This summer, I am visiting seven different countries. In each country, I am studying a different type of local food system, such as household urban agriculture, community gardens, and community supported agriculture. There are major, obvious differences between these LFS—e.g. one family has a way different potential production capacity in a few square-meter vegetable garden in their backyard than one hundred people farming together at a large, shared agricultural space. Furthermore, key stakeholders of LFS in each city, vary greatly, from individuals, to social organizations, to city governments. Beyond the practical organizational differences between each of my case study LFS, each LFS emerged from communities where people have vastly different values, customs, and cultures.
As an Environmental Sciences major, the number of variables and the lack of controls in each of my study cities makes my brain slightly implode. I chose my study cities due to their investments either in local food systems or food security. I hope much value of my research will emerge from the studying best case practices and challenges in each city and determining how the successes in one LFS might be applied to the challenges in another. Nonetheless, drawing comparisons between and theorizing the application of practices between such different contexts is extremely difficult. Yet, to ensure I am approaching each of my case studies in an appropriate, respectable manner, I cannot do much more than simply approach each of my research activities as mindfully as possible. The past few days in Italy have reaffirmed to me how important this is.
For example, over the past few days, I’ve been asking my interviewees about the impacts of Milan’s food policy on the city and on their personal experiences with local food systems, like GAS. And my interviewees have mostly agreed that it’s impossible to identify the exact impact that the Milanese government has had on food systems and their own lives. Certainly, the food policy has provoked a broader dialogue about sustainable food systems and therefore affected people’s perceptions towards GAS. Yet the popularity of GAS in Milan, along with many Milanese residents’ shared values regarding high quality food, which comes from socially and environmentally ethical and sustainable sources, influenced the initial development and objectives of Milan’s food policy.
The Milan Urban Food Policy Pact (MUFPP) emerged from a European Union (European Commission-funded) Program that aimed to promote local food councils in a group of European, Latin American, and African cities, and promote sustainable food systems-related dialogue amongst those cities. As the 2015 Expo in Milan approached, however, Milanese politicians and researchers recognized the potential to expand the project beyond its initial food council-related goals to instead create a framework for creating sustainable food policies in a larger group of cities around the world. The creation of the MUFPP entailed extensive collaboration between mayors from over 30 cities around the world. Despite prevailing criticism on the vagueness of the MUFPP and the skewed objectives of the Expo–i.e. profits for international corporations rather than concrete actions towards achieving the theme’s goals, ‘Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life!’–the MUFPP is an extraordinary demonstration of international diplomacy and the power of cities. Today, 142 cities around the world have signed, and those cities along with other social, political, and cultural institutions, have used it as a framework to establish their own food policies and programs. Yet, most Milanese residents whom I interviewed could not pinpoint exactly how the MUFPP or any facet of Milan food policy specifically influenced their own lives.
The inherent difficulty in distinguishing correlation and causation between food policy, food systems, and food culture in Milan does not surprise me: throughout history, Milanese individuals and social organizations invested incredible amounts of personal and community resources towards developing their ideal food system. However, prior to my research here, I did not consider how the different, fundamental characteristics of Italian policy makes policy analysis and comparison between Milan and my other study cities quite difficult. One researcher involved in the development of Milan’s food policy and the MUFPP described, “Italians don’t usually have a culture of defining in public discussion a specific checklist and creating a specific strategy with a program and then an evaluation or monitoring system, as one finds in a typical policy design approach. We don’t have this tradition because we simply have different cultural and institutional traditions. If you look to the ‘urban food policies’ in the U.S., for example, it’s quite easy to find a very clear definition of the objectives, or the strategies, [of the metrics to evaluate those strategies’ success]. I don’t mean to say Italians don’t have the same tenets of policy–the objectives–but we don’t have any kind of monitoring or evaluation system. Maybe this is something we have to learn…”
My discussions with researchers involved in Milan food policy were crucial in defining how I approached the rest of my interviews, during which I asked about the impact of Milan’s food policy and international food policy initiatives. And while I learned to accept a lack of metrics or tangible reference points in my interviewees’ responses, they generally expressed satisfaction with how the city’s food policy engagements have “created positive noise” and prompted international dialogue about sustainable food systems. Over the course of the week, I’ve become satisfied with this answer.
I will continue to study food and food security policy in other cities I visit this summer, where I’m also interested in the impacts of the policy on the people’s local food movements and vice versa. And where I will continue to look out for specific institutional and policy tendencies, standards, and expectations. Furthermore, in each city I visit, I will make sure to understand people’s perceptions of other key terms in my research topic.
I initially intended on discussion different cultural perceptions of other key terms in my research, yet I think I’ll take a break and make that another post. Feel free to follow along and have some wine and assorted appetizers if you’re so inclined (it’s aperitivo time here). Then if you’re still so inclined, scroll to the next post to learn about some more Italian definitions.