Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore

Food: even in Italy it is not a right for everyone - issue#2

6.8% of Italian families cannot afford an adequate food consumption to ensure a minimum balanced diet.

by Luca Pesenti

Researcher of Sociology, Department of Sociology, Università Cattolica, Milan
Aggregate Professor of "Comparative Welfare Systems" and "Social Organisations and Plural Welfare"

Dealing with “food poverty” evokes snapshots of what Pope Francis would call the “peripheries of the world”: it evokes faces of African children, swollen bellies, huge and frightened eyes. Yet, food poverty can be found in rich Europe as well – Italy included.  This is a paradox that we could define "paradox of scarcity into abundance." It refers to isolated areas of poverty, in which providing one’s own children the food they need to ensure a balanced diet may become a real everyday challenge. This happens while bars and restaurants are literally packed with people. While enormous quantities of food are wasted in various ways (according to research developed at the Politecnico di Milano, 6 million tons of food are wasted only in Italy), millions of people do not have enough food.

This is one of the paradoxes explored in the volume Food Poverty, Food Bank, edited by myself and Giancarlo Rovati, both sociologists at UCSC and researchers at OPeRA (Osservatorio Povertà e Reti di Aiuto), an observatory on poverty established at the Department of Sociology and presented at Expo 2015.

The research precisely demonstrates that in 2013 6.8% of Italian families could not afford an adequate food consumption to ensure a minimum balanced diet. This percentage corresponds to 1.737.000 families, about one million more than in 2007. The data betray deep geographical differences: in the Northern regions of the country food poverty is assessed as 5%, in the Southern regions it is more than doubled (10.6 %). The overall result shows that the individuals suffering from food poverty are 9.1%, approximately 5.5 million people.

Two specific types of families especially seem to suffer from food poverty: families with three or more children, and single parent families. This leads to over 1.3 million minors in food poverty conditions, to which 500.000 people between 18 and 24 years are to be added. In each age-cluster below 24 years, the incidence of poverty is equal to or more than 12%, with a peak of 13.7% in the range 6-14 years. These data demolish the false image circulating in the media, which hardly depict such a widespread poverty among youngsters and children.

The volume Food Poverty, Food Bank, provides further details about this topic, comparing the Italian situation with the rest of Europe. 14.2% of families claim not to be able to afford a meal that would include chicken, meat, fish or a vegetarian equivalent every two days.

The data concerning Italy also reveal some further difficulties in our country, compared to the European average (10.5% EU/27 countries), which is calculated considering the widespread food poverty characterizing the new EU members countries, where one family out of five is not able to afford a balanced diet. In the pre-crisis period Italy was basically in line with the European average, however, since 2010 food poverty has significantly been increasing. Compared to the situation back in 2007, nowadays the Italian families which are at risk of poverty and social exclusion are increased by 2 million and 150.000 units.

Who does provide help to those facing such great need? In the front row there isn’t the State, as it happens everywhere else in Europe, but rather non-profit organizations, which work as a real “army of charity.” 17.000 charitable agencies located in almost 4.000 municipalities, especially in the South (34%), intercept the needs of 4 million people and attempt to provide a solution. The first cause of poverty is arguably the loss or lack of work, while among the secondary causes – often mixed to the main one – are eviction, divorces, bad health conditions, etc.. 30.5% of the non-profit organizations argues that the number of assisted families has strongly increased (at least 20% more than in 2013), while only the 8.5% claims it decreased. Contradicting the belief that poverty is a problem especially afflicting immigrants, the research showed how, on the contrary, the number of Italian adults at poverty risk has extensively grown in the last years.


Giancarlo Rovati is Full Professor of General Sociology at the Faculty of Political and Social Sciences, UCSC. He is Chair of the Department of Sociology and of OPeRA (Osservatorio Povertà e Reti di Aiuto) at the same university. From 2002 to 2007 he served as Chairmen of CIES (Commissione nazionale di indagine sull’esclusione sociale).

Luca Pesenti is Lecturer in General Sociology at the Faculty of Political and Social Sciences, UCSC. He teaches Comparative Welfare Systems at the same university, and collaborates to the activities of OPeRA (Osservatorio Povertà e Reti di Aiuto). He was appointed member of CIES (Commissione nazionale di indagine sull’esclusione sociale) in 2010-2012.