When Tucson became the first city in the United States to be designated as a City of Gastronomy last December, one of the few obligations it consented to was to participate in international exchanges through the UNESCO Creative Cities Network.
But just what would we find of tangible use to our community from the different food systems, educational strategies, and native cuisines of cities in Iran, South Korea, Brazil, Norway, Turkey, Spain, Japan, Sweden, Thailand, and Italy?
Plenty! That’s what four Tucsonans learned while interacting with city planners, educators, food producers, scholars, and chefs from 13 Cities of Gastronomy who assembled in Parma, Italy, to initiate a formal network. Tucson sent the largest delegation of any in attendance in Italy’s bread basket in the Po River Valley.
For sure, we did sample some of the greatest Parmigiano Reggiano cheeses, Parma hams, and balsamic vinegars from the 3,000 artisanal vendors at the CIBUS Food Expo as we milled with 70,000 other attendees. But we also witnessed world-class nutrition and culinary education programs that reach every age from kindergarten students to the elderly through the Growing in Harmony/Educating for Well-Being initiative sponsored by the Emilia-Romagna provincial government, its food businesses, and foundations.
The City of Gastronomy delegations from 10 countries were also among the 24 nations participating in the World Food Innovation and Research Forum that opened the day we first gathered together in Parma. There, we heard keynote speaker Hugh de Vries urge the assembly to redesign our food systems to slow and reverse the devastating trends associated with global climate change.
“Radical innovations are needed if we are to reduce the carbon footprints of our food system,” he said. “The discourse about the links between food and sustainability is ultimately a discourse about our future, and how to ensure that the world will be liveable.”
We also heard from California’s agricultural secretary, Karen Ross, who discussed how dealing with the challenges of climate issues such as water scarcity can unite rather than divide us: “Climate change is the place for all of us to come together to craft strategies to nourish are urban populations and to better care for the land,” she said.
Ross, de Vries, and others urged the cities who had recently joined the UNESCO network to show their solidarity with the 120 other cities around the world that have already signed and implemented the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact presented to Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon at the United Nations in October of 2015. The pact recognizes that cities now house over half the world’s human populations, and as such, have a critical role to play in promoting sustainable food systems and healthy diets. (Tucson’s Food Commission will be voting to sign the pact at one of its next meetings.)
The pact’s policy recommendations focus on actions that advance social and economic equity for farmworkers and food service workers, sustainable urban food production, as well as more efficient and participatory food relief and waste reduction. These policy concerns are kinds of issues that Tucson’s Commission on Food Security, Heritage, and Economy has already begun to grapple with.
The Cities of Gastronomy network is about far more than providing ham and cheese for gourmets. We recognized that most of our counterparts—Europeans in particular—define “gastronomy” far more broadly than most Americans do. Professor Andre Fabbri of the University of Parma framed the concept in this way: “Gastronomy forms part of our identity as one of the most fundamental cultural expressions that we have as human beings.”
We could feel and taste those many expressions as 30 of us from Asia, Europe, Africa, Middle East, North, and South America cooked a dinner together at the Barilla Center, a culinary institute linked to the world’s largest pasta factory. As we washed, sliced, chopped, sautéed, and glazed vegetables and grains with origins that spanned the five continents, we stood amazed at the different techniques for performing the same tasks in the kitchen. Cooking, eating, and talking certainly created a bond.
What can Tucsonans learn from cities such as Parma?
· Its Growing in Harmony/Educating for Well-Being initiative is in many ways parallel to the Tucson Unified School District’s collaborations with the Community Food Bank and the University of Arizona. However, in addition to engaging 2,300 students in cooking and 7,600 in gardening and outdoor exercise, Growing in Harmony involves more than 300 parents in reinforcing the same values and behaviors after school and on weekends. As a result, Parma’s 23 primary and 12 junior high schools have leveraged a 15 percent reduction in childhood obesity and a 5 percent reduction in childhood diabetes over just a few years.
· Parma and most of the other cities focus strongly on generating income from regional foods of distinction. As our host, Gabriela Ricci, put it: “In Parma, we do not prepare any old ‘cold cuts’ for our charcuterie; we cure world-class Parma ham; we do not make generic cheese, we take the time to age unparalleled Parmagiano Reggiano; we use our pride in this place and its unique assets to go beyond the conventional limits of quality.”
· As such, the Emilia-Romagna province and its food-certification guilds not only support farmers to cultivate and breed the distinctive crop seeds and animal breeds of its landscape, but also have helped urban and rural food artisans certify, safeguard, and promote more than 43 distinctive value-added food products from locally grown ingredients. The province harbors more traditional foods labeled with “denomination of origin” geographic indicators and certifications of specific ingredients and traditional production methods on their packages than any other landscape in Europe, which strengthens the connection between local foods and cultural identity as well as the local economy.
· The province has become the world leader for creating culinary professionals in the art of Italian cooking, spreading knowledge of Italian “gastronomy culture” across the planet through the programs of the Alma International School of Italian Cuisine—considered one of the top three culinary academies in the world. In partnership with an international network of culinary schools, Alma provides structured in-school training in Italy and externships in renowned Italian restaurants, with students receiving joint diplomas at the end of their training.
· Culinary and agricultural tourism are helping to pay for the renovation and maintenance of historic villas, farmsteads, and marketplaces in ways that create more jobs beyond the food sector of the economy.
· Larger food businesses and their associate family foundations are regularly “anteing up” to support schools, museums, gardens, and training centers involved in health education. They live by the words of Barilla Grains corporation founder Pietro Barilla: “Give your customers only the foods you would also wish to nourish your own children with.”
· The region’s best artists help design and produce videos, brochures, posters, murals, and websites for festivals, food expos, and seasonal celebrations that feature their most beloved foods and foster healthy eating, thereby attracting health-conscious tourists from dozens of other countries.
Of course, the Italians, Chinese, and Brazilians asked the Tucsonans present what we felt we could offer their cities. We explained that many of our farmers and gardeners are skilled at growing food with less water—including harvested rainwater—something that most of their cities will soon have to consider implementing as water shortages become more acute with climate change. We also suggested that they have something to learn from how Tucsonans organize our food festivals and forums that foster exciting street food, wild native foods, and seed libraries. We invited them to come and meet our most innovative chefs, and see our food banks, community gardens, school gardens, and community kitchens.
But when we tried to explain that some of our cherished foods like chiltepins bite us as we bite into them, they looked a bit confused. Apparently, some of our jokes get lost in translation.