The most striking part of food in Italy, of course, is what’s on the plate: the flavors, colors, textures and variety that make eating here so hypnotic (even for the locals). But for someone who studies the food industry, the distribution system quickly captivates as well. How do the Italians move their food so efficiently? How can the economics possibly work to allow the most remote village to stock its little grocery store with fresh produce every day—and at affordable prices? It boggles the American mind.
As the Boston Globe reported this week: “Once upon a time, many Americans shopped like Europeans — that is, they stopped at their local markets for food nearly every day.” But with the chains of the 1950s came an emphasis on convenience, and with it the big, infrequent trips to buy in bulk.
Despite waves of American eaters shifting their attentions to food promises like local, humane, non-GMO, natural, and organic, and the uptick in farmers markets and CSAs, there has been barely a ripple in our desire for convenience. (See: Soylent.) Whole Foods CEO Walter Robb just predicted an “explosive change” in how people eat and it’s to more prepared foods. In other words, more convenience.
This Examiner is nearing the end of six weeks visiting five regions of Italy. From the hilltop towns of Tuscany to the cliff sides of Liguria to the wilds of Sardinia, it is clear that many Italians live in far-flung ancient villages found only at the ends of winding, often dirt or gravel roads. For a tourist, it can be an adventure to reach them. For a food distributor? Time-consuming and likely expensive. And yet, in each you find at least one small grocery store teeming with fresh fruits, vegetables and the requisite staples.
It suggests a logistics puzzle. How many pallets, trucks and routes are required to move fresh foods quickly to so many small stores? In the U.S. equivalents to such places, residents have to commute to a Walmart or Costco or Safeway. In other words, the onus is on the eater to get to the grocery store, not the other way around. This preserves economies of scale. Somehow, not so in Italy.
According to the USDA’s 2015 report on the Italian food retail and distribution sector, unlike other European nations, Italy’s food system continues to be quite fragmented and to resist consolidation. “Small, traditional grocery stores (so-called Mom and Pop stores) remain the largest segment, followed by open-air markets.” Italians place great value on freshness and quality, and are willing to sacrifice in other areas in order to ensure they are using only the best ingredients, which translates into the still-frequent practice of daily shopping.
In Italy, both geography and policy support smaller grocery stores and markets. Contrary to much of the rest of Europe, even today, the majority of Italians still live in small cities and towns. Per the USDA report: “Planning and zoning laws in Italy tend to favor smaller stores, as no planning permission is needed for outlets with a sales area of less than 250 square meters in towns of more than 10,000 people.”
Italians’ trust in private label (retailer) brands is lower than that of other Europeans, and so while things are changing, Italians remain hesitant to shop at discount stores, preferring their traditional Italian products.
In some ways, Italians are becoming more like Americans (the rise in new dietary preferences being one). In others, we are becoming more like them. It remains to be seen who will migrate further. For now, and lest you roll your eyes at the seeming inefficiencies of the Italian food system, it’s worth noting that Italy is the second healthiest country in the world. Meanwhile, “total health care spending in the U.S. is 18 percent of gross domestic product—the highest in the world. This is double that of Italy.”