agriculture. During my trip to Africa, I’m meeting with representatives from Slow Food Senegal to talk about the Madison chapter sponsoring a garden.

S: As a young food leader, what is your vision for our region’s food system?
G: I see a network of small operations working together. It’s happening already, but I’d like to see more. With Chicago, Madison and Milwaukee so close together, we have a natural triangle of sustainable food producers and consumers, but the problem is that we don’t have enough small processors, butchers, local trucking operations and other businesses to keep increasing the number of people we can reach. We need better infrastructure so that we can serve the whole region and, given our limited resources, that takes creativity. 

Genya Erling can be reached at

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