One of the outcomes of the 2014 Davos Summit was to highlight how global leaders and policy makers are struggling with the “Inequality Agenda”. Indeed, in the weeks leading up to the event, a plethora of leaders – from Pope Francis to IMF Chief Christine Lagarde – ensured their intend to tackle the issue was heard. Then, as the Daily Beast reported, it ended, not with a bang, but a whimper.
Notwithstanding the predicament to overcome political interests to fix this issue, one of the upfront difficulties is for citizens to even appreciate the human dimensions of inequality, so that they can in turn weigh in as voters and ultimately attempt to influence policies.
It is from that point of view that “Hungry Planet: What the World Eats” – a book published by photographer Peter Menzel and journalist Faith D’Alusio – turns out to be an unlikely reflection on economic data and statics. This was probably not the authors’ intention. Their goal was to travel across 24 countries and visit 30 families to document everything that an average family consumes in a given week – and what it costs. They wanted to emphasize that the social aspect surrounding a shared meal is fundamental to human life and is common to all cultures. That our dinner table tells us something about our culture and about the basis of our existence. They show that the food we eat reflects our identity. Food is indeed a major force of Globalization: it is transported by sea and road from all over the world, and our meals are becoming increasingly independent of seasons and of where we live. This directly affects our environments, cultures, and social systems – we just have to remember how the rising food prices fuelled the Arab Spring (see scientific American).
Yet the photo essay tells another story. In a seemingly unrelated way, it shows how decades of Davos, World Bank and UN reports on inequality have failed to put a human face on it. To appreciate this dissonance, just compare the chart created from the book showing each family’s weekly food expenditure with the unsettling contrasts of abundance and poverty exhibited by the photo essay. It shows the insanity of those $1.23 in Chad. It demands explanations on why this particular Norwegian family is way off the charts with those $731. It confirms expected differences within the same country such as in the US. It also reveals significant variations between meat, vegetables, carbs, fresh and processed food.
Just to be clear, the point here is not to dismiss the value of statistics. They have a rigour that the inductive nature of story telling necessarily misses. In fact, the book shows that the accompanying essays are needed to not lose the context of each image: for instance the Guatemalan family was shot during a big festival in the village, so they ate much more that week, and they were also relatively well-off. Africa is (once again) mis-presented and misrepresented with stereotypes of the whole continent as famine and conflict affected.
What this illustrates on the contrary is that whilst statistics are essential to quantify and reveal trends, excel charts will never convey the human reality of the issue. This is why economics will need to further integrate sociology and anthropology to remain relevant to the humanity it is intending to model and analyze.
Some of the places visited by Menzel and D’Alusio:
Families and their weekly food behind the chart:
Norway: The Glad Ostensen family in Gjerdrum. Food expenditure for one week: 4265.89 Norwegian Kroner or $731.71. Some of their favorite foods: mutton in cabbage, lasagne, and chocolate.
Luxembourg: The Kuttan-Kasses of Erpeldange – Food expenditure for one week: 347.64 Euros or $465.84. Some of their favorite Foods: Shrimp pizza, Chicken in wine sauce, Turkish kebabs.
Australia: The Brown family of River View – Food expenditure for one week: 481.14 Australian dollars or US$376.45. Family Recipe: Marge Brown’s Quandong (an Australian peach) Pie, Yogurt.
Germany: The Sturm Family of Hamburg. Food Expenditure for One Week: € 253.29 ($325.81 USD). Some of their favorite foods: salads, shrimp, buttered vegetables, sweet rice with cinnamon and sugar, pasta.
Japan: The Ukita family of Kodaira City. Food expenditure for one week: 37,699 Yen or $317.25. Some of their favorite foods: sashimi, fruit, cake, potato chips.
Italy: The Manzo family of Sicily. Food expenditure for one week: 214.36 Euros or $260.11. Some of their favorite foods: fish, pasta with ragu, hot dogs, frozen fish sticks.
Kuwait: The Al Haggan family of Kuwait City. Food expenditure for one week: 63.63 dinar or $221.45. Family recipe: Chicken biryani with basmati rice.
Mexico: The Casales family of Cuernavaca. Food expenditure for one week: 1,862.78 Mexican Pesos or $189.09. Favorite foods: pizza, crab, pasta, chicken.
Bosnia: The Dudo family in their living room with a week’s worth of food in Sarajevo. The family spend $167.43 a week on groceries. They cook with an electric stove, and a coal/wood stove, and have a refrigerator-freezer.
China: The Dong family of Beijing. Food expenditure for one week: 1,233.76 Yuan or $155.06. Favorite foods: fried shredded pork with sweet and sour sauce.
Poland: The Sobczynscy family of Konstancin-Jeziorna. Food expenditure for one week: 582.48 Zlotys or $151.27. Family recipe: Pig’s knuckles with carrots, celery and parsnips.
Turkey: The Celik family in the main room of their three-room apartment, with a week’s worth of food in Istanbul. The family, which spans three generations, spend $145.88 a week on groceries. They cook with a gas stove and have a refrigerator-freezer. Some of their favorite Foods: Melahat’s Puffed Pastries.
Egypt: The Ahmed family of Cairo. Food expenditure for one week: 387.85 Egyptian Pounds or $68.53. Family recipe: Okra and mutton.
Mongolia: The Batsuuri family in their apartment with a week’s worth of food in Ulaanbaatar, the capital city of Mongolia. The family spend $40.02 a week on groceries. They cook with shared electric and coal stoves, and have a shared refrigerator-freezer. Family recipe: Mutton dumplings.
India: The Patkar family in their living room with a week’s worth of food in Madhya Pradesh, India. The family spend 1,636.25 rupees or $39.27 a week on groceries. They cook with a gas stove, and have a refrigerator-freezer. Family Recipe: Sangeeta Patkar’s Poha (Rice Flakes).
Ecuador: The Ayme family with a week’s worth of food in Tingo. The family, which are potato and sheep farmers, spend $31.55 a week on groceries. They cook with a wood fire and preserve food by natural drying. Family recipe: Potato soup with cabbage.
Chad: The Aboubakar family of Breidjing Camp. Food expenditure for one week: 685 CFA Francs or $1.23. Typical foods: soup with fresh sheep meat.
Sydney – 1 March 2014
– “Hungry Planet: What the World Eats” – Peter Menzel and Faith D’Alusio
– Nobel Peace Center https://www.nobelpeacecenter.org/en/exhibitions/hungry-planet/