How can Food Policies help Italian cities overcome the post-COVID19 recession?

The basic right to food and the access to alimentary resources has been widely challenged due to the recent COVID-19 pandemic in Italy. I myself have more than one time tried to analyse and understand the difficult reality of food poverty and the inability or impossibility to access these resources: it seemed that during the long and strict lockdown Italy was going through, food was perceived not only as a necessity that would require a trip into the outside, scary world, but also as a distraction, a mean to lighten up people’s days while national media was broadcasting the terrifying reality of a global pandemic. This was the case for many of us, nevertheless there is a consistent portion of the citizenry that did not have such easy access to food, and this poses a staggering problem that exemplifies one of the many faces of urban poverty in modern-day Italy.

At the same time, the COVID-19 pandemic stopped two of Italy’s most prominent and profitable industries: tourism and restaurant businesses. Most of these activities suffered great economic depression due the lockdown measures and are looking forward to recover amid the uncertainty of a post-lockdown future. How can food policy help us respond to these critical matters? The next few paragraphs will attempt to answer this question by analysing firstly two best-practices for both the public and private sectors to attract more and new customers, while the second portion of the article will deal more in depth with the food poverty crisis that worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic.

On July 23rd I had the pleasure to attend Food Policy Milano’s webinar on Italian cities’ food policy and gastronomy. This has been the third of a total of four events (all recorded and available here) that aim at the disclosure and popularisation of food policies across the country. Food Policy Milano operates inside of the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact, a collaborative and innovative initiative signed at Expo 2015 that works to widen and guarantee the right to food for very citizen, while also designing processes that can tackle food poverty at the urban level. At the time of writing this article, the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact had more than 200 signatory cities that comprise over 450 million inhabitants worldwide.

The focus of the webinar was, as I mentioned earlier, gastronomy and local excellence. The event provides us with two examples that show possible responses to the emergent need to stand out in both the public and private sectors, fostering the attraction of tourists, customers and investors.

A rather excellent example was brought to us by the municipality of Alba, a true culinary and cultural gem nestled in the region of Piedmont in Northern Italy. Alba is world renowned as the birthplace of the white truffle, perhaps one of the most sought-after haute cuisine ingredients worldwide, and has been selected by UNESCO as a Creative City for Gastronomy in 2017. Alba capitalises on such illustrious assets by developing a solid communication strategy that depicts the values and excellences of Alba in the fashion of a metaphorical menu: the suggestive setting of the Langhe and Monferrato vineyards and hills (which are too, needless to say, a UNESCO World Heritage site), the rich selection of highest-quality local eno-gastronomic products, the beauty of the city centre architecture and the presence of some of the most famous and revered restaurants in the region all make the case for the city of Alba. The case study of Alba is a perfect example of how local, territorial, excellent and well-communicated food policy practices can create real cultural, social and economic value.

A second example is that of the East Lombardy initiative, which was successfully nominated European Region of Gastronomy in 2017. East Lombardy comprises the four easternmost provinces in the North-Italian region of Lombardy and aims to be a bridge that connects the produce, the restaurants and the consumers. In this successful model, restaurants become an asset to bring about value to agriculture. In the words of Roberto Amaddeo, City Councillor in Bergamo, the keyword of the project is research: the bond of innovation and tradition. It is noteworthy to mention that since 2019 Bergamo is too a UNESCO Creative City for Gastronomy, and that the East Lombardy initiative is yet again a successful example of food policy practices that work on a strong base of local and excellent resources to produce valuable outcomes for the primary and tertiary sectors of the economy.

Nevertheless, the COVID-19 pandemic aftermath does not simply provide an opportunity for food policy relaunch: it is in fact of vital importance to bear in mind the disastrous effect this crisis had for the most fragile citizens of distressed urban areas. The strict lockdown measures implemented by the Italian government have tragically resulted in thousands of newly-impoverished and unemployed citizens, while recent forecasts predict a fall for Italian GDP at around -9.5% at best. Even though the latest Istat report shows positive news for the 2019 level of both absolute and relative poverty, the recent study does only relate to data from 2019: next year’s post-COVID-19 report will probably confirm the widespread fear of surging levels of poverty, thus highlighting the need of both emergency and long-term food policy strategies to tackle poverty and to ease and guarantee access to alimentary resources.

The region of Piedmont in Northern Italy has been one of the most hard hit areas by COVID-19, with more than thirty-thousand cases and over four-thousand deaths. The municipality of Turin, Piedmont’s capital city, has decided to tackle urban poverty by instituting the distribution of economic relief in the form of food stamps to struggling families who successfully responded to the application call. Needless to say, the response has been overwhelming, and the project “Torino Solidale” has evolved into a larger, more encompassing reality. As of this summer, the Turin municipality has set up a distribution of food packs, so to ensure that families have a stable source of nourishment and has identified several citizen associations as hubs on the urban territory. In the district of Barriera di Milano, one of Turin’s most impoverished and troubled neighbourhoods, there are three distribution hubs, among which is the association Mamre.

I have had the honour to meet with and interview Sister Giuliana Galli and Francesca Vallarino Gancia, founders of Mamre. Mamre’s expertise lies in the fields of mental health and ethno-psychiatry in multicultural contexts: it is in these situations that Mamre works on inclusion and cultural mediation. According to its founders, Mamre focuses on the dimension of urban peripheries as a support for citizens in fragile circumstances. Mamre is currently supporting six-hundred families out of the one-thousand six-hundred families that have requested food packs in Barriera di Milano. Through personally assisting and helping Mamre’s volunteers during their job in the past weeks, I have therefore had the chance to witness and understand more deeply how one of the key elements of emergency urban food policy come to its final – and perhaps its most important – stage: enactment.

While discussing about food policy and poverty, Sister Giuliana Galli stressed the importance of physical and face-to-face connections “We need to make a distinction between institutional poverty and existential poverty. It is often that we learn about poverty in studies, articles and the literature: they narrate us everything about it, its history, its statistics, its technicalities… but we need to take a look at the qualitative side of research too: people in need show us their necessities in different ways, and helping them out reveals us what they need”.

Moreover, Sister Galli also discussed the relevant role of partnerships and collaborative processes: “The availability of private citizens helps us in the response to the fragile citizenry. The lack of a food source is the final stage of poverty, a physical, relational poverty, the ultimate difficulty to utilise the tools and opportunities that have been rendered available to the public. Partnerships make this connection possible, and they help us break the cycle of said poverties. These very processes are the defining mechanisms of true people-oriented politics. Some like to say that everything we do is political: these circumstances make it so that the single citizen becomes the principal politician in the urban territorial dimension, it becomes the lever that can lift and move things around it”.

Finally, Sister Galli addressed one more time the relevance of food policy measures that can serve the citizenry and at the same time create a physical presence that can function as a base for urban processes of poverty relief: “Making our very own spaces available to the distribution of food packs is a basic yet explanatory practice that shows us how to get in touch with citizens. It is this community care that demonstrates one-to-one, on a personal level, that we are there for everybody. These are our strengths: open doors, the acquisition of personal mutual knowledge, volunteering”.

In conclusion, we can lastly answer the questions we posed ourselves at the very beginning of the article: How can food policy help us respond to the critical conditions dictated by the post-COVID-19 recession? What direction does food policy need to take?

It seems clear that different matters require different answers. For what concerns the strenuous restart of the private sector, Italy can count on its world-renown culinary tradition and excellence. It is not a coincidence that tourism and gastronomy go hand in hand in the Belpaese, and several best-practice case studies, not only those highlighted in this article, will demonstrate the wide array of possibilities that private investors and business owners can take advantage of to relaunch the economy. The formula that we analysed appears to work like a charm: the valorisation of local, genuine and excellent products, coupled with a custom-knit storytelling strategy, generates opportunities and is sustainable on the market.

Finally, the delicate and tragic issue of urban poverty can have its approach broadened to encompass the personal, intimate and humane value that could be disregarded when tackled only from a statistical standpoint. The creation of multi-actor collaborative processes on the small, local and territorial urban level can enable food policy strategists to count not only on the support, but also on the first-hand experience of their territorial partners when it comes to the creation of counter-poverty plans that can finally guarantee the basic right to food and the access to food resources to every citizen.

Source for featured picture: Turin Central Market,
http://www.turinitalyguide.com/artisans-shops-markets/