Covid-19 Epidemic’s impact on Italian “food world”.

Chiara Baldussi Operations Officer


May 21, 2020

Written by Alberto Corbino, Ph.D, Arcadia Rome Center Professor of “Food Studies: culture, globalization, sustainability” and President of “The Mediterranean Institute of Food Culture” – Sorrento, Italy

One of the first things I use to share with my students at Rome “Food Studies: Culture, Globalization, Sustainability” course is the complexity of today food world. During our first lesson, while testing some very basic italian typical products, they learn that food is not only “fuel for the body” but that it can be a very intense exeperience involving all our senses. 

On the second lesson, we brainstorm about all the words that are somehow linked to “food” and shape this complexity. Of course this is easier to do in a country that prides itself like no other with its food traditions and when the direct encounter with the people who produce, transform, sell and cooks food is a fundamental part of the homework.

My 2020 Spring Term students – a very good class  - had to go back home before time, because of Covid - 19. In this article I would like to deal with how this crisis impacted on the Italian food world, desciribing in short some of the most relevant aspects related to the words that frequently come out during my course.

Dignity. For centuries and until the economic boom of the late ‘50s and ‘60s (if not later in some rural áreas), food was rhyming with hunger: no food = dignity denial. Neapolitans (Naples is my home town) know very well the noise of an empty belly at night so, when it comes to feed those in needs, their big heart opens up. Covid-19 lock down created many problems for homeless or even to families who where making a living on irregular jobs or of those who lost thier job. So one day, on their balcony in the heart of the historical center, two artists that Arcadia students always meet during Napoli field study, Angelo Picone and Pina Andelora, saw one of the neighborhood’s homeless people walk by. They asked him, “are you hungry?” and they lowered a basket (panaro in Neapolitan dialect) with a steaming hot dish of pasta and beans for him. Word got out and by that evening the number of friends to feed had already grown. The next day Angelo and Pina had an idea: they borrowed a line from Giuseppe Moscati, a Neapolitan doctor who took care of the poor free of charge during the two world wars, and wrote it on a sign affixed to the “panaro”: “those who can, donate; those who can’t, take”. Very soon the basket became a giving tree, filling up and emptying out of bread, pasta, and all sorts of non-perishables. Food dignity, 100% made in Naples (I told the whole story in: ).

Socialization. I like to tell my students that in Italy food is one more excuse for socialization. We socialize at the famers market or even at supermarkets, we like to invite friends to informal dinners, and we love to spend hours eating and talking (about food!), not to metion that here food is even a very easy and pleasant subject to start a conversation with someone you don’t know: food just get people together. Social distancing, which is the opposite of socializing, is the most (un)famous word of this period and it’s definitively changing an important part of our social life, and not in a good way. Farmers markets and restaurants were closed, visiting friends was forbidden and, when everything will ever re-open, social distancing rules will still have an impact of the way we can organize our life and interact. A disaster for the whole food scenario. 

Immigration. In Italy we say: the land is low, which basically means: working the land is hard toil. Therefore, a large parts of our vegetables and fruits is harvested mostly from non-Italians, mainly Africans and East Europeans who break their spines all day for and handful of euros. Sometimes they are “ illegal immigrants” and  working and living conditions are even far to comply the law. The lockdown have pushed most of these workers away from the fields, with the results that the farmers have started complaining about it as harvest time was arriving. The Italians, even those who are embracing somekind of racist ideas which unfortunately have been storming the country in last decade, finally realized that, if they want to have their fresh veggies everyday on the table, they should accept the fact that our agricultural rely on those very despised strong arms. In these days, the government approved a law to regularize these workers for six months. 

Food waste and anti-waste recipes. According to the most accountabile statistics, one third of the food produced in the world is wasted every day all along the production chain, from the field to the table. Italy is no exception to this, although a quite recent law allowed the country to almost reduce to the half those wasted at distribution level.  The lockdown, with the long lines at supermarkets and the obligations to shop just in the neighborhood “forced” the Italians to re-discover some anti-waste recipes of the past, when grandmas never wasted a single crumble of bread. It’s always useful to remember that the most typical Italian cuisine is the so called “cucina povera – poor cuisine” done with very simple ingredients, the only one they could afford. 

Family business. Covid -19 lockdown brought many of the so called non-essential businesses to their knees; this food  category which includes restaurants, pizzerías, pastry shops and bars, was even more strongly hit because their business rely on a direct relationship with their clients. The situation was worsened by the “take away and delivery services” being forbidden for some six weeks. And, as we said before, social distancing will heavily affect their business capacity even in phase 2, for instance drastically reducing the number of the available seats.  The situation is so serious that many shops – expecially family business - will not be able to open again because revenues will not even cover he costs. So Covid-19 crisis, exacerbated by the governmental slow and weak support, can often result in bankrupcy or at least in some kind of irresistible temptation to give up everything and to sell it to people with ready cash.  This has brought  experts in trade associations to warn about mafia risk, since these criminal organizations are always full of cash and very willing to take advantage of the situation, like buying at dirt-cheap prices food businesses through which they can recycle the dirty money.  And when it’s not mafia, other buyers are ready to make easy investments, like chinese entrepreneurs, who have been acquired and replaced many Italian small businesses in the last decade. In Venezia (in the very central Cannaregio) three family-managed bars have been acquired by chinese enterprenuers during the last two months. In this case what worries the most is that bars are a very important pillar of our (food) cultural identity, as they are the depositaries of small traditions (homemade pastries, a real Italian cappuccino), and to some Italians they are like a second home where to have breakfast while having a quick chat with the bar-man, now a good old friend they have known for 30 years.  No family business = no food culture: a risk Italy can not just underestimate!