This week I’m blogging about school lunches in Italy. This is the fourth post in the series. If you’re interested, start from the top.
Like what’s on school lunch menus, food quality varies from region to region and from town to town. In my web searches, I came across both lunch trays that looked unappetizing and others that made me wish I could sign up for meal deliveries. One thing that is clear, however, is that Italy is progressive when it comes to getting organic foods into schools. According to a 2012 survey, 275 school cafeterias in Italy claim that at least 70% of their ingredients are organic (275 is about 19% of school cafeterias in Italy). 1,196 school cafeterias use at least one organic product (about 81% of all school cafeterias in Italy). Of these 1,196 cafeterias using organic ingredients the majority are located in northern regions (70%). 
Other studies show that, besides using organics, schools also utilize ingredients that come from other “controlled supply chains”: this includes products from sustainable agriculture (i.e. integrated pest management using reduced amounts of pesticides and fertilizers); products certified as meeting typical/regional quality standards (e.g. Parmigiano Reggiano DOP, Prosciutto di Norcia IGP); and fair trade products. A 2005-2006 survey of 185 school cafeterias found that 76% (by weight) of the food came from “controlled chains” while 24% came from conventional agriculture. 40% (by weight) of the food was from organic agriculture. 
Many regions have laws that encourage the consumption of products from a controlled supply chain. Most of these laws outline voluntary guidelines, although some regions have mandatory guidelines. In 2002, the Emilia-Romagna region (home to Bologna) passed legge regionale n. 29. This law made it mandatory for all contracts for public catering to meet the quality standard of having at least 70% of ingredients from controlled-chains. It notes that priority should be given to organic products since these products guarantee the absence of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The law goes further to state that products supplied for the preparation of meals in nursery schools, kindergartens, and elementary schools should be organic whenever an organic option is available on the market. 
So what does this all mean? Having food that is organic, sustainably farmed, or fair trade doesn’t necessarily mean it tastes better. I think most of us can agree that foods with the DOP/IGP certifications taste pretty darn good (these are standards set by Italians protecting their most prized regional cuisines, after all). In my personal experience, however, I have found that organic food that’s fresh (i.e. sold locally at a farmers’ market) does often taste better than the conventional stuff. Having food from a “controlled chain” also doesn’t mean it’s more nutritious. To date, there isn’t solid scientific evidence that organic foods have more nutrients than conventional foods. Actually because of this, Italy’s Ministry of Health forbids the connection between organic agriculture and health. But there is evidence that organic foods contain fewer pesticides. There’s also evidence that people who eat organic foods have lower levels of pesticides in their bodies.  If you ask me, that’s a good thing– not to mention, all of the environmental benefits of organics and the health benefits for farm workers.
Up next: Who are the lunch superstars?
 Mingozzi, Achille; Bertino, Rosa Maria. “L’Italia delle reti e del biologico nel Rapporto Bio Bank 2013” Biobank, 12 February 2013. Accessed at http://www.biobank.it/it/BIO-articoli.asp?id=891 on February 8, 2014.
 Nielsen, Thorkild; Nölting, Benjamin; Kristensen, Niels Heine and Løes, Anne-Kristin (2009) A comparative study of the implementation of organic food in school meal systems in four European countries. Bioforsk, Tingvoll, Norway.
 LEGGE REGIONALE N. 0029 DEL 04 11 2002 EMILIA-ROMAGNA ( VII LEGISLATURA) accessed at http://www.sportellomensebio.it/doc/LEGGE_REGIONALE_29-02.pdf on February 8, 2014.
 Chang, Kenneth. “Stanford Scientists Cast Doubt on Advantages of Organic Meat and Produce.” Stanford University. New York Times. 3 September, 2012. Accessed at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/04/science/earth/study-questions-advantages-of-organic-meat-and-produce.html?_r=0 on February 8, 2014.
Photo credit: Screenshot from Teaching Channel’s “How They Do It in Rome: Nutritious School Meals.”