20 November 2007

Enough food to feed a family for a week

Recently a friend of mine sent me a link to a very thought-provoking blog entry on the subject of cultural and economic responses to food.

As we approach the Thanksgiving holiday, many of us are thinking about and planning our holiday feasts. The historical context of Thanksgiving was for Americans to acknowledge the bounty of the land. The significance of the observance was the fact that the bounty that they enjoyed was by no means assured. The early colonists were vulnerable to unfamiliar and hostile conditions that gave them no assurance that they could harvest and store enough food to stay alive.

When we modern Americans celebrate Thanksgiving this week, it’s easy to forget that around the world, and in fact, in our own nation, some families still face uncertainty about having enough food to survive.

About a year ago, I attended a conference on the subject of hunger. It included food corporations, hunger relief organizations, religious institutions, and government. The goal was to create a dialogue that would lead to strategies for eliminating hunger.

I thought it was very interesting. But we didn’t very far toward the goal. In fact, from my perspective, I think we got hung up on a definition of what we wanted to solve, i.e., what is the definition of ‘hunger?’

Some of the presenters were adamant. We have a definition, and it’s based on the question of food security. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a survey to measure food security. It’s based on the perceptions of people as to whether or not they ‘had enough money for food.’

Other presenters pointed out that this limited definition makes hunger a consequence of poverty. Solve poverty, and you’ve solved hunger. But we know that’s not true.

There are at least two other causes for hunger. One is when food is not available. Even if you have money, if there’s nothing to buy, you go hungry. Famine is not something that Americans have had much experience with. The worst we experience is the occasional hurricane or other natural disaster that creates a panic that in turn empties the supermarket food shelves. Those incidents are fortunately rare and short-lived … in America. But elsewhere in the world, famine still is a frightening reality for many.

The second, terribly sad cause of hunger is poor nutritional choices. It’s shocking to me that the obesity epidemic in America is particularly prevalent among the poor. The widespread availability of cheap processed food that lacks nutritional balance leads to the paradox of overweight people who are simultaneously malnourished.

Which leads me back to the blog entry that stimulated this whole chain of thought. The blogger is a woman named Michelle Stern. She operates a business in San Francisco that offers healthy and seasonal cooking classes and birthday parties and she also has an online shop. On Halloween, she posted a blog about a book called “Hungry Planet: What the World Eats.” A writer and photographer traveled to 24 nations and documented the dietary choices of 30 families. I haven’t seen the book yet. But the half dozen photos from the blog are dramatic and compelling.

It’s interesting to examine the similarities and contrasts of the food from families in the Western nations. The photos from Germany, Italy, the United States, even Poland dramatically show how much processed food we have in our diets. I was struck by the prevalence of soda pop in each of those photos.

The most expensive week’s worth of groceries on the blog entry is Germany, totaling more than $500 for a family of four. The U.S. family (North Carolina) is shown with $341 worth of food for a week, also for a family of four.

But the most compelling photos show the contrasts for families in developing nations. An Egyptian family of 12 = $68 for groceries for a week. A family of nine in Ecuador = $31 food for a week. And finally, the starkest contrast, from a refugee camp in Chad, a family of six = $1.23 food for a week.

The final thing that struck me about the photos is the smiles of the families. I hope I’m not projecting too much of my own values. But I interpret that to show a universal desire to provide food for your family. And if you’re able to do that, then you’ve got something to smile about.

Happy Thanksgiving.

1 comment:

Patty of the 3 Cats said...

I liked this entry. I think ending hunger in this country is as multi-faceted as ending homelessness. Another reason poor people are often obese is that high-carb foods -- even the unprocessed ones -- are cheaper than fruit, vegetables and meat. A big plate of pasta may not be very nutritious, but it's filling.

I've seen the "hungry planet" book. It's part of a series where the photographers visit families all over the world and have them show off all the food they've bought for a week, all the items in their home, etc. I, too, noticed how, in what we would consider very poor countries, the head of the household was often smiling -- and sometimes showing off a donkey, goat or cow -- because he was proud of being able to provide for his family. "Wealth" is so subjective.

Hope you had a happy Thanksgiving!