“So you came here on purpose?” I was asked after sitting down for an interview with a few journalists at the International Food Journalism Festival. I guess I did look a little silly; It was my first time in Italy, I was the only American there who was not a panelist or speaker and I didn’t know how to say more than five words in Italian. However, I enjoy the challenge of finding some new, obscure adventure, deciding it seems like a good idea to pursue it, and then doing anything necessary to actually go do it. In this case, that adventure was spending the second half of February in Turin, Italy for a food and journalism conference. I went by myself to a large city in a new country where a lot of cheese is eaten and I can’t speak Italian, what could go wrong, right?
Dairy is probably my worst enemy while traveling. The first words I look up in a new language are “no dairy/cheese/milk/cream please.” Often in response I’m told I should still eat the cheese, why would I not, it’s part of the dish. So sometimes, in an effort to not offend or further confuse anyone, I just eat the cheese. Which I did in Italy, for the first three days, until I was near death being the severely lactose intolerant person I am. Aside from my accidental dairy intake though, the food was fantastic. Turin is part of the heart of the Slow Food movement as well as home to some of the best chocolate in Europe and of course, the wine! I will grace you all with an entirely food focussed post later.
After getting over the initial shock and the “what the heck am I doing here” thoughts, I was introduced to one of the translators working for the festival who explained I would just get a pair of wireless headphones through which he would translate any of the Italian speakers into English. The organizers and staff of the festival were incredibly welcoming and accommodating, and I’m so appreciative of all of their help!
I’ve attended various journalism, food and agriculture related conferences, but never one that combined all of these topics into one theme. I also decided it would be beneficial to get a more global perspective and learn how other countries and cultures navigate our food system and all the obstacles it holds as well as how they communicate about it. I was blown away by the amount of respect and understanding many of the speakers displayed through the way they spoke about food.
Food as a source of identity was a topic that stood out to me the most. Consumers as well as many of the communicators are very concerned about origin of food. There is so much pride in food produced in Italy (as there should be), and there is fear of consumers being deceived about what they are purchasing and eating. There is effort in reducing this deception through labels that show the origin of the food or ingredients all the way back to the farm where it came from. Labels should tell a story- where food originates, is produced, processed and how it got to you. There is also a huge focus on food education at all levels, including indicating where school lunches are sourced from, making sure labels are easy to understand and useful and communicating why all of this matters.
In addition to concerns about origin of food, each level and aspect of the food system was spoken of with equal respect. There was talk of laws regulating soil use, incentives for farmers working with biodiversity, acknowledgment of the importance of farmers within the system, maintaining workers’ rights and protection of local lands.
As for the journalism side of the conference, there was discussion of strictly defining the line between marketing and promotional communication and unbiased journalism, which often becomes blurry in the food world, especially regarding agritourism and the restaurant industry. Journalism is a common language, and is seen as a tool to further the transparency and accountability throughout the food system. I met so many passionate writers and visual storytellers throughout the conference.
Of course the conference events only lasted a few days, and my entire stay in Italy was a little under two weeks, so by no means can I say I fully understand European food systems, how food policy reform happens there and what the Italian journalism industry really looks like, but I definitely gained so much from my experiences there and see this as an opportunity to continue to learn about and explore food outside of my Southeast Ohio bubble.
I will definitely be attending the conference again next year if possible, and I was told to spread the word about it to friends back home! Until then, I will be forever disappointed by any pasta I eat here and will be working on learning Italian.
More photos to come once I get my film developed!