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Program in Puglia Fosters Healthy Food Choices, Sustainability

Through hands-on instruction and visits to local farms, Cinzia Rascazzo helps people live healtheir lives.

Cinzia Rascazzo
Nov. 7, 2019
By Elizabeth Bellizzi
Cinzia Rascazzo

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With a back­ground in finance, Cinzia Rascazzo didn’t have to do much math to real­ize that her fast-paced U.S. cor­po­rate job was not con­ducive to a healthy lifestyle. The chasm between her stress­ful posi­tion and her Southern Italian roots became so sig­nif­i­cant she knew she had to make a change. Yet, this epiphany was not just for her.

“I wanted to help other people. I wanted to run a busi­ness that was sus­tain­able and go back to Italy to pro­mote my coun­try and its small pro­duc­ers,” said Rascazzo.

Eleven years ago, Rascazzo, who has an MBA from Harvard, founded Stile Mediterraneo Food and Lifestyle Academy based in Puglia, Italy, which helps people learn about food, with an empha­sis on the Mediterranean Diet.

European travel author­ity Rick Steves once said, “If you like Italy as far south as Rome, go fur­ther south. It gets better.” Rascazzo knows just how good it gets when it comes to what is served on Southern Italian plates. “I was lucky because being from Southern Italy we take all these things (fresh food) for granted. I was raised in a place where food has always been very impor­tant. Specifically, home­made foods using very high-qual­ity ingre­di­ents and fol­low­ing the Mediterranean Diet,” she said.

Rascazzo’s sup­port for the Mediterranean Diet is timely given research indi­cat­ing what many people con­sume is any­thing but qual­ity. A report in the September Journal of the American Medical Association shows that U.S. adults still make low-qual­ity carbs and sat­u­rated fats a high per­cent­age of their diets. But Americans are not alone at the nutri­ent-defi­cient table. Recent global met­rics high­light the poten­tial impact of a sub­op­ti­mal diet on non-com­mu­ni­ca­ble dis­ease mor­tal­ity.

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Using med­ical sci­ence to doc­u­ment the ben­e­fits of the Mediterranean Diet, Rascazzo teaches Academy atten­dees why this way of eating has per­sisted. “My gen­er­a­tion, we were all brought up by our grand­moth­ers, so almost all women know the ancient way of cook­ing that has been handed down,” she said. In the one-week pro­gram, people learn how to choose qual­ity ingre­di­ents. “When they leave, I think they’re impressed with the fact that what we teach is simple, so these are lessons and ingre­di­ents they can repli­cate at home. I think the main thing is that they learn the impor­tance of using their senses instead of rely­ing on mar­ket­ing,” said Rascazzo.

An olive oil som­me­lier, Rascazzo recounted an email from an Academy par­tic­i­pant upon return­ing home. “She told me she had to throw away her olive oil because she now under­stood that they can tell you any­thing on the label, but your nose and palate can tell you more,” Rascazzo said.

The value of real food, instead of sup­ple­ments is another ele­ment of Rascazzo’s instruc­tion. “Imagine going to dinner and shar­ing a plate of (vit­a­min) pills!” she said.

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Similar to the nutri­tional void found on a plate of tablets, Rascazzo reminds people that when they buy food with­out know­ing its cul­ti­va­tion process, they might be short-chang­ing their health.

To empha­size that point, in 2014 Rascazzo estab­lished Artisans of Taste (AoT). Her aim was to orga­nize edu­ca­tional trips to small farms to show people how sus­tain­able food is pro­duced so they can look for it at home. “It’s about how these items are pro­duced that really mat­ters,” she stated.

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Rascazzo takes AoT par­tic­i­pants to farms she has researched and vis­ited in Italy, France, and Spain. “I focus on bio­dy­namic farm­ing meth­ods because that means they respect the soil. The con­cept is about making the roots of the plants very strong so they can defend them­selves and don’t require pes­ti­cides. So cer­tainly, organic is better, but it’s not enough.”

According to Rascazzo, the Mediterranean Diet is one of the most demo­c­ra­tic ways of eating. “My grand­par­ents were not eating meat every day. They were eating pasta, legumes, veg­eta­bles, but meat was really once a month because they were not wealthy. I think the mes­sage is that even people who don’t have a high budget can afford to follow the Mediterranean Diet.”