Barilla and Bigotry (and a Down Syndrome Diet)

Here is a complete list of the foods my son eats:

Preferred foods: Pretzels,
Cottage Cheese, , Craisins, Fig newtons and similar cookies, noodles
(penne and rotini)
, blueberries (his favorite thing!), cheerios (honey nut),
applesauce, oatmeal, yogurt
Emerging foods:
Saltines, Graham crackers, cereal bars, melon.

Of those, only oatmeal and noodles are “hot” foods. And only noodles are what anyone else would call a “main dish.” He eats them plain, without cheese or butter. He eats them every day for lunch. He eats a lot of them. And he only eats Barilla. Oh, sure, we’ve managed occasionally to convince him that other brands are edible, but he’s very picky about texture. Deviate too far off texture, and you end up with a bowl of noodles in the garbage (or eating a lot of noodles yourself).

Fortunately, Barilla has made good products for us – protein enriched, extra fiber, infused with veggies, whole wheat. He’s getting great nutrition from them.

We used to work very hard to push new foods on him, but: 1) it didn’t work 2) he would rather cry himself sick than eat something he doesn’t want 3) he’s more willing to go without food than we are willing to let him starve, and 4) most importantly, we decided it wasn’t one of the battles we needed to fight.

You see, parenting a child with special needs requires, in a way more acute than other parenting, deciding which things you want to work on. You can’t work on everything all the time. Nico could have in 5 different private therapists, but even if we had the money, we don’t have the time, and Nico needs time to be a kid anyway. So we pick (in consultation) the things that are most important. When he was 4, we decided food variety wasn’t one of those things. The exact quote was, “If he eats cheerios four times a day, so long as he takes a vitamin, so be it.”

With this new mantra in mind, our lives improved. Mealtimes relaxed, and gradually his foods moved back from about 4 things to the current list. Also, our stress level went down. Stress is bad for you. Parenting is stressful. Parenting kids with special needs is more stressful. Stress levels for primary caregivers of children with autism has been compared to deployed soldiers (it’s a different kind of stress, but the levels are comparable). If you can find a way to de-escalate and keep doing the important things, I’m all for it. That’s what happened to us with food.


If you’ve been following the news on noodles, you know where this going next.

Gay rights activists in Italy
have launched a boycott of the world’s leading pasta maker after its
chairman said he would only portray the “classic family” in his
advertisements and, if people objected to that, they should feel free to
eat a different kind of pasta.
Guido Barilla, who controls the
fourth-generation Barilla Group family business with his two brothers,
sparked outrage among activists, consumers and some politicians when he
said he would not consider using a gay family to advertise Barilla
“For us the concept of the sacred family remains one of the
basic values of the company,” he told Italian radio on Wednesday
evening. “I would not do it but not out of a lack of respect for
homosexuals who have the right to do what they want without bothering
others … [but] I don’t see things like they do and I think the family
that we speak to is a classic family.”
Asked what effect he
thought his attitude would have on gay consumers of pasta, Barilla said:
“Well, if they like our pasta and our message they will eat it; if they
don’t like it and they don’t like what we say they will … eat another.”

It gets worse:

He added: “Everyone has the right to do what they want without
disturbing those around them”. But then the pasta magnate upped the ante
by attacking gay adoption. “I have no respect for adoption by gay
families because this concerns a person who is not able to choose,” he

So now we have moved from casual bigotry and the decision not to depict a homosexual family in advertisements, which doesn’t bother me as much, to advocating against gay adoption. This takes it from a semi-passive bigotry (not hiring) to active.

Of course, he offered an apology. The first version said the following:

“Regarding my comments at the radio program La Zanzara, I [apologize] if
my words generated misunderstandings or controversy or if they hurt
some people’s feelings. In the interview I just wanted to underline the
centrality of the woman’s role in the family. To be clear, I just want
to specify that I do have great respect of every person, without any
kind of distinction. I do respect gay people and everybody’s freedom of
expression. I also said I do respect gay marriage. Barilla in its
advertising has always chosen to represent the family because this is
the symbol of hospitality and affection for everyone.”

“Highlight the centrality of the woman’s role in the family.”

Oddly enough, that sentence has been cut from the version currently on their Facebook page, because perhaps someone realized that leaping from homophobia to sexism wasn’t the way out of this mess, but the damage has been done.

And as my friend Fred quotes: “Apologies offered too glibly … can be a sly way of asserting one’s own moral superiority while reifying the victim status of the group to whom apologies are offered. This is especially so if the structures of that victimization remain in place.” (From James Carroll, Toward a New Catholic Church: The Promise of Reform). It seems to me that’s pretty much what we’re seeing here.


I cannot purchase products from a company that endorses bigotry. I am an active supporter of equality of all kinds – gender, race, orientation, ability, religion – you name it. The ways to support equality, especially when rights seem to conflict, are not always clear. But I try. This path, though, is clear. No more Barilla.

Here are five pasta brands sold in the U.S. that (I am told) do well on gay rights. It includes Target’s brand. Target does not, I think, make veggie enriched noodles, but I think I’ll write them a letter and talk about eating into Barilla’s market share (which is very high, a quarter of the US market and half of Europe’s).

But let’s end on a lighter note. Bertolli, a competitor for sauces and other products (but not dried pasta), has put out this add.

Buon Appetito!

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