In Salone del Gusto versus Good, Clean, and Fair: Part 1, I’ve already mentioned some healthy skepticism about the presence of two big Italian names at Salone del Gusto: Lavazza Italian coffee, and the supermarket Coop.
Lavazza takes on the responsibility of Fair Trade coffee, but wearing a label doesn’t necessarily prove honest actions behind it. There are loopholes to be jumped in any policy. Without venturing beyond the comfort of online research to the plantations in South America, however, I couldn’t say with utter certainty how good, clean, and fair they are. My main conclusions? Don’t check off the Good Deed Done for the Day box just by buying Fair Trade, without knowing all the facts behind it.
As for Coop, I was very surprised to see this popular Italian supermarket in a haven of small-time producers at the Salone. Coop is no WalMart nor, on this side of the Atlantic, EuroSpin; shopping in my local Coop store, I’ve noticed very high quality, Alpine mountain cheeses, for example, alongside the added-preservatives-colors-skim-milk-binder, generic salumi; and I suppose I notice more organic produce overall. As far as the realm of supermarkets is concerned, my limited observations earn Coop a dull gold star. But a place at Salone del Gusto? Hardly, I thought.
Asking fellow Slow Food members what they thought, a Swiss friend informed me that it was in large part thanks to Coop, a charter member of Slow Food, that Slow Food Switzerland was initiated and is running strong today. Polish that gold star!
In fact, Slow Food and Coop have a partnership, with Coop supporting and promoting Slow Food values through selling local products as well as over 100 Presidia products (a Presidia labeled food being the equivalent of a protected or endangered animal in the food world).
Coop’s powerful, positive presence in the world of local producers and Presidia was brought home when I sat in for a tasting of some products during Salone del Gusto. Not that I wanted to taste anything. By the end of one of Salone’s last days, I had done as much tasting as my belly and buds could bear. But my legs were tired, and Coop had set up a booth lined with dangling Prosciutto legs, plastic chairs in rows, and a tasting of jam and juice. I didn’t resist.
The tasting was introduced by a Coop Quality Control employee and a representative of a Bosnian company based in Bratunac called Frutti di Pace, or “Peace Fruits.” Together, they told a story of how the Coop employee traveled to Bosnia for this product, met with the Bosnian woman, and formed an instant friendship that was strengthened, as in all cultures, over an abundant welcoming meal.
The employee found that the hardworking spirit and community of the women of Frutti di Pace were as charming as the incredible, all-natural flavors of their products were delicious.
Frutti di Pace was established after the Bosnia and Herzegovina War in 1992-1995. The members of this cooperative, mostly widowed women or women with husbands injured from the war, wanted to spur growth: of the local economy, of a long-held tradition ground to a halt from the war (raspberry production), and of a sense of community and confidence.
The first product we tasted was a thick raspberry juice. No colors, sugars, or conservatives were added – just water and red raspberry. It was exactly like plucking a handful of raspberries from a bush, squishing them all into your mouth, and squeezing out the juices with your tongue. The jams were next, and equally impressive in their bright, strong raspberry flavors. It lacked seeds, but that’s a personal preference of mine for raspberry jams.
Frutti di Pace spent ten years trying to get into the European market. The speaker was overwhelmed almost to tears when she recalled how happy they had been when Coop began selling their products. “’To hope’ is still difficult after everything we’ve been through,” she said.
My knee-jerk reaction to “supermarket” is “too much fluorescent light!” and then, “against all things Slow Food.” But this is not true (well, the second one). Today’s food market is pulled in two directions: one towards a global system made of imports, exports, and oil, the other towards local, small production, trends, and being organic. It’s important to consider the possibility that, between these two polar opposites, not everything is black and white. The grey areas will be necessary to marry two things that won’t go away for better or for worse: supermarkets in many parts of the world, and the importance of strong, local economies and good, clean, and fair food in all parts of the world.
Selling local food (or organic, or from a small producer, etc.) through a medium that everyone uses and will continue to use as long as it exists is ethically responsible and also quite genius.
The question remains: Does Coop Italia earn the good, clean, and fair award? It is still a supermarket that sells items ranging from low to high quality, from all parts of the world, and at prices too low to actually be profitable for the producer. But the answer is nevertheless yes – just, in a rather grey way.