Show Us Your Food: A Q&A With the Authors of What The World Eats
Peter Menzel and Faith D’Aluisio sat down to a meal with 30 families in 24 countries, photographing their one-week food intake and talking to them about food, dieting, and shopping habits for their 2005 book Hungry Planet.
One U.S. family, after seeing a photograph of a week’s worth of their groceries, decided to make some major dietary changes.
A woman in Mali thought the idea of using a machine to exercise her body was hysterical.
One of the conclusions Peter reached: “We” — i.e., the developed world — “eat too much and waste too much, and many of us eat stuff that hardly qualifies as food.”
The book received widespread coverage and won the James Beard Foundation Writings in Food Award and Cookbook of the Year Award, among others. In August, the authors are coming out with What the World Eats, a new book targeted at kids. With food increasingly becoming a global issue (the topic has made several appearances on this blog), Menzel and D’Aluisio hope it will help kids (and adults) better understand the global food situation and their place in it.
D’Aluisio — with contributions by Menzel — has agreed to answer our questions about the book. (All photographs below are by Menzel.)
Q: Which table in the book is yours most similar to?
A: Our table probably looks most like the Mendoza family table in Guatemala; covered in fresh fruits and vegetables, grains, little meat, and very little packaged food. That said, their produce doesn’t travel anywhere near as far as ours does to get to our table, so their produce is fresher and to our practiced palates — better tasting.
All this said, in the summer our tomatoes travel a grand total of 80 feet — from earth to table — and we’d put our tomatoes up against those raised in Todos Santos de Cuchumatan any summer day.
Q: Do kids have an inherently different take on food?
A: Kids do indeed but this is different from one culture to the next. In countries where traditional food is the norm, you’ll find that there is less of a “different take,” than in countries where “global food” has become entrenched in the diet.
Each generation moves further and further away from traditional foods until you have an amalgam of sorts. Manila is the perfect example of a place where this is occurring. The underpinnings of traditional meals that can run the gamut from adidas (chicken feet), fried blood, and pan du sal, a traditional bread, are now augmented with a wide variety of internationally branded items — like Cheez Whiz — a breakfast favorite of our family there.
The constant push-and-pull of the food industry, government entities, and consumer interest groups molds what children are exposed to, but the developing world has many fewer checks and balances.
From what we’ve seen in our explorations, at least anecdotally, people in the developing world want to try these new food items showing up on market shelves. In fact, it’s possible that all that’s saving them from highly processed food is the lack of money to pay for it. But food corporations are working on even that:
As many families can’t afford to buy a week’s worth of a given internationally branded product at one time, companies obligingly develop more affordable package sizing — one day’s worth, or a single serving. As with most items sold individually, the price of the item, by volume, is much higher.
Q: Why did you decide to do What the World Eats (WTWE) and why is it targeted toward kids?
A: 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 over 60 percent of American adults, and 30 percent of children are overweight or obese. Life expectancy is no longer increasing and is projected to actually decrease. This in one of the richest, most powerful countries on the planet; we are eating ourselves to death, but can do something about it if we understand the problems. This book aids that understanding.
While we cover many of the same families that we did for Hungry Planet, in What the World Eats we focus on families that we thought would most interest the young reader and provide the most interesting comparisons. For instance, we included both of our families in China — the Dongs and the Cuis. Both have children, so there is that level of commonality with the young reader, but we also included them because of the great difference between a week’s worth of food for these two Chinese families.
Q: What is your first reaction to this photo?
From Peter: We now know the family quite well, but by just looking at the photo I would think: both parents are working full time. They have accepted the convenience food rationale for making meals quicker and easier to prepare. There isn’t much in the way of fresh fruits and vegetables here. These people eat like average Americans — actually maybe a little better than the average American these days.
From Faith: The Cavens do indeed both work outside the home — in fact neither works in the town in which they live so both have a killer commute to contend with. All three of the American families in Hungry Planet have two working parents, and this has meant a reliance on convenience foods.
Interestingly though, our family in North Carolina, the Revises, who of the three probably ate the most highly processed diet, were shocked to see their week’s worth of food on display, and promptly changed their eating habits. Rosemary Revis told us that her two boys especially had a hand in making the dietary changes. She was very proud of them.
Q: Is Coca-Cola really as globally pervasive as people say?
A: Sure it is; Coca-Cola is everywhere, and Pepsi is nearly as far-reaching.
It’s almost refreshing to be in countries that serve the Arab cola alternatives. People in Mexico drink the most Coke — the country has the highest per capita consumption of Coca-Cola in the world.
In fact the mom in the family we covered, Alma Casales, was surprised to learn that Coca-Cola is basically sugar water. She, like many of her countrymen is drinking it morning, noon, and night, and feeding it to her children instead of water.
Although we prefer bottled water when seeking a safe beverage more and more, we find, it’s branded with Coca-Cola or Nestlé.
Interestingly, and somewhat sadly for us, American branded colas are beginning to replace coffee and tea as the offered beverage when we visit a family; when people want to impress a visitor, that’s what they serve instead of a traditional beverage.
From Peter: A monk in Bhutan drank a Pepsi during the celebration for the electrification of the family’s village; and in the mud village in Mali our hosts pulled two frosty Cokes out of the pharmacy’s tiny gas powered refrigerator when we first arrived (No electricity, but the village now had one refrigerator and one TV powered by a car battery and a solar charger).
Q: What’s happening in this photo?
From Peter: The Ukita family with one week’s worth of food — this photo shoot coincided with the evening broadcast of the Tokyo Giants baseball game, which Mr. Ukita could not take his eyes off of. During a commercial (for an insecticide) we got his attention.
Maya, the younger daughter is holding her favorite food, potato chips. The preponderance of packaged food is slightly misleading because Japan loves packaging and nearly everything (fruits, vegetables, fish) is wrapped or bagged.
Q: What American food brands or chains did you see the most of? Where you surprised by the prevalence of any brands?
A: We see American brands everywhere, especially the hot-button brands like McDonalds, KFC, and Coke. I guess though, that one of the biggest disappointments has been to find Starbucks in places that have historically had a really good coffee culture in mom-and-pop-operated cafes and bars. The youngest coffee drinkers are now heading for Starbucks. (In the interest of full disclosure, we do drink coffees at Starbucks on occasion, and we certainly use them for Internet access.)
Q: What American food brand do you never want to see anywhere else again and why?
A: We try not to impose our own food prejudices on others in our books. That said, we have a problem with branded items in general, whether it be the ones with the usual unpronounceable conglomeration of ingredients, or fresh produce with branded names like Emeril tomatoes, or Green Giant potatoes.
As far as we’re concerned the first isn’t food, and the latter two are ridiculous. In fact we go out of our way to do without if these are our only alternatives.
Q: Did you feel families were honest with you about what they consumed weekly? Which family seemed most reluctant and which was most proud?
A: All journalists struggle with the question of responder honesty. Our methods of back-tracking to check answers served us well. When we didn’t feel confident, we would check with outside sources and other families about their habits to come to a conclusion about what we were showing.
Generally, though, we had more problems with ignorance than honesty. Women in the developing world were much more apt to know to the penny what their food would cost, and to the gram what they needed to feed their family, and could answer quickly. (Plus, their lists were quite short). Susana Mendoza in Guatemala, though illiterate, was amazing at this and she did it all in her head.
The family shoppers in the developed world on the other hand were much less sure of amounts and prices. In these countries the box size rather than the weight of the food was the metric for determining the amount of food needed. And even then the amount of food actually eaten had to be parsed a bit.
Q: What (if anything) angered you throughout your travels?
A: We don’t get angry — as journalists we get interested.
We’re interested in the fact that in the year 2000 there were just as many overfed people on the planet as underfed, as reported by the World Watch Institute.
We’re interested in whether this will still be true in the coming decade as prices increase to heretofore-unseen levels for basic food items.
From Peter: It seems that people in the developed world, especially those in the United States, are losing respect for food. We eat too much and waste too much, and many of us eat stuff that hardly qualifies as food.
Even non-food stores have racks of snacks and drinks for sale. We had the dubious pleasure of spending five nights in a Super 8 Motel in Kentucky last week. Alongside toothpaste and razors, the smoky front desk was stocked with Diet Pepsi and Hostess Twinkies.
Q: What’s going on here?
We are also working on a book about death rituals, and while in Manila, we saw funeral “parties” on the street in front of the houses of the deceased. The parties are most active in the evening. Relatives, neighbors, and friends stop by to see the body, have something to eat, and/or play a card or board game. As we say in the book, there is a Filipino law that allows gambling at funerals, thereby allowing the family to reap some financial benefit that helps pay for the funeral.
Q: In what country was eating/food most tied to social functions?
A: Food certainly has a place in most social situations no matter where we find ourselves on the planet. This is less true where the food budget is stretched so thinly that sharing food just isn’t an option, such as in rural Africa. One of the greatest food sharing cultures we’ve ever visited was Iran, and the food is terrific.
One of the strangest food sharing moments we’ve had to date was in Maracaibo, Venezuela when our host took us to a gas station for a fried fast food breakfast and coffee from a vending machine.
Q: Which country has obesity issues comparable to the U.S. and are the causes the same?
A: Perhaps unsurprisingly, countries in which citizens eat a lot of food served up by the global marketplace have the greatest incidence of obesity, but another factor is that people physically exert themselves less and less as their country becomes more industrialized so the two things go hand in hand.
Look at Kuwait and its high incidence of overweight and obesity, and then look at its percentage of food importation — 98 percent: amongst the highest in the world.
Our Kuwaiti family’s week’s worth of food is a cornucopia of packaged and highly processed items. And few Kuwaitis are doing the hard physical labor of their forebears — temporary guest workers are doing that work. Mexico and Australia as well have rates of overweight and obesity comparable to the United States.
Q: What, in your opinion, is the biggest influence on changes in a country’s eating habits?
A: Along with rising incomes, availability of new packaged foods from the global marketplace is a real impetus for change in a family’s diet. People in countries where there is great importance placed on eating traditional foods are much more apt to keep their weight down — countries like South Korea and Japan. But even they are experiencing troubling changes as their youngest generations turn more and more to fast food and meals courtesy of the global marketplace.
Still, there is another movement afoot; it will be interesting to see what changes are fomented by the backlash occurring in the developed world against highly processed foods.
Q: On this blog, we talked about the possibility of slaughterhouses breeding violent, even homicidal behavior in people. From what you’ve seen around the world, what’s your take on this?
From Peter: I would argue that this is not the case in developing countries (in people who work in slaughterhouses or in the general population). Meat is valued, prized, and sought after, and there is a lot of respect for animals, along with a complete realization and understanding of where meat comes from.
But in the first world (to a lesser extent in Europe) large commercial slaughterhouses do numb the workers who must perform the same grizzly task for endless hours.
I photographed slaughterhouses around the U.S. a number of years ago and saw what goes on. Pigs, cows, chickens, turkeys: an endless deconstruction line. It’s inevitable under those circumstances that workers remove themselves mentally from their physical tasks.
A bigger concern might be the fact that many Americans have no clue where meat comes from: does it grow in these Styrofoam trays?
I do think if you eat meat, you should be aware that you are participating in the death of an animal. How far that awareness goes and whether it influences how much, how often, and what kinds of meat you consume is a responsibility as well.
Q: What’s happening in these photos? Why did you take them?
From Peter: I was drawn to this small slaughterhouse in the rural town of Zumbagua by tables outside displaying rows of llama heads. Restaurant owners, families, and individuals bought livestock at the market early in the morning and by afternoon were able to take meat home. Sheep waiting to be slaughtered stood by like sheep waiting to be slaughtered.
I have seen sheep slaughtered all over the world but the most interesting method I witnessed was in Mongolia. The father in the family put the sheep on its back, and gently rubbed its stomach until it closed its eyes. Then, using a sharpened jack knife, he made a quick small incision on the stomach, rolled up his sleeve and put his arm up to the elbow inside the sheep. He pinched the artery from the heart to the brain and the sheep went to sleep for the last time. Ninety minutes later, we were eating its stomach that had been filled with its blood and boiled on a coal-burning stove inside the family’s ger.
Q: We also recently blogged about the possibility of society becoming more calorie conscious. Which family would have been most likely to see the American dieting obsession as strange or absurd?
A: It is almost impossible to get across the concept of dieting to people for whom food procurement is a daily trial. D’jamia Souleymane, a Sudanese woman — and the mom in her family — is living in a refugee camp on the Chad-Sudan border. She and her entire family are, in fact, each on a diet as their food is doled out by food aid organizations.
We asked a few people about physical exercise and told them about health clubs in the United States. Soumana Natomo, in Mali, thought that the idea of a place where you go to get on a machine to exercise your body was hysterically funny. Grandfather Cui in rural China agreed. Just about any country where the great majority of people work physically hard will have this perspective.
Q: If you were president, what one step would you take/ policy would you implement to help resolve the global food crisis?
A: Actually, if one of us were president that would mean George Bush would not be, and not to use this interview as a soapbox, but the world would be much better off.
That said, if one of us were president, the biggest changes we would make regarding food and nutrition would be to reform farm subsidies in the U.S., and to send cash to pay for world food aid grown by growers nearer to the areas that need it rather than send food grown in the United States. This practice makes absolutely no sense for reasons too numerous to tick off here.
Q: This photo struck me because the family looks exceptionally happy. Why?
A: The Aymes told us they are poor but happy and this photograph exemplifies that, but quite frankly, their smiles are more indicative of the growth of their relationship with us than the circumstance of their lives — which like many Andeans is generally impoverished.
We develop fairly close relationships with each of the families we cover — sharing photos and stories of our own families as we go, and eating with the families. Oftentimes, we are the first foreigners that a family will have welcomed into their homes. As journalists we temper this, but as humans we embrace and enjoy the relationships that develop.
Q: Why did you take this photo?
From Peter: Mongolia is more urban now than rural. Many of the recent residents of Ulaanbaatar moved some of their nomadic lifestyle to the city, including the round gers that many still live in on the edges of the city, along with some of their livestock.
The livestock roam free around the city, even in downtown where I have shot cows wandering among government buildings.
Here among the soviet style apartment blocks, residents dump refuse into a community dumpster. The free-ranging city livestock, not having a lick of grass to feed on, move from dumpster to dumpster, surviving on food scraps. This testifies to the increased wealth of city dwellers that discard edible waste. And note the amount of packaged food in and around the dumpster.
A few Mongolians have objected to this photo stating that it shows poverty — but on the contrary, it shows increased wealth.