/Italy’s Changing Food Habits

Italy’s Changing Food Habits

french fry holder
The future? Photo credit: the amazing and talented Megan Hodges.

The financial crisis in Italy is in full swing. All the statistics, not to mention the dismal vibe, support this. Yet if you visit Rome, you might not notice an economic depression is afoot. The city remains a bastion of prosperity thanks to its glut of well paid bureaucrats, successful professionals and their offspring. In fact, most days it feels like the crisi is a relative condition. On more than one occasion I have stifled laughter as a Roman laments, “This year things are really lean. We can’t afford to go on holiday in August,” followed by a declaration that he will spend two weeks in Sicily , Calabria, Sardegna or another domestic seaside destination. I guess it’s not a holiday if you don’t need your passport?

The truth is, many Romans aren’t actually suffering. They are simply less comfortable than in previous years and since so many are used to a cushy existence, they have a relative view of what real struggle is. The rest of Italy, on the other hand, is faring much worse. According to ISTAT, the Italian statistics agency, a growing number of Italian families are living in poverty based on a household monthly earnings threshold of €990.88*. News outlets are reporting that 9.5 million, or one in five families, are living in poverty, a reality that is more pronounced in the south. Not only will those families be staying put for August, it will likely affect the way they purchase food this summer and in the coming years.

The negative impacts of the crisis are already wreaking havoc on small food economies. I saw this first hand last year when visiting my ancestral homeland. In Basilicata, many villages have supermarkets but do not have a single bakery, produce stall or butcher. Depleted populations simply cannot support these small businesses, so they shutter and corporate food production and distribution move in and take over.

I think it’s officially time to set aside–and stop perpetuating!–the antiquated view of Italy as an idyllic nucleus of virtuous food production and consumption. Not only can the critical among us observe the decline of food culture in Italy, we can also look to research for support. A recent decade-long study by the Università degli Studi di Firenze found a marked decline in Italian food culture in the past 10 years. Some highlights:

-An increase in diets characterized with a high energetic density.
-A decline of traditional diets characterized by their high consumptions of fruit, vegetables and fish.
-An increase of easy to prepare and ready to eat products, especially in Northern Italy.

The study futher suggested public intervention was needed to re-educate producers and consumers towards virtuous models.

So why does this all matter? Shouldn’t people be allowed to make their own choices about what to eat? Who am I or you or the government to tell people how to eat? Well, I (and probably you) care about the availability of healthy food made by real people produced in accordance with processes that don’t pollute, exploit the land or otherwise cause harm. The government’s interest is in preventing disease brought on by deteriorating food habits and in stimulating small local economies.

It’s time to confront the notion that the financial crisis, among other cultural reasons, is driving a food crisis that will likely get worse if we don’t make a real effort to promote and celebrate those who makes good food.

*Reported income.

2017-02-17T15:16:42+00:00 July 19th, 2013|Categories: Culture, Food & Wine, Gastronomic Traditions|9 Comments


  1. Lindsey July 19, 2013 at 10:22 am - Reply

    While the French aren’t suffering to quite the same extent, the changes in diet and consumption are equally as obvious. Similar views about the French and their penchant for quality ingredients exist and while they may be true for a certain demographic (bobo Parisians, for example), the rest of the country don’t necessarily have the means to feed themselves the way they used to. I’m glad you continue to cover the REAL side of Italy because like France, too many idyllic and embellished pictures are painted, leaving visitors stunned when they see the true state of things.

  2. Catherine Simes July 19, 2013 at 12:06 pm - Reply

    I’ve noticed the change in TV advertising, the creeping dominance of fast and ready prepared food is depressing. If only because the same thing happened in the UK twenty or thirty years ago. Ready made baked potato or hard-boiled egg anyone? We’re only just trying to recover. It would be sad to see Italy go the same way.

  3. Linda July 19, 2013 at 6:58 pm - Reply

    Well said Katie and Hande. It’s been incredibly frustrating to see this down slide and feeling powerless to change it.

  4. Hande July 19, 2013 at 6:04 pm - Reply

    Lately been having many discussions on this topic not only with you but with Sarah May Grunwald, Simran Sethi, Alyssa McDonald and other smart and dedicated women interested in good, real, food. You have mentioned some of the points that are important. For me the most important point is that we have to make normal people (those not in the food industry like we all are) realise that this in fact is a matter that is of great importance for them, too – that this is not an isolated problem of any other group of people they do not belong to. Poor, rich, italian, expat, involved in food as a profession or not…. If you eat, this matters.

  5. Rick July 22, 2013 at 6:58 pm - Reply

    I agree that we’re certainly seeing a reduction in food quality as Italy (and other European countries) stray from their cultural traditions and move towards the “Global Industrial Diet.” These highly processed foods, which have been present in the U.S. for decades, have inexplicably found a new home in Old World. But I believe that the mechanisms are more complex than just the recent crisi. In my opinion, the constant deluge of clever marketing is finally realizing its desired result. (The photo in this post is a perfect example: it just screams of the perceived American-style prosperity) They have somehow made a connection between these non-food products and the good life…and people are starting to buy it (literally and figuratively). It has to be that, because unlike in America, McDonald’s et al is actually more expensive in Italy than healthier “fast food” options such as a bar or tavola calda.

    As far as grocery stores, if people are choosing large chains over local shops, then I think it has more to do with convenience (and again, marketing) over price. I can only speak about our neighborhood in Rome, but fruit, vegetables, meat, and fish are more expensive at the Despar than at the daily market. And there’s no comparison in quality.

  6. Gino July 24, 2013 at 2:12 pm - Reply

    I agree in part with what you are saying, and yes the ISTAT records are showing a decline, however I think you are missing a fundamental point.

    If you are talking about a change of food culture, then it is the larger cities not the smaller ones where change is more predominant. Smaller towns and areas still rely on the weekly market and are less interested in purchasing fast food because the food culture is such that it is not recognised as a change for the good but the eroding of traditional values.

    Larger cities, Milan, Rome, Turin, Genoa have seen the fastest increase of fast food jaunts, the quickest growth in frozen vegetable and fruit sales than anywhere else. There is a food crisis but not in areas you’d normally associate with a reduction of quality.

  7. Scordo July 28, 2013 at 12:59 pm - Reply

    Hi Kathy,

    Great blog, I’m a first time visitor and Italian American food and culture blogger.

    My first, gut, reaction on the Italian financial crisis impacting food consumption is to point to other financial crisis in Italy’s past (and they are numerous). For example, when my Calabrian born parents left for the US in the early 1970’s times were tough but Italians in the South still ate well (via their family owned farms, small gardens, local shops, etc.).

    In my simple view, what has changed in Italy is the acceptance of western (read US), food, culture; that is to say, and as you point out, larger portions, more meals on the go, and a tolerance for inferior ingredients.

    Vince from Scordo

  8. Cristina August 6, 2013 at 11:04 pm - Reply

    I am wondering if it is not only because of the declining population but that they younger generations have been sold on moving to the cities for more lucrative jobs and no one wants to run the farms or small businesses. My relatives that live near Urbino have taken over the family farm and sell their products in Pesaro…they contend that it is a difficult life, but rewarding at the same time. I think it will revert back to taking care of the land and feeding communities… but we are going to have to change our mentality….how much is enough to live off of? Can people be happy earning less but still providing for their families and for future generations?

  9. Megan August 12, 2013 at 8:53 pm - Reply

    I never thought this photo would have legs. I’ll consider it my birthday present that you published it on my actual birthday.

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