By Jason Minos from Northern Arizona University
I have been at Northern Arizona University’s Sustainable Communities graduate program for the last year, with a focus on food systems. The study abroad program to Siena with the focus on food and sustainability came to my attention early in my professional student career. I did not think much of it at first…but soon realized this might be a program worth looking into. So, I starting asking around about the program and found some students who attended last year. I got some feedback and then contacted Gioia Woods who was leading the program. We sat down and corresponded by e-mail in order to make sure this is what I wanted. Gioia explained to me in detail what we would be exploring in Siena, the history of food, sustainable practices, local cuisine and practices, wine (my eyes widened) and so forth. I thought I would be dumb not to go! Experience Italy? Its food, culture and people? This was something I could not fully experience on a vacation alone, so I signed up.
This course has given me an intense look into the history of food. The history from the Etruscans through the 20th century helped me understand how environmental values have shaped how we eat, what we eat, and even economic systems. I have always thought that history needs to be put in front of us, not behind us, so we can see it clearly. I realized if we are to change our food systems globally we need to look at these histories otherwise, (as many wise people have said) we will end up repeating it.
During this program we examined such themes as social issues and symbolism that food can have. For example, we went to Florence to the Galleria degli Uffizi. Of course, the Uffizi is a famous museum with a stunning collection from famous painters such as Michelangelo. I really enjoyed the Dutch painters of the 1500-1700s. In their detail they seemed to portray enjoyable times and food, which portrayed daily concerns and social class. One painting I enjoyed was Jan Steen’s Luncheon- 1650-1660. What drew me to it was one female, her back to the viewer. Her possible expressions were not portrayed or expressed. All that is visible is the back of her head. What did she think about the simple food at table? Another thing that drew me to this painting is the attention to detail. The paintings are almost life like. To me it looks as though the pauper violinist is playing happily to the crowd. However, I am not sure if he is playing just to entertain or to perhaps earn some food. It appears that the setting is in a tavern of the era and they are enjoying their time. There is a relaxed feeling here even though maybe these people are of different social classes, and it is food that brings them together. The man sitting on the bench looks like an artist. Although there are different types of people represented in the painting, there does not seem to be a huge class difference. The women, who has her back turned, does not seem to be serving the men, although the knife is right in front of her slightly hanging off the table edge in her direction, to use. The food in the picture is ham, bread and wine. I feel it represents a celebratory meal that is done later in the day after work. I would say that they do this kind of thing quite often.
Some of the most enjoyable adventures I had in Siena were a trip to Spannochia, an organic and sustainable farm up in the mountains near Siena. This was an amazing place where they raise heritage Sienese pigs as well as other products. The practices they use are a model that I would like to study more and I am appreciative of this experience. The field trip ended with a great adventure, missing our bus where we had to hike back down to the city below, in pouring rain, on the side of the road (there were no sidewalks or a bike lane, about three inches of road to walk on or jumping off into the weeds). Some people may not have enjoyed this but it was an amazing walk where I experienced much more than I would have cruising by in a bus. The other trip I enjoyed was the Bottega di Stigliano, where Andrea, the coordinator of the bottega, gave us such important information about the issues of food in Italy and again the fight against the global forces. This trip although short was not short on important information.
I can say through this experience I have seen things that have opened my eyes about food systems not just in Italy but in the U.S. and globally. When I first arrived in Italy, I had a utopian ideology about Italy, that it was the land of amazing and abundant healthy sustainable food. Although Italy is not perfect, there are movements forming and initiatives that are combating the globalization of food. This knowledge is what I am bringing back with me to the U.S.
My experience in Siena was amazing. The Siena School of Liberal Arts and all the instructors were remarkable. This is one experience that, although short, I could not have obtained by a simple vacation or some books. It combined relevant history and readings that connected to the field trips as well as the immersion in Italian culture to produce an experience like nothing else. There is no way I could have grasped the information presented without actually experiencing Italy. The knowledge and experience gained in Siena will help me become a more influential advocate for change in the food systems, locally, regionally and globally.