What the World Eats

This is a photo essay taken from the book Hungry Planet by Peter Menzel and Faith D’Aluisio, which documents the weekly food supply of several families in different countries around the world.

This photographic journey is much more than an interesting sociological study; in this globalized world, food and eating habits are quite literally a matter of life and death. In the words of the authors:

“Today we are witnessing the greatest change in global diets since the invention of agriculture. Globalization, mass tourism, and giant agribusiness have filled American supermarket shelves with extraordinary new foods and McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Kraft Cheese Singles are being exported to every corner of the planet.”

From the preponderance of packaged foods consumed by the family in the U.S. to the meager rations available to the family in the refugee camp in Chad, Menzel and D’Aluisio’s work casts much-needed light on the insane imbalance of the global food system.

Another indispensable work is Raj Patel’s 2007 book Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World’s Food System. Patel tracks the bounty lining the supermarket shelves of the Global North to its often disturbing origins, examines the corporate tyranny of global crops like soy and maize, and comes to the conclusion that people in both the Global North and South are trapped within the same dysfunctional system. On one side: the 1 billion people worldwide who are classified as “obese,” on the other, the 800 million starving people throughout the world. In the middle, a relative handful of multinational food companies with the leverage to control both the markets.

Just as people used to whisper tales of the streets paved with gold in the U.S., these days the streets and store aisles of the Global North are full of cheap, unhealthy, mass-produced, genetically modified foodstuffs. The result has been a public health crisis of diabetes and heart disease. At the very same time, food has become increasingly scarce throughout the Global South – here, you can read about the food riots that ripped through several countries in 2007-2008.

It’s clear that something drastic has to change about the way we obtain one of the most basic necessities for life: food. Patel details several movements across the world – from the Landless Movement (MST) in Brazil to Europe’s Slow Food movement, the South Central Farm in L.A. and farmers’ organizations from South Korea and India to Mexico who have had enough of being starved off their land by policies set in boardrooms half a world away.

What doesn’t seem to be helping is the fetishism of food that has emerged in the U.S. Ever since Norman Rockwell painted the rosy-cheeked family preparing to enjoy a giant turkey in “Freedom From Want,” Americans have enjoyed images of our bounty reflected back at us. This is apparent from any given hour on the Food Network – tantalizing images of delicious food being prepared are part of the nightly entertainment for millions.

I have to wonder about whether the 800 million people in danger of starvation throughout the world know about Food Network, Top Chef and the general cult of foodie fascination. Then again, when the number of families using the Food Bank for New York City has doubled from 4 million to 8 million from 2003 to 2008, the cognitive dissonance is alive and well in our own backyard.

Don’t get me wrong – I am one of the many who enjoy watching food on TV. I appreciate the skill of cooking and am fascinated by the rituals of food preparation and believe that a lot can be learned from studying food. But when placed in the context of the inequality of the global food system, we should challenge ourselves to look at food in a deeper way than encouraged by the current slew of popular TV food programs.

The gap between the haves and have-nots is not a new phenomenon. What is relatively new is how gigantic this gap is – and the staggering rate at which it is growing.

As the U.S. economy staggers under the weight of the still-unfolding crisis, this is the time to ponder possible paradigm shifts in the way we consume just about everything – and our relationship to food is a good place to start.

There are many steps that we can take towards the goal of breaking free from the current food system: local and seasonal eating, rejection of GMO and highly processed foods, support for farmers markets and urban farms (such as Growing Power in Milwaukee, Wisconsin), widespread education about the conditions under which our food is grown in the U.S. and abroad – are all crucial strategies. The thing to remember is that the situation is absolutely as dire as Menzel and D’Aluisio indicate. We can no longer turn our back on the slow-motion apocalypse gripping the starving people of the Global South.

It grows more and more apparent that if we can dismantle the system stuffing us and starving them, the lives we save will include our own.