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A Feast for the Food Conscious

Attending Gustolab's "Critical Studies on Food in Italy Summer Program"

Class dining together in Italy
Class dining together. Photo courtesy of Gustolab.

The wandering gypsy/journalist within me salivated with delight when an announcement for the Gustolab International Institute’s (GLI) Critical Studies on Food in Italy Summer Program popped up on the Comfood Listserv, an email discussion list geared toward a community of teachers, activists, and food security enthusiasts. GLI, the first Italian center dedicated to short and long-term food study, was calling on applicants, degree seeking or not, to study food, media, communication and trends, nutrition, and culture.

Since making the award-winning documentary film Vanishing of the Bees, I have been studying the food supply within the context of different countries and cultures. As I report on how chemicals and additives affect bees and beings worldwide, I also explore the impact of big food corporations on the rubric of food cultures. GLI’s 5-week immersion program, headquartered in Rome, offered a once-in-lifetime opportunity to combine 3,000 years of culture with a rich learning opportunity. Bellisimo!  

Since its inception 10 years ago, GLI has already worked collaboratively with more than 14 schools, including Auburn University in Alabama, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, NYU, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

"We discuss the influence of politics on food availability and food practices, as well as the importance of cross-cultural communications to address nutrition and cultural issues," explains Director Sonia Massari, Ph.D.

GLI also designs other programs that examine food in all its complex and multi-layered perspectives, including historical, political, economic, cultural, and culinary.

I was particularly keen on two classes: Food Media, Communication and Trends, which focuses on the intersection between food and media and Food, Nutrition and Culture in Italy, which looks at dietary practices, with particular emphasis on how Italy compares to the United States. I was curious to learn how industrialization had kneaded and shaped Italian society and its food, and how those changes in culture have affected Italian dietary practices. After all, food is a cornerstone of Italian culture.

Enjoying antipasti with Gustolab
Class enjoying antipasti. Photo courtesy of Gustolab.

When In Rome (Do As The Romans Do)

Via a friend, I found an affordable apartment studio in a district called San Lorenzo, a trendy neighborhood full of graffiti-ed walls, artists, and students. Instead of commuting on a long, crowded bus (I have claustrophobia), I walked 4.6 km (3 miles) to and from school, working my body while taking in the Eternal City’s old-world vibe, studded with ruins.

Despite busy schedules, I noticed that Italians always find the time to sip an espresso or share a long meal. As I am severely intolerant to gluten, I can’t partake in the morning ritual of eating bread or a sweet pastry with coffee. Luckily, around the corner from my school, I found Esco Sazio, an organic juice place. The two owners used to sell alcohol to patrons before peddling organic juice.

 “Posso avere una smoothie con fragole, spinaci, papaia, e cacao per favore?” May I have a smoothie with strawberries, spinach, papaya, and cacao please? 

With some basic language skills, thanks to sponsorship with the Scuola Leonardo da Vinci Rome, I could order my morning smoothie.

I was also better equipped to shop when we visited two farmers’ markets. The traditional Testaccio Market features fruit, vegetable, meat and fish stalls, as well as delicious made-while-you-wait street food. The Esquilino Market, near the Roma Termini train station, is a multi-cultural market pulsing with vitality, with seasonal and regional fruit and vegetables, seafood, meat, as well as Indian and African spices and exotic tropical fruits. It’s not always easy to distinguish between organic and non-organic produce in these farmers’ markets. Nonetheless, they were essential pit stops, illustrating the impact farmers markets have on neighborhoods, as well as creating a snapshot of local life.

An inside look at food in Italy is also one of the perks of the program, which includes suggestions on authentic restaurants rather than more touristy ones. For instance, I discovered Eataly, a unique restaurant that packs several styles of Italian dining, a market and bookstore into four levels (editor's note: Eataly has many branches in Italy and worldwide, including New York, due to its success, and is known for fine traditional Italian products), and Aromaticus located on Via Urbana in Monti, which serves nourishing, healthy foods like organic juices and biodynamic roast beef. They also offer workshops on how to grow herbs.

Field Trips and Fun: Recipe For Success

Besides enjoying food and farmer’s markets, I experienced many other onsite experiences. Some highlights include:

  • The Slow Food movement, which is now internationally renowned, was founded in Italy in 1986 by Carlo Petrini. It began as a resistance to the opening of a McDonald's near the Spanish Steps in Rome. We visited the Rome Chapter and students sampled local beer. Slow Food envisions a world in which all people can access and enjoy food that is good for them, good for those who grow it, and good for the planet. When something is cheap, somebody has not been paid, and usually it’s the farmer.
  • During one nutrition class, Professor Mauro Serafini, PHD, discussed the positive benefits of cacao. Following our lesson, we visited Namastey, a quaint teashop located just behind the Pantheon, which is renowned for its assortment of imported teas from all over the world, as well as its single-origin chocolates. 
  • Cheese plays an important role in Italian cuisine. There are more than 400 types of cheese made in Italy, with parmesan, mozzarella, and asiago among the most famous. We visited Vannulo Dairy, the “VIP Mozzarella” Maker. Established in 1988, Vannulo Dairy is the only organic buffalo farm in Italy. The buffaloes are not treated with hormones or antibiotics but with homeopathic remedies, music, and avant-garde techniques of milking to safeguard animal welfare, hygiene, and milk quality.

The Future Of The Mediterranean Diet

One of the other trips included in the program is a 3-day excursion to Cilento, where Ancel Keys developed the guidelines of the now world-famous Mediterranean Diet. Characterized traditionally by the intake of plant-based foods such as vegetables, legumes, fruit, nuts, seeds and olives, extra virgin olive oil, fish and moderate amounts of red wine, it also involves a low consumption of processed food, processed carbohydrates, sweets, chocolate, and red meat.

Visiting Cilento, Italy
Visiting Cilento. Photo courtesy of Gustolab.

The Mediterranean diet has been shown to increase longevity and reduce incidence of chronic diseases, especially major cardiovascular diseases,” remarked Serafini, who also leads GLI’s nutrition class. He explained that, according to a recent study by University of Minnesota ecologist David Tilman, not only does the Mediterranean diet boost the quality and length of the human life span, it also slashes greenhouse gas emissions and saves the habitat of endangered species. (Interestingly, I remarked that this study made no distinction between an organic Mediterranean diet and a conventional one.)

During one class, we learned how to calculate our own adherence to the Mediterranean Diet. My score ranked a perfect 10, prompting Serafini to call me, “the grandmother of the Mediterranean diet.”

Ironically, the diet "hardly exists" in the region where it originated. Globalization, food marketing, tourism, urban development, depletion of natural resources, and a loss of traditional knowledge have altered the menu for the worst. For more, see the following .PDF white paper on Mediterranean food and consumption patterns.

Products today are increasingly being sourced from outside the region. Only 10% of the traditional local crop varieties are still grown today, which affects not only local food producers but also the environment.

Ancient vineyards, orchards, and olive groves have been uprooted to make way for large-scale fruit or olive plantations. Mixed rotational farming has been replaced by intensive monocultures, just as in the U.S.A. These shifts negatively impact not only wildlife habitats and water supply, but also the small-scale farmers who once depended on these systems for their livelihoods.

This change in food supply and consumption is affecting more than nature. More than 36% of Italian children are either overweight or obese by the age of eight, making Italy the country with the highest obesity rates among children in Europe.

Check out this short film segment, which was produced by students studying Food Filmmaking, titled Fat Italy: The Fate of Italian Youth that addresses this very subject.


UIUC - Spring 2014 - Fat Italy: The Fate of Italian Youth (Group B)
from Gustolab Institute on Vimeo.

Food studies programs are growing in popularity around the world, attracting the future experts of the food supply chain. They delve into vital questions such as the following: What impact does food have on the environment? What are the ethics of eating? How does food contribute to systems of oppression? How are foods symbolic markers of identity?

To get a more vivid picture of everything GustoLab Institute has to offer, check out the short film, The Path of Food Studies, also created by GLI students:


The Path of Food Studies - Master Gustolab 10 - Group B UIUC 2015 Spring
from Gustolab Institute on Vimeo.

Visit the program website for more information about the program I attended. 

Maryam Henein Maryam Henein is an activist, journalist, and the director of the award-winning documentary Vanishing of the Bees, narrated by Ellen Page. She is also the editor in chief of the health and wellness site HoneyColony. She’s a yogi who geeks out on food security issues.

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