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When I’m having dinner and a drink at a restaurant in my home town of Toronto, I’m used to asking the server if there are any local wines, because it’s not every restaurant that offers one.
So I asked my standard question last fall, when I went to a restaurant in Turin, where I was speaking at a conference of European planners.
The server stared at me with a blank look. I assumed the blank look was due to the fact that I spoke English, and he only spoke Italian, so I asked again, more slowly, if they had a wine from this region. He looked blankly at me again, and then blurted out, “we only have local wines!”
Our miscommunication was due more to culture than language.
In Toronto, I never assume a restaurant has local wine, even though Ontario has many prize-winning ones. My server in Italy assumes a restaurant in the middle of a wine region only serves local wine.
This assumption about local so pleased and astonished me that I tried my question out at every restaurant I went to that week. Always the same result: astonishment that there could be a question.
There’s no law or policy that spells out a requirement of restaurants to serve local wine. There’s no need. The local culture has decided.
That’s the theme I want to explore in this newsletter. I hope to draw out the implications for city-based food policies and organizations.
On the last full day of my stay in Turin last fall, my new friend, Simone Mangili, took me on a tour through the several blocks of Turin’s downtown farmers market, the largest in Europe.
I had never imagined a farmers market as big or as crowded as this. Nor had I ever seen a market as socially and ethnically diverse. Everybody shops here, Simone told me. The entire community comes together around this market, he said – again very different from North America, where most people who frequent farmers markets are middle income.
Turin residents who don’t shop at the main market can shop at one of 14 other farmers markets, as well as 42 open-air and six covered markets – many of them morning pop-up markets along boulevards of residential streets. At least three local farmers must be featured alongside discounters of cookware, clothing and crafts in these markets.
In short, a farmers market featuring fresh, local, whole foods can be a daily walk-by habit for the entire population of Turin. Most other food and related needs are met by one of several co-op supermarkets, for Italy is also the land of co-ops, including co-op chains.
Why would anyone shop at a corporate chain that sold food from outside the region, and sent the proceeds of the community’s money out of the region? No-one seems to have even asked.
Because of my background, I saw Turin’s markets through the eyes of a Toronto public health worker.
It struck me that if Toronto had a Turin-style food retail culture, the public health department would never need to campaign against excess salt, sugar and trans fats embedded in processed food – for the simple reason that people shopping almost entirely at farmers markets and farmers markets don’t buy processed foods.  
For the same reason, environmentalists would never have to campaign against packaging or long-distance foods, because seasonal local foods and foods from around the Mediterranean dominate at farmers market.  
Turin’s food culture doesn’t necessarily solve problems. It bypasses them.
I put my two tourist experiences together – the restaurants that only sell local wines, and the farmers markets that mainly sell local, fresh and home-cooked foods – and realized that Turin handled the  nutritional and environmental aspects of the food issue culturally, without having to resort to campaigns for legal changes.
Food policy and legal policy mean the same thing in North America, but that isn’t the only way to do food policy. Italians can decouple food policy and food law because they have a rich culture.
And that thought connected to a principle – which, I had argued at the planning conference a few days earlier, was needed to guide the key role of local governments in food policy. The principle is known in Europe as “subsidiarity.”
Subsidiarity helps think through what level of government should look after an issue. The principle, which is almost a riddle, is “as low as possible, as high as necessary.” If the issue can be handled by an individual or neighborhood or city, all to the better. If the issue implies financing or other needs beyond the capability of individuals or local governments, then regional, national or international authorities should be engaged.
No dogma about jurisdiction, just a common sense principle that serves as a guide.
Putting all these thoughts together as we strolled through the Turin farmers market, I realized that culture was the lowest place possible and highest place necessary for a huge range of food system issues.
The culture of Turin was already there in terms of local wine at restaurants, and local unprocessed groceries sold for home cooking. Much the same pattern likely holds for most of South America, Africa and Asia.
And the same needs to become the pattern in North America.
For that to happen, good food advocates should design campaigns to create good food culture as the major way to promote local, healthy and sustainable food practices of individuals and families.
What cannot be accomplished by culture and informal relations – largely decisions related to public and institutional food management and aggressive marketing by Big Food corporations–  should be assigned to government policy.
The food movement needs to become adept enough to promote soft power in civil society, and hard power in politics.
When I returned to Turin this spring – thanks to my experience with food policy councils in North America, I was asked to help local groups concerned about rights to food and a local food commission — I gained a much fuller understanding of Turin’s culture.
The more I learned, the more I realized how much people in Turin were able to accomplish through culture, notwithstanding (or is it because of?) the fact that Turin’s politics, like most of northern Italy, have long been beyond the far left of the North American spectrum.
But being left never meant not being anti-business, as the size of Italy’s co-ops and the sheer number of microenterprises illustrate. Nor did it mean relying exclusively on government or formal institutions for solutions.
Italy’s powerful unions, for example, build their power from solidarity and disciplined action on the shop and office floor, or in mass demonstrations in the streets, not in the contracts and lobbying that North American unionized workers depend on.
Italian popular institutions have been built in concert with popular culture, and have rarely relied entirely or mainly on politics.  They have learned how to render unto culture what is culture’s, and render unto government what is government’s – another way of saying subsidiarity.
They do not need a law to protect local farm products. They have a culture that protects it. They have embedded their power in a culture of human solidarity and reciprocal support. They will not cross a picket line to get to work. And they will not cross an ethical picket line to find cheap food.
My bedtime reading while I was in Turin was the great medieval historian Massimo Montanari’s Food is Culture. Though I was usually half-asleep when I read it, something must have seeped into my brain. Montanari refers to the post-1990s world as one where many foods travel great distances, and few people have knowledge about or control over food. “Now we must seek to manage it, above all culturally,” he writes.  
Let me give you a few examples of what individuals, business and community groups “manage culturally” in Turin.
The first day I was in town, I went for lunch at a local restaurant that identified with Slow Food, which is based in the metropolitan region of Turin.
The restaurant had no menu, just a chalkboard and a server who could explain all the dishes on offer that day.
Over the next ten days, I discovered this is the norm, and I got to see all the things that changed when restaurants had a chalk board instead of a printed menu with over 30 distinct offerings.
Chefs at a restaurant with a chalkboard buy fresh ingredients from a farmers market, and build the day’s menu around these items.
Here’s how to evaluate the consequences: check the box for local, fresh food; check the box for cooked from scratch without preservatives, additives or packaging; check the box for keeping waste to the minimum, rather than tossing out goods that went past their best-before date; check the box for minimal energy used to refrigerate and freeze major ingredients to be used up in a day; check the box for the taste of freshly-prepared foods; check the box for the variety, challenge and learning opportunities of kitchen staff   – a pretty impressive list of features, all due to the culture of the chalk board, instead of the printed menu.
In effect, the chalk board – which must be supported by a culture of community understanding that restaurants can only feature fresh, seasonal foods each day if they stick to limited choices – eliminates the need for multi-billion dollar monopoly-sized distribution companies (Sysco and Gordon Food Services come to mind) that deliver pre-packaged meals grown and assembled far away to a skeleton crew of kitchen staff who heat-and-serve what’s in the box to customers who order any one of some 50 choices.
In Italy, the infrastructural barrier to local, fresh food has been brought tumbling down by pieces of chalk…backed by a popular food culture.  
Later that day, I read the hot-off-the-press book of essays (including my own concluding chapter) produced by city staff on Toward the Turin Food Policy.
The book covers the whole of Turin – a downtown city of Turin, with about a million people, as well as a million and a half people living in the surrounding metropolitan regions of rich vineyards, rice fields and mountain livestock farms.
At the center of the book are chapters presenting activities of some important community groups.
One entry that caught my attention was the 12 Collective Purchasing Groups for 850 families, and related Solidarity Purchasing Groups for 1500 families.
Another was the 75 active farms covering 500 hectares, one of over 20 urban agriculture projects in this former industrial city known for its production of FIAT (T for Turin) cars. Today, almost 5000 residents of  Turin are farmers.
There are also a huge number of groups that provide some version of food bank service to people in need.    
Civil society is capable of managing a huge range of food-centered services and activities.
This is a culture of activity and of activism – a precondition of any city or region with dynamic food services.
The culture around food in Turin should probably be referred to as middlebrow. It’s not highbrow because it’s accessible to almost everyone, whatever their budget, and can be performed and appreciated by people without formal training or certification.  
But it’s not lowbrow either, as can be clearly seen in Turin. Turin is close to the Slow Food university, and hosts an annual harvest celebration of Slow Food to which hundreds of thousands of Slow Food devotees from around the world are invited each year. The Slow Food celebration literally takes over huge swaths of the city every fall. Until this year, the celebration was held at the huge factory site once occupied by FIAT. This year, it will be centered in a major riverside park near the downtown.
Slow Food treats food seriously. It has publications, such as Slow Food’s anthology, Slow Food: Collected Thoughts on Taste, Tradition, and the Honest Pleasures of Food, which builds serious food literacy about the history and characteristics of hundreds of special foods and beverages. It respects the depth of learning and dedication that artisans, chefs, and at-home cooks give to the work and art of making a delicious meal or drink.
To say the least, people raised in such a culture know where their food comes from, know what season it is available, and know how to savor and discuss the meal.
Beyond that, they know something of food as seen against a bigger canvas of relationships with family, friends, traditions, health and nature. They know that a meal has a balance of ingredients that supply the range of nutrients and tastes people need to be satisfied and nourished. They know how to eat with gusto if they have several hours, or only a few minutes. They know there must be a bitter as well as a sweet, and that a whole meal, and even a whole serving, cannot be just a sweet. And they know that friends and family must participate in the meal, not just consume it, while watching some screen or other. They know, in short, that food and agriculture are about a culture.
At one of the last meetings I spoke to, I made the point that sheer population size accounts for much of the impact that cities have. A million people doing the same things on a regular basis adds up to a lot of impact, for good or ill. The example I usually give for this in Toronto is that Torontonians throw out one million paper coffee cups every day. When I recite that grim statistic in Toronto or nearby, I can feel silence and guilt overtaking an audience. Not so when I spoke in Italy. The audience guffawed loudly in disbelief! No, no, they interrupted me, that is not possible!
They couldn’t believe that a civilized people drank coffee in a disposable paper cup, took it out of the coffee shop to slurp it down while they were walking, and then tossed the empty cup in the garbage.
In Italy, a tiny cup of espresso is shot back right there at the coffee shop. They drink the coffee for its flavor, not as a hot drink. If they want a drink, they take water or wine. And whether it’s coffee, water or wine, they drink it at a table or stand, in the company of people. They don’t drink alone.
In Toronto, such a coffee culture would save thousands of trees a day – no longer uprooted to make  a million paper cups.
We should not need a government regulation, decided on after years of debate, to require some complicated process to make coffee cups recyclable, and thereby save thousands of trees a day in every city. Common manners shaped by a culture of respect for the sociability of food and drink and a culture of appreciation for the resources used up to produce food and drink should be able to accomplish that in a much more logical way. Drink your coffee from a real cup while sitting or standing in a coffee shop and chatting with friends or reading a paper.
Just classify paper cups as barbaric, which is not far from the truth when you consider that every tree is needed to absorb carbon dioxide, but loggers are cutting 10 billion trees a year!
We’ve already made some progress in culture-based changes. Around a hundred years ago, spitting and horking greenies were everyday and everyplace behavior in Toronto and most of North America. Then a culture of cleanliness became the norm. We don’t have laws governing spittoons at taverns or other public spaces. We don’t even have spittoons. We solved the problem by culture.
We may soon enough be able to say the same about smoking tobacco, or throwing cigarette butts on the street (where they end up in sewers and lakes and take ten years to break down). We may soon enough be able to say the same about disposable paper cups and plastic bottles, neither of which were around in the simple days of spitting and horking greenies.

We should develop a culture of food that makes good food a norm, and then a habit. While I don’t want to downplay the role of food policy at the government level – on the contrary I want to focus and keep our powder dry — I think we need to inject more purposefulness into our efforts to build a food culture, and identify more campaigns that build power for corrective action in the everyday habits of everyday people. 

Photo credit: By Agne27 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,