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Food poverty in Tuscany: local public policies and (good) practices

La pauvreté alimentaire en Toscane : politiques publiques locales et (bonnes) pratiques
Fabio Berti and Andrea Valzania


Despite the reduction of hunger on an international scale, particularly in areas traditionally characterized by malnutrition, recent years have seen an increase in problems relating to food access precisely in those countries which considered themselves immune from such problems. This paper presents reflections on the theme of poverty and malnutrition based on studies conducted in Tuscany. The principal theoretical and historical aspects that characterize this phenomenon are analysed in the first section. In the second section, we discuss the instruments put in place to combat poverty and malnutrition on the national and local levels in Italy, highlighting their strong and weak points. The life-stories of 43 people subject to malnutrition and who benefit from anti-poverty measures in Tuscany are analysed in the third section. The final section is dedicated to a critical interpretation of measures set up to combat poverty in Tuscany, and of the system of production and distribution of food among the most disadvantaged social classes.

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1During the second half of the 20th century, food poverty tended to be seen (from the perspective of rich countries) as a problem of the so-called developing countries, the latter receiving various types of food-aid in conjunction with cooperative projects. Despite the reduction of hunger on an international scale, particularly in areas traditionally characterized by malnutrition (Fao 2015), recent years have seen an increase in problems relating to food access precisely in those countries which considered themselves immune from such problems. In Europe, such increases can partly be seen as being due to the structural crisis in many countries after 2008 (Matsaganis & Leventi 2014; Bacon & Baker 2017; Davis & Baumberg Geiger 2017).

2Within this framework, Italy has adopted national policies to fight food poverty. Following a qualitative research (Regione Toscana 2018) in Tuscany (a region in Italy), the paper aims to analyse food poverty through the life-stories of beneficiaries of these national policies. In other words, how does food poverty impact people’s everyday life and what structural items have deep roots in these processes?

3The paper is structured as follows: in the first section we present the main structural and historical issues about food poverty in Italy; in the second section, we discuss the instruments to fight poverty and malnutrition, highlighting their strong and weak aspects; in the third section we present the main results of the research on food poverty in Tuscany. A final section is dedicated to a critical interpretation of the national and local system of production and distribution of food among the most disadvantaged social classes.

Changing patterns of food poverty

  • 1 We find ourselves confronted with a two-faced Europe: in some countries, particularly those that en (...)

4The data from Eurostat (2016) show that 8.1% of Europeans live in a state of serious material deprivation, defined as not being able to afford a protein-based meal (meat, fish or a vegetarian equivalent) at least once every two days1. Things are not going well even in Italy. The levels of malnutrition may well be low as compared to 50 or 60 years ago, but despite the economic boom, consumerism, and the presence of Italy among the elite of the developed countries, the number of people unable to eat decently is on the increase, especially since the economic crisis of 2008. From 2008 to 2016, Italy recorded one of the biggest increases in food poverty when compared to the history of the country. Data from ISTAT (the national institute of statistics) show just under two million Italian families in a situation of absolute poverty, with their purchasing power – for groceries, for example – being less than the average acceptable limit (ISTAT 2018). The number of families that do not have enough money to pay for adequate food in certain periods of the year went from 5.8% to 6.5%, an increase of 250,000 family units, for a total of 1.7 million families. The number of families who cannot afford a protein-based meal (meat, fish or vegetable equivalent) at least once every two days has doubled (from 1.9 million family units in 2008 to 3.8 million in 2016). In the meantime, on TV, in magazines and on social media, food and nutrition are all the rage, with chefs and gourmet experts – real or presumed – acquiring star status. In spite of such media attention given to food, and in the absence of political discourse regarding this specific form of poverty, nutritional insecurity is becoming one of the most serious social problems now affecting the welfare system in Italy.

  • 2 The data were publicized on 5 February 2019 on the occasion of the 6th National Day of Food Waste P (...)

5As frequently with inequality, nutritional insecurity does not lack paradoxes, the main one being the long-standing issue of food waste. From an economic point of view, it is estimated that 15 million euros worth of food is wasted in Italy every year, equivalent to about 0.9% of GDP2. Thus about 5.5 million tons of food goes to waste, with high social and humanitarian costs. Such a quantity would be more than sufficient to compensate for the food that is unavailable to the poorest households. The responsibility of all this waste falls on companies involved in large-scale distribution, on surplus school and hospital meals, but also on citizens themselves. Even if food waste is decreasing slightly as a consequence of the economic crisis, more than half [54% according to the FAO (2018)] of the food wasted is by families, each Italian family throwing out approximately 85kg of food annually.

6In 2016 Tuscany was the region of Italy with the lowest percentage of families in absolute poverty, equivalent to 3.8% of all families, compared to a national average of 7.3%. Nonetheless, the effects of the economic crisis have been felt even there: the proportion of families in poverty has practically doubled between 2008 and 2016 (from 2% to 3.8%). This concerns about 62,000 families, notably families with three or more children, single-parent families, and immigrant families (34% of poor Tuscan families include a person born outside Italy as head of the family). Poverty in Tuscany since 2008 has also significantly increased for households in which the head of the family is a worker, whether employed (+1.3%), independent (+1.9%), or unemployed (+4.2%), but has remained stable among families with a pensioner as head of the family. 54,500 families in Tuscany are in a condition of food poverty, equivalent to 3.3% of all families (compared to the national average of 6.5%) (Regione Toscana 2018).

7Contrary to what has happened nationally where food poverty has substantially increased, in Tuscany data show a reduction: in 2008, 66,000 families in difficulty as opposed to 62,000 in 2016. But such data hinder getting an accurate picture of the situation, because the phenomenon involves hidden dynamics. Due to these grey areas, any policy that seeks to fight food poverty meets structural problems, including that of being unable to reach a continuously moving target.

8Poverty has not only increased from a quantitative point of view, becoming a multi-dimensional phenomenon that is ever more difficult to tackle. Although job loss, and the consequent lack of salary, constitutes the principal threat for social exclusion, employment no longer protects people from falling into poverty (Saraceno et al. 2020). ISTAT shows a considerable increase of absolute poverty among families of factory and independent workers and in families whose income from work is associated with income from various social programs.

9Unlike the situation in the past, when poverty tended to be associated with extreme situations such as homelessness, the new” poor are those who have difficulty accessing quality food and are less visible, requiring specific kinds of intervention. Within this context, given the nearly total absence of national measures devoted to food poverty in Italy, policies to combat it have been mainly developed at the local level.

Policy strategies against food poverty in Italy

10Intervention in the field of food poverty in Italy has been almost entirely the prerogative of religious institutions which, for years, have managed the redistribution of food to the most vulnerable classes of the population, as in the case of soup kitchens and food packages. Without underestimating the importance of such services, often the only ones on offer, it must be noted that such attempts at satisfying the need for food can cause the stigmatization of the receivers, giving rise to feelings of guilt, solitude and shame.

  • 3  In 2017, the Italian government introduced a national policy measure to tackle poverty called “REI (...)

11Despite its seriousness, food poverty in Italy has not yet reached a situation of national emergency, and has not been addressed by specific measures developed through the welfare system. In the past few years, national policies designed to fight “economic” poverty have been adopted, without taking into consideration the question of food poverty as such, including the “SIA (Sostegno per l’inclusione attiva)” measure in 2016, the “REI (Reddito di inclusione)” in 2017 and the much-debated implementation of the Citizen’s Income in 20193. The only legislative intervention worthy of note in the sphere of food poverty was the adoption of the Regulations concerning the donation and distribution of food and pharmaceutical products for the means of social solidarity and the limitation of waste in 2016. This law aims to simplify the donation of surplus food, with priority given to people in need. However useful it may be for combating food waste, this measure is nonetheless restricted to the charitable redistribution of food to people who need it.

12In general, measures to combat food poverty tend to be put in place to answer urgent needs, with few resources and relying mainly on volunteers, reducing people to so many “mouths to be fed” (McAll et al. 2015). This entails the risk of reinforcing relations of social inequality, with important repercussions for social identity. The obtainment, preparation and consumption of food occupy a central place in daily activities and are associated with key social relationships, whether with family, friends or volunteers, including varying degrees of autonomy or dependence. The inability to guarantee sufficient food for oneself or one’s family has a cumulative impact, not only regarding health but also the ability to maintain such relationships.

13In such a context importance tends to be given to what and how much one eats rather than to how and with whom. Meal preparation and consumption have traditionally had a uniting role in families, groups and communities. Eating rapidly and alone in public, for example in fast-food outlets, can be a sign of existential solitude. The problem is not just how much food is consumed but what kinds of relationships are built through food. As Teti reminds us, “cuisine includes and excludes, draws near and leaves standing outside, unites and separates” (Teti 2015 : 23). Due to the “social” character of food, food poverty can give rise to situations that increase isolation and solitude, becoming a sort of multiplier of social exclusion. For these reasons, innovative projects would need to go beyond the simple redistribution of food that is typical of many current approaches, such as those based on charity (Maino et al. 2016; Carolan 2017; Hebink et al. 2018). Dietary needs and the fight against poor nutrition need to be framed in the light of a multi-dimensional perspective of well-being: well-being in terms of the material conditions of life, relational well-being (through the maintaining of family ties and friendships), well-being in body and mind, decisional well-being (autonomy) and well-being in relation to time and place (memory, anticipation, and the daily routines of life) (McAll et al. 2015).

14Measures that support and give rise to interventions in the area of nutritional poverty work best when they empower individuals and families, improving the quality of life (Zimmerman 2000). Being able to choose what to eat is not just about responding to health needs or having the means to purchase food, but has strong political implications: “the choice of what to buy and consume in this world where what counts most is profit, is the first strong political act that we can carry out in life” (Petrini 2005 : 84).

What Europe is doing

15Within this framework we think it is necessary to develop a “global approach” to food aid that combines existing services responding to urgent needs – such as food packages, local food pantries, and soup kitchens – with more innovative measures including communal kitchens, communal and collective gardens, educational programs related to food preparation, etc.

  • 4 Further information on the FEAD and how it works can be found at: [ (...)

16European Community policies are beginning (timidly) to go down this path, as is suggested by the shutting down of the European food aid programme for the most deprived (PEAD) in 2013, and the creation of the Fund for European Aid to the most Deprived (FEAD) for the period 2014-2020. While PEAD played a determinant role in orienting volunteer organizations towards the distribution of foodstuffs to people in need, the FEAD proposes to do something more. Instead of being limited to supporting interventions promoted by EU countries to supply the needy with material assistance - among which are foodstuffs, clothes and other articles essential for personal use like shoes, shampoo and soap - the FEAD maintains that assistance must be on an equal footing with measures of social integration, like orientation initiatives and support to help people rise up out of poverty. There is thus a move from just responding to the urgent need to feed the hungry towards creating a pathway leading to social inclusion. The FEAD requires a strong commitment from member states, the latter having to provide at least 15% of the financial support received, encouraging them to “also support non-material assistance for the needy to help them better integrate into society”4.

17For many social workers, volunteers, and organizations, what Europe is calling for is something new. While it can be relatively easy to distribute food to those in need, not everyone is equipped to take on projects of social inclusion. Even in Italy, however, the first steps are being taken in the direction of a more “global” approach. It will have be verified in the next few years how individuals and organizations involved have adopted and shared this new “culture” that has become the basis of contemporary policies designed to combat food poverty.

Old and new local policies

  • 5 Pantries are characterized by the participation of the public, private and tertiary sectors, even i (...)

18Alongside the more traditional and widespread forms of local support (such as soup kitchens and the provision of food packages), the years since 2008 have seen the emergence of so-called “food pantries” (or Empori) in Italy, that not only supply foodstuffs but offer a series of initiatives aimed at work, social and cultural integration5. At the outset, the food pantries sought to move as far away as possible from the mere distribution of food, but despite practical efficiency, they risk producing adverse effects in the long run by creating customer dependence among recipients without giving them the autonomy necessary to escape from their situation of need.

19The idea of the food pantry is to create a market-like situation in which recipients can obtain the goods they need, but which is also, and above all, a space in which food delivery is not accompanied by a process of stigmatization. The recipients’ freedom to choose their own provisions is enhanced by a large range of choice, combined with a solidarity system in which the support and care of a family unit is taken into account. A physical location is established as a stable point of reference, with the aim of being central among the options offered to families by responding to their real needs (Maino et al. 2016). The goal is to avoid making an already difficult situation chronic, and at the same time to respect individuals’ freedom of choice. Within the overall structure of aid, families are accompanied in the rebuilding of their lives, both by the offer of educational programmes around lifestyle and the relieving of economic hardship.

20Today there are nine active food pantries in so many towns in Tuscany. All the pantries are private structures run by volunteers and they distributed nearly 1,688 tons of goods to 3,323 family units in 2017, a 19% increase over 2016. The goods, distributed for free, were estimated to have a commercial value of 3,674,865€ in 2017, an increase of 15% compared to 2016. Detailed data relating to goods distributed cannot be obtained for individuals and families using the services provided, given the variety of criteria used by each organization for admission to their services and the consequent broad range of family-types among the beneficiaries.

21Among the strong points that emerge from our research (Regione Toscana 2018) on their mode of operation over their first few years of existence is their combining food provision with services designed to help people out of some difficult situations. Such services include free socio-medical and work help-desks, educational workshops, flea markets, vocational guidance and the building of skills. These collateral activities strengthen the fight against relational poverty that is frequently associated with food poverty and which can contribute to social exclusion. Furthermore, food pantries contribute to reducing food waste through agreements with large-scale food distributors (Hebink et al. 2018). There are, however, problems of availability and accessibility. Families who go to social services or help-centres are not always aware of the existence of food pantries, and when they are, it is usually thanks to information passed on by word of mouth on the part of actual recipients. Food pantries can also be somewhat irregular in their functioning and count high rates of loss of contact with people using their services (Regione Toscana 2018).

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22Criticisms related to the food pantry system are at the centre of a general reflection on the part of regional public institutions. Such institutions seek both to resolve the problems identified and develop procedures that could strengthen the individual empowerment of beneficiaries. In Tuscany attention is focused predominantly on strengthening the system of food pantries (Empori) and also on supporting innovative projects with social value. For example, in the last years the administrative authority of the Tuscany Region, aligning itself with current developments in urban agriculture and the regeneration of unused and degraded areas, promotes “urban gardens” as an instrument of socialization, inter-generational exchange, environmental teaching, social integration/reintegration and, last but not least, self-sustainment. The initiative known as One hundred thousand gardens in Tuscany6 proposes a sort of “model” for Tuscan urban gardens through which local authorities can orient and manage the projects. This model is not limited to technical aspects but also defines the whole process, from the identification of the area to be used to the selection of the people assigned to the gardens, favouring proposals that have a social value and reflect the characteristics mentioned above. The philosophy that inspires this project is focused on the activity itself, working the earth, which teaches, as Sennett (2012) suggests, collaboration with others as a way of overcoming individual shortcomings. In this sense, positive repercussions include not only resolving the main problem of procuring food, but also developing one’s capacity to produce food. Doing this with other people could have a positive effect on the relational and cultural dimensions of the lives of those who are afflicted by food poverty (Michelini et al. 2017).

Food poverty as seen by the poor

23Within the Tuscan framework, the results of a recent study (Regione Toscana 2018) by the Laboratory on inequality at the University of Siena performed in collaboration with the Regional Administration of Tuscany Region are analysed in this section. The research aims to evaluate the main effects of the policies on food focusing on the regional level. The specific goals of the interviews conducted by our team include understanding how the beneficiaries of national measures to fight poverty (the RdC - Citizenship Income) got into their current situation of economic destitution, and how they get by in their daily lives. The role played by institutional networks (such as public services) and informal networks (voluntary associations, family, friends) in helping them confront such conditions are also analysed.


24In terms of research method, our choice has privileged the use of qualitative techniques, and the study was conducted by interviewing a sample of 43 persons (14 men and 29 women, with 20% under age 40) who reside or are domiciled in Tuscany. The overall aim was to understand if and on what conditions the policies adopted (the RdC - Citizenship Income) effectively allow beneficiaries to improve their social condition. The research instrument used for gathering data was biographical interviews. This approach brings out significant elements in interviewees’ life stories, including the events seen by them as relevant to explain their ongoing experience (Mayer & Tuna 1990).

25The interview’s discussion guide was tested first, then a handbook for the interviewers was drafted. In order to overcome the problems of finding subjects to interview, three meetings organized by our research team were conducted with local stakeholders (public and private professionals of the social services) who provided a useful set of information.

26Face to face interviews, performed by our team at people’s houses, paid particular attention to the various difficulties encountered by the interviewees during their lifetime, the turning point represented by their impoverishment, the daily strategies of adaptation and resistance they set up to cope, and also the role personal networks and institutional personnel have in their life stories. In the present section we provide a brief analysis of part of the material gathered over the course of our study regarding the extent to which adopted measures such as food packages and food pantries improve well-being.

Research results

  • 7 In Italy there are two type of social cooperative: a "type A" that brings together providers and be (...)

27As mentioned above, food packages - including soup-kitchens – have been a primary tool used locally by religious organizations, voluntary groups and social cooperatives7, to provide a concrete and immediate answer to the problem of food poverty. They have been and still are the main answer, as demonstrated by the responses we were given by interviewees. Despite the fact that the help provided is of fairly low level, given the high degree of poverty and vulnerability of participants in our study, in a moment of need, these tools still represent help of primary importance, unsurpassed by alternative methods: “Even here in the Misericordia [religious organization, ndr] they give me a bag of groceries once a week, a food package, it isn’t much, but it works. And this does a lot. The social assistant told me that there was even the possibility of getting a voucher for the cafeteria but I have never taken them because I know that as long as I can manage it is useless to waste it on me, there are also other people.” (Ilirjan, 52 years old); “Yes, I do have help from the Red Cross, every … they give me a food package. - How often more or less? - About every…. two months; but it could be once a month, once in two months, it also depends on what they have available. - Do you find it to be a valuable aid? - Yes!” (Mary, 39 years old)

28Nonetheless, limits emerge from a system of intervention that, despite offering an immediate and temporary answer, does not address fundamental problems that can cause grave psychological consequences in the lives of the people involved. The shame of asking for help can itself be an unsurmountable psychological and social blockage: “- Have you ever gone to the Caritas? - Never for food packages, this has always been a personal principle issue, I will never get a food package the same as I will never go to a soup kitchen, it would be as if I fell too low, it would be falling way way too low...” (Carlo, 61 years old); “I felt ashamed to go and ask for a meal, it was difficult! First, I went to work every day for a lady for half an hour, I would make five euros every day and put them aside and at the end of the week do my shopping” (Hind, 39 years old).

29For others, once the shame of asking for food has been overcome, the social stigma involved in receiving the food has no less serious consequences:

What bothers me is that they call on you for your number, because you go to get the packages and there are names written down on a list… So I have to go stand in line to get stuff that costs 2 euros and feel humiliated. People are there, there is no privacy. People ask “what are these people doing?” “uh, they are being given food packages” ... Then they say, “it’s us who support them”, "no". Then I won’t go to get them, I don’t put in my name. Once they called me and I said “sorry, did I come to ask you?" "no" "then immediately cancelled my number and name, because I would not like what is written under my name to be given to another person, no! (Neji Ben, 53 years old).

30“Now we just got a package from the Pubblica Assistenza, by Giuliano […] in the packages they give you pasta from Albania, it’s written it was made in Albania, oil that you have no idea where it comes from... Even the fact that it’s 10 euros’ worth of food is humiliating, “Here comes some disgraced poor guy dying of hunger”” (Ennio, 59 years old).

31Food packages thus symbolically represent shame for the interviewees, and on the level of subjective experience are interiorized by them as a mark of social inferiority and profound difference compared to those who don’t ask for them. At the base of it all is the relationship between necessity and choice, with the continuous sacrifice of the second to the first and, as a consequence, a sense of constant inadequacy and frustration.

32In some cases, criticism is concentrated on the type of food provided, almost exclusively carbohydrates, with little variety, and considered harmful to health:

Sometimes Elisa has brought food packages to my home, she brought them to my wife, not me! When I wasn’t here! The point is I want to work so that I can live normally, to be able to eat what I want. Let’s speak clearly, what do they give you? Pasta. My child eats nothing but pasta and she says, “always pasta pasta pasta I’m tired of pasta. “If I go out with my baby girl and she asks me to buy her something, I can’t buy anything. It’s not just me, families are in this kind of difficulty including Italians, I know many. I’m speaking in general, it is difficult.” (Masca, 49 years old).

33“And instead at the Misericordia they give beans, chick peas, pasta and always fusilli or penne which I don’t like... And in the end, I give it away because they have this addiction to penne, always penne penne penne...” (Alessandra, 55 years old).

34With respect to quality and variety of food, the material gathered brings out contrasting lights and shadows. Many interviews give us a glimpse into the adoption of inadequate diets, both in terms of quality as well as quantity. Some people suggest that one needs only to eat a bit less, that it requires little to sate your hunger, as a way of trying to “face” the problem of nutritional deficiency: “Thank goodness I don’t eat, that is in the sense that I eat a zucchini and little….[…] In fact now my daily routine is to try to go out as little as possible, I don’t use petrol, nothing, I eat very little. My mom gets by with coffee and milk, bread and oil because my uncles bring us oil, because they are all farmers; I eat smoothies, smoothies, smoothies.” (Sonia, 49 years old).

35At the same time, the awareness of the connection between personal health and the quality of food that is eaten emerges in other interviews, an awareness that is sufficient for some not to ask for food packages, despite the objective difficulties of their living conditions. Interviewees who approach diet in this way tend to be those who show greater autonomy, to the point that food occupies a more indefinite position in their comments compared to other expenses, unlike most interviewees for whom food is a central preoccupation.

36The compromise between attention to food and the possibility of saving money is mainly present among participants who do their grocery shopping in big retail outlets or local markets. They represent the less vulnerable part of the sample, even though they need to save money in order to purchase some products: “Fruit, vegetable, meat, fish, I try to vary. For fish I have some difficulty, like the rest I have to stock some meat. Even this month income came in but if I get 800 euros I have to pay 430 in rent, it’s not that much help, it’s not easy to get it all to fit in. I also have to fill up my car, it’s not simple.” (Marco, 48 years old); “For example, we ate little meat, a lot of chicken a lot of chicken breast because beef costs more. Then I, for example, would buy a lot of stuff that expired on that day and then freeze it, I was very aware of how much I spent.” (Marisa, 54 years old); “I save. Instead of getting meat on the 17th, I get it on the 7th. I don’t get it every day, but every 15 days.” (Paola, 50 years old)

37The choice of food is largely conditioned by its cost, and interviewees tend to be constantly looking out for reduced price items (well exemplified by this excerpt from an interview: I only buy stuff on sale) without really having the possibility to choose what to buy: “I buy food [...] based on the sales, I go to Eurospin depending on the sales. If there are good sales, I go to Conad which is closer to me.” (Serena, 64 years old).

38“I follow the sales, I make few provisions because I can’t, I’m not able to, if there is a sale I only get what I need then and there. I go to do the shopping every two days and those 20 euros, in the end I spend, even if I’m trying to save, to not buy anything. With two boys the most part is for them, for myself I need nothing in particular but for them, even if I go to Penny where it all costs less, every two days, for sure I will spend 20 euros” (Linda, 46 years old).

39Even in cases where interviewees are aware of having an inadequate diet, the choice is always conditioned by the money they have and their ability to buy the more caloric food that best satiates hunger for the longest period of time:

When I go to the supermarket I cannot do as I wish. I can’t buy a steak and spend 10 euros for 700 grams of meat to eat all at once. I buy mixed minced beef and pay 2.50 and I get tomatoes, onion and I make ragout that lasts me three days. I often freeze as well, because every day one can’t eat that way. This way I can serve it two or three times a week, even four, and with 10 euros of steak I make ragout for a month... Fruit is expensive and if I have to choose between a first course [primi piatti] or fruit, I choose things to make a first course. You have to make choices, you’re not free to go and buy what you want.” (Lali, 61 years old).

40The possibility of going and doing the shopping is of capital importance, not only in the collective imagination, but also for the participants who are able to have a minimum amount of autonomy through earnings from work. It is a form of positive freedom by which a person can feel able to support himself or herself over time and therefore feel socially protected. The following passage underlines the joy of sharing in the social rite of doing a monthly “big shopping” and filling the car with bags:

Did you say you’re used to doing one “big shopping” trip a month, a big one? - Yes, also because... I always had that as a habit, that is you go there and find everything, you fill your trolley and by consequence the car, because I have an Atos, even when I go now with my daughter and I need to do the shopping for me and my mum, because my mum obviously has to do the shopping also for the other five people who live above her! It takes 15 minutes to unload the car!” (Katia, 46 years old).

41Rather than merely giving out food, as previously suggested, local food pantries try to help people in a less mechanical and passive manner, reconstructing, from the spatial point of view, a layout that is similar to that of a supermarket with shelves and products that can be picked and put into the shopping cart. This way, on entering the store, even if people have to show their ID card at the entrance, they should feel less observed and more free (as well as responsible, in relation to their needs) to fill their cart on their own and be able to choose what to eat.

42The interviews do not allow for comparison between these different kinds of interventions, given that few interviewees mention going to food pantries or refer to the organization that manages them. Nor do the interviewees mention experiences with urban gardening, in spite of the fact that many municipalities have initiated such measures within the framework of the regional project “One-hundred thousand gardens in Tuscany”. As far as food pantries are concerned, the citizen’s income (RdT) proposes a direct solution by enabling people to buy food in supermarkets. The citizen’s income allows for grocery shopping with a card, facilitating access to food for people who are in a situation of social vulnerability.

Towards a model of change

43In the light of this analysis of food poverty in Tuscany and the policies and practices that have been put in place with respect to it, our conclusion focuses on three distinct aspects of the question: the first one concerns people who have difficulty accessing food in sufficient quantity and quality; the second one, the changing culture of aid and intervention over time; and the third one, the entire system of food production and distribution that needs to be called into question.

44From the point of view of the people who suffer from food poverty in Tuscany – and probably in Italy at large (van der Horst et al. 2014; Maino et al. 2016) – two dynamics emerge. On the one hand there is dissatisfaction with existing measures, particularly food packages that are judged to be lacking in quality as well as humiliating because they do not allow for freedom of choice and therefore personal autonomy. Even the food pantries, still not widespread and not adequately known, seem unable to respond adequately to the food needs of the poor. On the other hand, attempts to support autonomy and independence may anchor people in a logic of consumerism. For example, the citizen’s income (RdC) seems to answer needs, because the transfer of money allows people in difficulty to access supermarkets and big discount chains offering low-cost food, but can contribute to a vicious circle built around low-cost food and the lowering of wages in food production. These dynamics confirm the vulnerability of people who are caught between charity and the power of the market.

45From the policy point of view in Tuscany, a slow evolution geared to changing people’s motivation with respect to food is emerging. Although the charity model continues to be widespread, the opening of local food pantries demonstrates an attempt at changing the culture of food aid and social intervention. Such cultural transformations, however, require a generational transition to allow volunteer associations, often Catholic, to acquire a new vision of people’s needs. From this perspective, other innovative social projects (like the urban garden project, for example) confirm that even public entities are aware of the limits of traditional charity practices, and are trying to equip themselves to overcome them. Obviously, a simple project cannot in itself resolve food poverty, but it is an important sign of change (above all from a cultural point of view) and confirms that local policy-makers understand the necessity of changing the model.

  • 8 Among those responsible for this vicious circle we find the auction system of double discount which (...)

46These considerations give rise to a conclusion of a more general nature that transcends the case of Tuscany itself. Policies geared to fight food poverty that do not promote serious reflection on the causes that produce it in the first place, risk being ineffective and may even worsen an already difficult situation. The distance between food producers and consumers “has produced a reciprocal estrangement such that it has in fact created confrontation, a dualism between producer and consumer” (Petrini 2005: 164). It is erroneous to think that the battle against food poverty can be won by lowering, or regulating, the cost of food. Such an approach can have two consequences. Food that has no price – or a price that is too low – loses value, and this can trigger food waste, because we waste only what is seen as worthless (as in the case of the interviewees who state that they can end up throwing out or giving away food received in food packages). The market availability of low-cost food is also the result of the lowering of labour costs (Tran 2017; Corolan 2013) and the exploitation of those who work in agriculture and food production8, hence the “vicious circle” mentioned above. In general, low-cost food also means low-quality food with obvious repercussions on health.

47The problems of low-cost food have been well-described by Carolan (2018a: 6): “cheapness is part of the problem, rather than something to be praised and replicated around the world – an unsustainable example of market and social failures of the first order”. Traditional ways of combating food poverty through the distribution of food can thus depend on the maintaining of an agricultural / food production process that does not adequately compensate workers and often impoverishes them. From this point of view, there is an urgent need to rethink the whole system of agricultural production and food distribution and adopt sustainable methods able to reconcile the needs of both farmers and consumers (BCFN 2016). The battle against food poverty can only be won by challenging the existing method of food production and distribution, by bringing together producers and consumers, and by valuing and expanding small-scale production by consumers themselves (Carolan 2017; 2018b). We need to return to giving social and economic value to food, and reject the idea that making food accessible means making it cost less.

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1 We find ourselves confronted with a two-faced Europe: in some countries, particularly those that entered the European Union with the expansions of 2004-2007, the social situation has improved, while in others, especially in the Mediterranean area, it is the other way around.

2 The data were publicized on 5 February 2019 on the occasion of the 6th National Day of Food Waste Prevention (Giornata Nazionale di Prevenzione dello spreco alimentare), at the headquarters of the FAO in Rome and was produced by the Dipartimento Scienze e Tecnologie Agroalimentari of the University of Bologna in collaboration with Last Minute Market.

3  In 2017, the Italian government introduced a national policy measure to tackle poverty called “REI. Income for Inclusion (Reddito di Inclusione)”, aiming to provide financial support as part of a tailored scheme to help encourage the social and employment inclusion of claimants. REI replaces previous policy measures targeted at specific beneficiaries, such as the “Sostegno all’Inclusione Attiva (SIA)” and can be used to top up a person’s salary, provided their household’s combined income does not exceed €6,000 per annum. Law Decree No 4/2019 introduced the RdC (“Citizenship Income”, Reddito di Cittadinanza), replacing the REI. Although the name suggests a universal unconditional basic income, the RdC is a means-tested cash benefit. Compared to the REI, the RdC is endowed with more budgetary resources and has a longer duration (for a comparison, see Jessoula et al. 2018).

4 Further information on the FEAD and how it works can be found at: [].

5 Pantries are characterized by the participation of the public, private and tertiary sectors, even if it is the responsibility of the volunteers to run the centre itself.


7 In Italy there are two type of social cooperative: a "type A" that brings together providers and beneficiaries of a social service as members; a "type B" that brings together permanent workers and previously unemployed people who wish to integrate into the labour market.

8 Among those responsible for this vicious circle we find the auction system of double discount which in the last few years has challenged part of organized large scale food distribution. Discount shops seek above all to sell cheaper food, with little regard for quality, and force producers to produce in larger quantities at lower prices, saving as much as possible on the salaries of day labourers and laying the foundations for another war between rich and poor. On the one side are farmers who are unable to compensate the costs of production and are forced to cut earnings and salaries, and on the other, impoverished consumers who always want to spend less (Ciconte & Liberti 2019).

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Electronic reference

Fabio Berti and Andrea Valzania, Food poverty in Tuscany: local public policies and (good) practicesAnthropology of food [Online], S15 | 2020, Online since 30 December 2020, connection on 18 July 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the authors

Fabio Berti

sociologist, Università di Siena, Dipartimento di Scienze sociali, politiche e cognitive,

Andrea Valzania

sociologist, Università di Siena, Dipartimento di Scienze sociali, politiche e cognitive,

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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