Italian Food and Economic Solidarity

  • I had a wonderful first full day in Milan. Granted, I spent two months here doing an internship last fall. So, arriving at the airport yesterday, knowing which public bus to get on, arriving at my traditional Italian-style Airbnb without trouble, and then meeting my friend to see a late-night philharmonic concert in the plaza next to the Duomo certainly all added to my immediate contentment.…
  • Yet my research today also reaffirmed my pleasure to be here. This afternoon, after an hour and a half interview that was initially scheduled for thirty minutes, it re-set in for me how ridiculous(ly incredible) my research is: I am traveling around the world seeking out people who are passionate about the same subjects I am and then talking to them about those subjects. Sure, my research also entails that I stay fairly neutral about certain opinions on the benefits and drawbacks of local food systems, and so I can’t share in on all of the zeal expressed by my interviewees. Yet at the end of the day, my research this week means talking to Italians about food. Today, I spoke to Italians about food for six hours. It was great.
  • Admittedly, I talk about food a lot when I’m home, as well—in my classes, to my friends, to my friends with headphones in who are trying to do their own homework…. So, I’ll state again how it’s great to be in Italy, “where people never stop talking about food,” said one interviewee. And that’s even despite my disfavor of how protective Italians are of their food culture. When I tell people I’m not a huge fan of Italians’ rigid, unwavering commitment to their historical, rich food traditions, said people (mostly Americans, some Europeans) normally think I’m being ridiculous. However, to explain my point, I often tell my friends about my attempt to cook pasta with cream sauce in my Italian friend’s flat last fall. Soon after the water was boiled, I found myself with with Lorenzo’s phone held up to my ear being forced to listen to his Italian mother emphatically explain how I was cooking the pasta incorrectly. So, my pasta-cooking habits differ from Lorenzo’s mom’s. I think that’s okay. I also think it’s okay to eat while walking, and I like to mix a lot of different ingredients in a bowl for lunch. Yet more generally, I highly respect (and share) Italians’ passion for food (just not pasta. I don’t like pasta that much. Sh…).
  • I’m returning to this blog post a few days later, after interviews with members of seven GAS organizations, Gruppi di Acquisto Solidale, or Solidarity Purchasing Groups. And, after a few days of research here, I have gained an even greater appreciation for Italians’ dedication to their food culture—specifically their utilization of food consumption as an entry point to making positive social and environmental change. By studying GAS organizations, I’ve directly observed the lengths to which Italians are willing to go to uphold ethical principles, which they do through their commitment to eating quality** food.
  • Tonight*** I attended SeGAS’s monthly meeting. SeiGAS is a small-to-mid sized organization, which a few current members founded in response to a lack of GAS in their neighborhood. Most of the original members met each other because their children attended the same school. While over the past five years, members have come and gone, SeiGAS social community is crucial to the organizations’ benefits and proper functioning. In personal interview, numerous GAS members, in SeiGAS and six other GAS, identified the social components as one of their greatest benefits of being part of the GAS. Furthermore, SeiGAS is one of the small proportion of GAS in Milan that do not have a single, designated distribution place where its products are dropped off and distributed. Rather, members pickup their ordered products–which include meats, fish, fruits, vegetables, pasta, rice, wine, oil, clothes, and more–from individuals household on designated weekdays. (It is common for other GAS to have a common distribution spot, such as a public space or rented garage , to distribute all products to all members at once each week.) SeiGAS setup further advances the close knit, community feel of the organization.
  • During monthly meetings, SeiGAS members get together to discuss logistics, such as where to supply certain products from, how pickup schedules will work, and the best dates to organize group visits to the local agricultural producers that supply to the GAS. SeiGAS, founded about five years ago, used to hold its meetings in members’ homes until it got too large. Tonight, 17 out of the 23 GAS members gathered in a community association building. They sat around a table in a room lined with bookshelves containing political books written by members of the Italian Resistance Movement during WWII. The first meeting agenda items (of the GAS meeting, not of the Italian Resistance Movement) included discussion on closing a bit early for summer and inviting a new family into the GAS. However, this monthly meeting was also exceptional in that the majority of the time was dedicated to discussing and re-outlining the Gas fundamental values. Since SeiGAS’s founding, many members have come and gone, yet it’s been three or four years since they adjusted their “values chart.” So this evening, the members dedicated the majority of the meeting to democratically reviewing a poster covered with sticky notes. On each sticky note, a certain GAS member had written what they thought the organization did well and what could be improved.
  • I ultimately did not hear the final determinations regarding SeiGAS’s updated values chart because partway through the meeting, I began interviewing organization members outside the meeting room. Regardless, observing this meeting was instrumental to me in understanding the true democratic nature of GAS (in a room with radical political books lining the walls).
  • Monday night, I was astonished to learn how committed SeiGAS members were to their GAS and to the social, ethical, and environmental principles that define their membership in a solidarity purchasing group. Over the course of this week, I’ve observed other GAS meetings and social events and engaged with many members of many GAS. And, I’ve been consistently impressed at each member’s personal commitment to and actions towards creating an economy that aligns with their personal (and shared) belief systems.
  • Before I arrived in Milan, I had some hesitations regarding my research here. (While it’s also true of other cities I will be visiting), Milan is fairly food secure, and those people who participation in GAS are certainly food secure. Therefore, my research on GAS will not provide a direct answer to how local food systems can contribute to the food security of consumers (or “members,” as I’ve been repeatedly corrected when discussion GAS) in those local food systems. Nonetheless, my past few days in Italy have demonstrated to me how my research on GAS in Milan should provide key insight into how individual dedication and social organization can make a significant impact on broader social, economic, political, and environmental issues.
  • One interviewee, a researcher at Associazione Economia e Sostenibilità in Milan, a key player and creator of Milan’s Food Policy and Milan’s Urban Food Policy Pact, and a member of a GAS himself summed up the relationship between GAS and food security well. While his following statement is a bit confusing, I don’t think I could convey the message any better by adjusting his Italian-English translation. If it doesn’t make sense to you, I’m happy to explain in the comments :). And in the meantime, I have to deliver some pasta I made at a social cooperative this morning to my friend!
  • “There is a kind of cultural, political vision at the basis of the GAS movement. I cannot say that the activities of the groups—of a single group of GAS—are mainly oriented to create a different food security framework for the people. It’s not the main issue. Yet, I think that most people at the origin of the GAS movement were really committed to a different kind of development, in which justice and ethical issues are important. So for sure, in the cultural grounds of the GAS movement, there are similar issues. The idea of improving a different development model through your lifestyles and through your food consumption to say okay, food justice is connected to the quality of job, the quality of the environment, which is not necessarily an issue connected to your personal food security, but the idea of a different development model of which food security is an important part. Not only for you and for your group, but for the whole world.”
  • **See my next blog post for what I mean by “quality.”
  • ***We’re jumping back in time now, since I wrote this part on Monday night… We’ll jump back to the future soon!