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Hungry Planet: What The World Eats

October 5, 2011

The issue of sustainability is quite important to me, and I’ve decided to dedicate this week (and the focus of all my posts) as SUSTAINABILITY WEEK. Let it be noted. I was super-excited about the discussion that my last post sparked, and I look forward to much more insight and interesting debate.

One reader, John (thanks John!), posted a link to an article about “Family Food Expenditures Around the World” and it reminded me of one of my absolute favorite books “Hungry Planet: What The World Eats” (and, by the same authors, “What the World Eats“).Instead of trying to explain this genius work on my own, I’ll allow their bio to do it for me!

Sitting down to a daily family meal has long been a tradition for billions of people. But in every corner of the world this age-old custom is rapidly changing. From increased trade between countries to the expansion of global food corporations like Kraft and Nestle, current events are having a tremendous impact on our eating habits. Chances are your supermarket is stocking a variety of international foods, and American fast food chains like McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken are popping up all over the planet. For the first time in history, more people are overfed than underfed. And while some people still have barely enough to eat, others overeat to the point of illness. To find out how mealtime is changing in real homes, authors Peter Menzel and Faith D’Aluisio visited families around the world to observe and photograph what they eat during the course of one week. They joined parents while they shopped at mega grocery stores and outdoor markets, and participated in a feast where a single goat was shared among many families. They watched moms making dinner in kitchens and over cooking fires, and they sat down to eat with twenty-five families in twenty-one countries–if you’re keeping track, that’s about 525 meals! The foods dished up ranged from hunted seal and spit-roasted guinea pig to U.N.-rationed grains and gallons of Coca-Cola. As Peter and Faith ate and talked with families, they learned firsthand about food consumption around the world and its corresponding causes and effects. The resulting family portraits offer a fascinating glimpse into the cultural similarities and differences served on dinner plates around the globe.

A few years ago, after I returned from working at a weight-loss camp (a horrifying experience, to say the last), I began to share my experiences with anyone who would listen, and luckily became very close friends with the supervisor at my new job and we would talk endlessly about food sustainability issues, healthy eating, travel, cultural issues surrounding weight and food…basically, many topics that are near and dear to my heart and stomach. Sometimes, I would take looonnngg breaks from work (I hated my job, but loved my supervisor, reader and commenter JenMarie!) and walk to the nearest Borders to peruse the “Food/Cooking” section of the store and the moment I discovered “Hungry Planet” I became hooked. I would escape my office, rush to Borders, read about a new family from around the world every day, rush back, discuss with my supervisor what I had just read (see? Super cool boss, huh?), and begin to delve into the sociological implications of food ( (thanks, liberal arts education) in cultures I would have had relatively little insight/exposure to without the work of this book. When I finally quit my job, my supervisor gave me the book as a going away present, and it has been by my side ever since.

The book is filled with incredible photographs of markets and grocery stores and farms and food displays and portraits of families from all around the world which are honestly so engrossing that you could stare at just them for hours, but also includes many fascinating essays about crucial issues, such as “Diabesity,” about the growing threat of obesity and diabetes. The books authors (Faith D’Aluisio & Peter Menzel, a dynamite husband and wife duo) themselves have this to say about their work:

What the World Eats is meant to get kids thinking about the world around them, but also about the food on their own plates. The U.S. Center for Disease Control reports that one in every three children born in the year 2000 will develop type 2 diabetes at some point during their life, and that more than 60 percent of American adults, and 30 percent of children are overweight or obese. This in one of the richest, most powerful countries on the planet; we are eating ourselves to death, but we can do something about it if we understand the problems. This book aids that understanding.

Fascinating, right? I’d like to now include two photos that are striking in their stark contrast and what they say about cultural standards, consumption, reality, and how uncontrollable forces such as poverty, conflict, and globalization determine diet.

United States: The Revis family of North Carolina – 2 adults, 2 teenagers

Food expenditure for one week: $341.98

Ecuador: The Ayme family of Tingo – 4 adults, 5 teenagers

Food expenditure for one week: $31.55

Incredible. Doesn’t it already make you look at the food you eat in a whole new light? The book also includes facts about the countries that the familes come from, which include not only geographics, population density, and life expectancies but also number of McDonald’s, the percentage of obese and overweight people, and consumption of alcohol and cigarettes.

And remember the theme of the week? Sustainability. Does the featured American diet look sustainable to you–for the body, for where the food is coming from and the condition it is in, for our country? And what would the effects of globalization be on a country like Ecuador, where a family of 9 is being supported off of local harvests, albeit perhaps not enough for the entire family to subsist on for a week? It’s so interesting to think about, and I look forward to the discussion that I hope this sparks, on this blog and in your lives.

(Image courtesy of MenzelPhoto, one of my new favorite sites, and RustyLime, great stuff)

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. October 5, 2011 3:39 pm

    Brilliant post and beautiful, poignant, stark photographs. Thank you for sharing!

  2. jenmarie permalink
    October 5, 2011 10:00 pm

    The photos are such a striking reminder of what’s wrong with the way we eat here! We trash our bodies and our environment without any regard for the long term consequences. We are in desperate need of change and this blog is a WONDERFUL step in the right direction!! I have hope that if we keep talking about and engaging with these issues, more and more of the population will start to get the message.

    I just sent in an application to work with a local CSA (community supported agriculture) down here in Austin, TX. Thanks to the inspiring words on this blog, I am reminded weekly that we must “be the change we want to see in the world”…now is a great time to start!

  3. Steve permalink
    October 7, 2011 2:23 pm

    these photos are absolutely incredible. just looking at the colors of the foods, you can tell so much. I mean look at how the food from the Ecuadorian family is green and natural looking but the majority of the food of the American family has bright neon colors and is artificial looking. Something has got to change. Thanks for another great post HangryHippo!

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