As we welcome in a New Year, reflect on our 2010 activities and accomplishments, and set our goals for 2011, our thoughts often focus on recent holiday gatherings with family and friends. We undoubtedly remember the fellowship, fun, and food and give thanks for these important things in our lives. When gathering around a dining table either in celebration, or for a traditional family meal, food is a true focal point that brings people together. Think about the comfort foods that our mothers made, the special occasion foods and ethnic holiday treats that we look forward to, and large family-style dinners with foods to meet everyone’s tastes and preferences.
In the United States, we are fortunate to experience the abundance, variety, convenience, and comparatively low cost of food. Today’s large supermarkets stock from 25,000 to 40,000 food items and provide consumers with many unique products. It is no surprise that, according to the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, U.S. consumers spend an estimated 9.5% percent of their disposable income on food.
With our country’s rich multicultural heritage and economic advances, it is evident that our food supply is becoming increasingly global. Most supermarkets stock an impressive selection of international foods, and U.S. restaurant chains are opening new facilities in countries around the world. In contrast to this abundance, there are many people in the U.S. and in countries worldwide who are food insecure and struggle to get enough food to sustain themselves and their families.
According to the United Nations Development Program, nearly 3 billion people (40% of the world’s population) live on less than $2 a day. This reality, along with pre- and post-harvest losses of foods, reduces the amount of food available to consumers in many countries. To help us further explore the uneasy coexistence between abundance and poverty in the world today, photographer Peter Menzel and his wife, author-journalist Faith D’Alusio, profiled 25 families in 21 countries, as they sat down to approximately 525 meals, in their book Hungry Planet: What the World Eats.
The authors guide us through an extraordinary glimpse into the lives of these families. What they learned is that diet can change in an instant due to unforgiving influences like poverty, conflict, and globalization. All families were photographed in their own kitchens surrounded by a week’s worth of their groceries. Although the kitchens varied significantly in overall look and feel, they all created the center of the family’s home—even if some of the homes were only temporary. Weekly food intake lists for each family were also generated, tracking costs, and family recipes were shared.
We know that the world’s food system provides food for nearly seven billion people each day. Many affluent countries are overfed—in comparison to people in developing countries who are struggling financially and oftentimes resorting to unhealthy food. The authors noted that as charitable organizations continue their campaign against world hunger, others have started campaigns against world obesity. In 2000, the World Watch Institute reported that for the first time in history, there were just as many overfed people on the planet as underfed.
But what we’ve learned from IFT’s recent review, “Feeding the World Today and Tomorrow: The Importance of Food Science and Technology,” is that food science and technology has advanced to meet the needs of society. Further advancements are critical to meeting the needs of the growing world population, with enhancements in food security in developing countries and solutions to complex diet and health challenges in industrialized countries.
What the World Eats provides a look at families as they prepared for meals, from shopping at grocery stores and outdoor markets to one family’s hunt for a seal. Some families incorporated grains and vegetables into their meals, while others consumed pizza, carbonated beverages, and even spit-roasted guinea pigs. In Chad, a family of six living in a refugee camp spends US$1.22 total for one week of food, while a German family of five has weekly food expenses totaling nearly $500 per week.
Authors Menzel and D’Alusio made lifelong connections while learning about cultural similarities and differences at dinner tables around the globe. Philip E. Nelson, the 2007 World Food Prize Laureate and past president of IFT, said recently, “Scientific and technological advancements must be accelerated and applied in developed and developing nations alike, if we are to feed a growing world population.” I couldn’t agree more. So IFT’ers, let’s continue to stay on the right track in order to change lives around the world by contributing to a safe, healthy, sustainable, and abundant food supply.
Robert B. Gravani,
IFT President, 2010–2011
Professor of Food Science, Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y.