Fast vs. organic food in Italy: a battle played out in the streets

Above: Joe Bastianich, one of the architects of the current Italian food and wine renaissance and one of Italy’s biggest television stars, now has a signature line of sandwiches at McDonald’s.

Earlier this year, an itinerant American professor took an old friend out for dinner in Milan. Their friendship stretches back more than 20 years: they met when he was studying philology in Rome and Pisa and she was completing her degree in Milan.

They were joined by her teenage daughter, who’s grown up in Milan where her mother practices law.

The American asked the young Italian what she and her schoolmates like to eat most. The answer? The Double Down at KFC, the “panino senza pane,” in other words, “the breadless sandwich.”

Anyone who has traveled to Italy regularly over the last 20 years will tell you the same thing: American fast food chains have rapidly dominated the Italian urban-culinary landscape. On every street corner it seems, there is now a KFC or a Burger King. And McDonald’s, the first major American junk food group to lay its stake in Italy (including the notorious Spanish Steps mega-McDonald’s that spurred the Slow Food movement in the 1980s), has now expanded its reach with “McDrive,” the Italian version of that ultimate Americana invention of necessity — the drive-through.

But there’s another current that runs against this newly established trend in Italy: the quasi-religion of organically farmed and ranched foods.

With a robust pace that rivals and even outruns the growth of the fast food industry in Italy, “organic only” outposts are popping up across the Italian cityscape.

The term organic is rendered as biologico (biologic) in Italian. And it’s often abbreviated as bio, pronounced BEE-oh.

The popular chain of supermarkets NaturaSì was founded (according to the Wiki) around the same time the Spanish Steps McDonald’s was opened in the mid-1980s.

Its name can be translated loosely as Yes to Nature! and its slogan bio per vocazione rendered as our mission is organics. The Wiki says that there are more than 260 NaturaSì outlets across the country. Just take a stroll in any major urban area and you’re more likely than not to come across one.

One of the pioneers in organics marketing in Italy, NaturaSì has become the model for countless other retail operations, including many mom-and-pop businesses.

Above: I snapped this photo of a organic ice cream shop and café in Brescia last week.

One subtle difference that may not be immediately apparent to the American traveler is that the commercialization and consumption of organic products in Italy has a moral and civic component that we lack here in the States.

My observations are purely anecdotal but it’s abundantly clear to me that health concerns are the number-one driver of interest in organic foods here in the U.S.

Cancer and other chronic health concerns are by no means absent from the organic vs. convention farming conversation in Italy. But Italians speak openly, frequently, and loudly about organics as an essential element in the fight against climate change.

When Tracie and I serve our children organically farmed berries every day (even when out of season), we do so primarily because we believe it will improve their health and development outlook. When our counterparts in Italy serve their children organic foods, on the other hand, there is a palpable sense that organic farming will help to save the earth.

Above: this mom-and-pop café in Bra, the city where the Slow Food movement was founded, serves only organic-certified coffee.

The Italian parliament is currently considering legislation that would greatly incentivize organic farming in Italy. It would also require all public institutions, including schools, to serve organic foods exclusively. Even though there has been some vocal opposition, the bill looks likely to pass and Italians – again, I write this based on anecdotal evidence — overwhelmingly support it. It’s a no-brainer in their minds.

Can you imagine such a conversation in America, the country that gave the world fast food? Certainly not today with Trump in the White House. In Italy, even the conservative and neo-fascist movements support organic farming as an expression of Italy’s agricultural and gastronomic resources and treasures.

But then again, fast food and big farming are slowly creeping into the Italian psyche. I even spied a Starbucks at the Milan airport earlier this year.

To be continued…

3 thoughts on “Fast vs. organic food in Italy: a battle played out in the streets

  1. The woman (from Florence) who’s teaching me Italian is rightfully outraged at the over-reliance on plastic here in the U.S. I’ve learned not to show up at her apartment with a plastic water bottle unless I’m prepared for a rant. It’s good to know she’s not the exception, that this attitude prevails in Italy. On the other hand, it’s so sad that one of America’s worst exports, fast food, has achieved such popularity there. How can you live in Italy and even consider eating that garbage? By the way, I just stumbled on your blog yesterday, and you are living my dream of living and working – and writing – in Italy. If you ever need a researcher (I’m a librarian), chiamarmi!

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