Cape Town, South Africa

Cape Town, South Africa
Serving it up at Manenberg Primary!

Friday, August 26, 2016

Italian School Lunch Program: Cultural Nuances Part 1

Hello, everyone! G'day from Helsinki, Finland!

[The beautiful Lutheran Cathedral in Senate Square, Helsinki]

However, as you can see from the title of my blog post, I am not talking about Finland today - I still have to share about the Italian school meal program! I've been struggling to figure out how to best relay this information in a digestible (pun intended), cohesive format, so thank you for your patience! The more I learn, the harder it is to encapsulate in a blog post.

So, that is why I am publishing my findings in a series of posts, rather than a single post. The number of posts will depend on the country and my circumstances, but keep your eyes out for upcoming posts.

I have one disappointing piece of news regarding my research in Italy. School had not started while I was there, so I was unable to take any photos of their lunches. However, to make up for this, I have pulled images from a few documentaries, as well as the menus for Rome's cafeteria.

[A cafeteria in Rome]

Before we jump in: General information about Italian School Lunches

I wanted to start this section off by saying, "Italian school lunches were served starting in [insert date here]." It seems like a great introduction. 

Hmph. I can't, though.

There is no specific date for when school lunches started, though it is documented that over 50 Italian municipalities were serving meals in the early 1900s (Bryant, 2009). The unspecified start date of the program stems from the structure of the program; it is financially and organizationally decentralized, meaning that everything is run by individual school districts. Rome's public schools serve completely different meals, at different costs, with different regulations than Naples, or Milan, or Lucca. I will discuss the benefits and drawbacks of this structure in an upcoming post - but first, I want to talk about culture!

Italian food culture: "Bringing back" Italian children to their cultural roots

When you hear the words, "Italian food," what comes to mind? Pasta, pizza, gelato, or perhaps bruschetta. What comes to mind when you hear "American food?" Well ... hamburgers or hot dogs? 

Before we jump into the food culture of Italy, I want to establish a working definition of "food culture." Almerico (2014) writes that "food studies looks at people’s relationships with food ... [to] expose a group or a person’s beliefs, passions, background knowledge, assumptions and personalities" (3). The foods we consume - as well as the foods we do not consume - emit personal and cultural messages. Food culture takes a more macroscopic view of this relationship, as it examines the specific relationship between national identity and food.

Look at this typical menu for Rome's school lunch program, paying close attention to the type of food that is being served. 

Almost all of these menu derive from Italian culture. In contrast, look at the menu items for K-8 Culpeper County (VA, my old middle school):

[If this image is too small to see, you can view their full-size menu here.]

During the week of August 15-19, Mexican (Burrito w/Salsa), Italian (Spaghetti with meat sauce), Asian (Asian chicken w/Rice), and of course, "American" cuisine is served. This highlights a key distinction between Italian and American food cultures; when comparing Italian and American menu choices, it becomes clear that Italy has a more-clearly defined food culture than the United States. Italy's national identity is more tightly bound to its cuisine. This does not make Italian lunches/food culture "better" or "worse" than American lunches/food culture, but it does have several meaningful consequences.

1. A well-defined food culture allows for more educational opportunities in the lunchroom.
As mentioned above, Italian lunches are dominated by its own cuisine: pizza, pasta, cannoli (my personal favorite!). These foods allow for a history lesson to be inserted into every meal. In Rome's program, every month in the school year is devoted to learning about the historical development of a specific region and its food. For example, October highlights Naples's history and the development of pizza, which hails from Naples.  This transforms the typical time spent eating - in America, we think of the lunch hour as taking a "break" from school, for kids to socialize, etc. - into a social and educational opportunity. 

Image result for italian flag food
["Italian Flag Salad"]

2. Lunches reestablish and perpetuate Italy's national identity. 
School lunches send cultural messages to their students. This may sound similar to the point I made above, but I want to focus on what is not being served for lunch in Italy - namely, foods that are indicative of other cultural backgrounds. Approximately 9 percent of Italians (5 million people) are foreign-born, though the actual number is likely higher with the increase of refugees arriving from Syria, according to the Consulta Nazionale Emigrazione. Though I could not find statistics on how many foreign-born children there are (or first-generation Italians), it is safe to assume it is sizeable.  When children from different cultural backgrounds - as well as Italian-born children - step into the lunchroom, they receive a crash course in Italian culture vis-à-vis food. This is not to say that Italian governments are insidious and want all children to assimilate to Italian culture and values. But, the lunch menu sends latent messages over what is considered "authentic Italian food" and what is not. 

I will continue with Cultural Nuances Part 2 shortly - keep a look out for it! I'll just leave you with this picture; yesterday I was in Tallin, Estonia, which is known for its beautiful architecture in the old city. But I had been aimlessly walking around and didn't see any beautiful architecture ... it looked like any typical city! And then BAM! I turned a corner and saw one of entrances to the Old City:

[Tallin, Estonia]

Amazing, right?! So beautiful. If you are ever near the Baltic states, PLEASE GO TO TALLINN! :) 

Cheers to you, have a wonderful day!!

Almerico (2014). Food and identity: Food studies, cultural, and personal identity. Journal of International Business and Cultural Studies, 8, 1-7.

Bryant, L. (2009). School feeding; Its history and practice at home and abroad. BiblioLife.

Link to Consulta Nazionale Emigrazione:

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