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DU students study food, sustainability and the environment in northern Italian cities famous for food exports

In October 2021, four University of Denver students dove into regional delicacies Parmigiano-Reggiano, prosciutto di Parma and “aceto balsamico” during a weekend immersion while studying in Italy for fall quarter.

Kelly Nolan, Ryan Foreman, Patrick Filler and Isabella Rizzo didn’t just travel to Perugia, Italy, for the food, though. The trip was a core curricular component of the Umbra Institute’s signature Food, Sustainability & Environmental Studies American study-abroad program.

In October 2021, DU students (left to right) Kelly Nolan, Patrick Filler, Ryan Foreman and Isabella Rizzo visited northern Italian cities famous for food exports

The experiential learning program teaches students to become conscious consumers with a global mindset, focusing on critical thinking about where food comes from, what constitutes sustainability, where Italy fits into the global equation and how consumers are responsible for the future. Students who complete the program earn a certificate in either food studies or sustainability and environmental studies.

“The trip added to my experience with the Food & Sustainability Studies Program because I was able to sample three foods that I regularly enjoy—Parmesan cheese, prosciutto and balsamic vinegar—and see firsthand how and where they are produced and the measures that have to be taken to maintain these food products’ quality,” said Ryan Foreman, a Fritz Knoebel School of Hospitality Management student at DU’s Daniels College of Business.

During the trip, Nolan, Foreman, Filler and Rizzo visited the “prosciutteria” (prosciutto factory) La Perla, which highlighted the extensive pasture-to-plate process required to earn the DOP (Protected Designation of Origin) label “Prosciutto di Parma.”

Only this specific region can market itself with this highly sought-after distinction.

Rizzo, who is studying international studies and Italian, noted that La Perla “shed light on the crossover between modern technology and artisanal food production, while still supporting the surrounding systems.”

The students then visited the Consorzio Produttori Latte Parma—a cheese cooperative in Parma—where they learned about the painstaking process of turning milk into 150-pound wheels of cheese. These massive cheese wheels, valued at over $1,000, are then shipped around the world, adding to Italy’s international clout as a food powerhouse.

Filler, a double major in finance and business analytics at Daniels, commented on the connections between a local product, a global market and the punishing work schedule of master cheesemakers. “Learning about what is needed to produce this cheese was mind-boggling—particularly the fact that cheese masters make more money than surgeons but do not get any vacation time.”

All four DU students said they enjoyed seeing how Parmigiano-Reggiano is made firsthand and how that related to discussions they had in class about the history and culture of these and similar Italian food products.

The weekend trip culminated in an interactive tour of a balsamic vinegar consortium, Acetaia San Donnino, where students learned what goes into making the region’s prized export. Grapes are pressed, the juice is boiled down and the resulting thick starts its 12-year journey through six different barrels—each made of a different type of wood in gradually smaller sizes.

Nolan said she plans to leverage what she learned on the trip “to see how tradition can be adapted to grow within the hospitality industry.”

“Specifically,” she said, “I want to focus on how traditional practices in hotels can be adapted to provide a better stay for the guest and a better work environment for the employees.”

The program might have been centered around more than just food, but as they say in Italian, “chi mangia bene, vive bene” (who eats well, lives well).

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