World on a Plate
Imagine for a moment that it is early Saturday morning in the United States. You have just awakened and it’s time for breakfast. If yours is like the majority of American families, your meal might consist of one or more of the following: boxed, sweetened cereal with milk; bacon and eggs; pancakes; breakfast bars; and toaster pastries. Your food probably has been purchased by your parents in a nearby supermarket. You might have an idea of the basic ingredients of the food you’re going to eat, but probably not. You move from your bed to the breakfast table and eat until you’re full.
If, instead, you wake up in a village in the east African country of Chad, like Amna Mustapha, twelve (page 38), there are no boxes of ready-to-eat cereal, no cartons of milk, and no pastries from a supermarket bakery (in fact, there is no supermarket). You and your parents grow and raise the family’s food. Your meal is always the samepuddinglike porridge called aiysh and a thin okra soup with maybe a bit of dried goat meat for added flavor. But before you can eat it, the sorghum or millet grain for the porridge must be pounded by hand or machine milled, the water for it pulled from a distant hand-dug well, the vegetables picked fresh or gathered from the drying shed, and the wood or dried cattle dung collected to fuel the cooking fire. Children do almost all of this work for the family, although the mother usually does the cooking. Everyone gathers around to dip pieces of aiysh into the soup and eat them with their hands. Then the children leave for the day to water and tend the animals.
Amna’s family is just one that we profiled, in twenty-one different countries, to explore humankind’s oldest social activity: eating. How would one week’s worth of food in Chad or India stack up against one week’s worth in Greenland, Mexico, the United States, Egypt, or France? We decided to find out. At the end of each visit, we created a portrait of each family surrounded by a week’s worth of groceries.
The global marketplace has changed the way people eat. In the suburbs of Paris, French teenagers stop at McDonald’s for a quick bite and their parents shop at modern supermarkets. France’s own brands of giant supermarkets, like the American Wal-Mart, are sprouting up across the planet. In urban China, such megamarkets are replacing the bustling farmers’ markets and home gardens that for hundreds of years have provided the essentials of the Chinese diet. Traditional food and centuries-old eating habits are being replaced by "modern" energy-dense foods (like those modern breakfast foods you’re eating this Saturday morning). As societies modernize and become wealthier, people become less physically active and actually need less food. Instead, people are eating moreand getting fat.
Even without reading the mountains of research that bear this out, the effects are easy to spot. Just look around. Many affluent countries are overfed. And, unfortunately, it seems that in developing countries, even before people attain a level of prosperity that helps ensure their adequate nutrition, they are eating in ways almost guaranteed to make them less healthy. Alma Casales, thirty-four (page 114), a young mother living in Mexico, is surprised to learn that the six gallons of Coca-Cola she, her husband, and her young children are drinking in the course of one week at all their meals and throughout the day is basically sugar water. In fewer than twenty years Mexico’s population has moved from a rate of less than 10 percent overweight to over 65 percent.
As charitable organizations continue their campaigns against world hunger, others have started campaigns against world obesity. In the year 2000, the World Watch Institute reported that for the first time in human history there were just as many overfed people on the planet as underfed.
So back to Amna’s breakfast in Africa, and yours in America. There is a mind-boggling number of variables to consider, but you may be surprised to learn that the breakfast in Africa could well be the more nutritious of the two. It is simply cooked and has no added fats, sugars, chemicals, or artificial ingredients. Also, the vegetables and grain didn’t travel hundreds of miles to the breakfast tableonly a few dozen steps.
Do some detective work to figure out the differences between your meal and Amna’s. Read the labels and ingredient lists of the foods you’re planning to eat. There are some things you won’t be able to discoversuch as how far the bacon had to travel to get to your plate, or where the grain in your cereal was grown. Fresh fruit is easier to detect. In the modern supermarket, stickers on the fruit sometimes tell you that an apple is from New Zealand, seven thousand miles away. If you want bananas, you can get them any time of year, shipped from countries around the globe. Most of those bananas were picked long before they got ripe. Americans haven’t had to worry about whether a certain food is in season for a long time because of the elaborate transportation system developed to supply supermarkets. In Amna’s country, they get to eat fruit only when it ripens locallyjuicy red watermelons available once a year.
Why did we choose some countries and not others? Sometimes we covered a country because we were already there working on a different project; for others it was because we wanted to see something new. We covered some countries just to develop a good cross section of the world. Neither of us had been to Greenland, and we really wanted to see glaciers before they all disappear into the rising sea. It had been nearly twenty years since we worked in Ecuador, so we included this South American country to see how much it had changed. We wanted a third country in Africa, and to observe refugee life, so we traveled to Chad. And we wanted to see how Poland had survived its years of communism. We included three families in the United States to invite comparison. How do you think they compare to one another? Look at each of these families and compare your own family’s weekly grocery list to theirs. Keep in mind, though, as you look at these photographs, that none of these families is meant to be a statistical representation of the country in which they live. They represent themselves, and even then as only a snapshot in time. I wrote the stories of all these families after extensive interviews and observation in each of the countries we visited plus additional questions afterward.
There are signs of change everywhere. Food has become a complicated business as companies compete in the global marketplace and fight for your food dollar. You have here a tool to help you understand a little more about the world around you. Bon appetit.