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WC Retro: Hungry Planet; What the World Eats

HungryPlanet.jpg By Sarah Rich, posted on April 3, 2006.

Sometimes the best way to gain a wide-angle perspective on a global situation is by piecing together a number of close-ups. Hungry Planet, by Peter Menzel and Faith D'Aluisio, profiles thirty families from around the world, combining stunning photographic essays with written descriptions of each family's weekly food intake.

The structural frame of the book consists of a series of full-page photographs of each family posed around their entire week's worth of food purchases. Each image is engrossing on its own, with intense visual detail reflecting the family's cultural and commercial context - in some places, the family stands in a brightly lit kitchen around heaps of candy bars, stacked cereal boxes and a neat line of bottled beer; in others, they sit outside on the dirt around baskets of staple grains and mounds of vegetables. When run as a series, the sharp contrast in diet, health and economic prosperity from one place to another becomes glaringly apparent.

A forward from Marion Nestle addresses the central paradox of hunger and starvation: there is enough food on earth to feed everyone, but distribution and access are severely inequitable. Simultaneously, traditional diets and cooking methods have begun to disintegrate under the deluge of fast-food and prepackaged, preserved goods; and where food is overabundant, "diabesity" is skyrocketing.

Obesity and its health consequences are just collateral damage. Growth-seeking companies cannot imagine a better place to find new buyers than the emerging economies of developing nations...Compare the diets of the two Chinese families, one urban and one rural. Both are in a transition from a diet of poverty to one of affluence...The foods on display in the [rural] family portrait are mostly raw or minimally processed...This rural family buys cubes of chicken stock as a luxury; others are beer, cigarettes, and, as is common nearly everywhere, Coca-Cola...In contrast, the urban family can afford - and has access to - a great many more foods of different kinds. It buys many of the same basic foods as the rural family, but adds...baguettes, sugar-free gum, Häagen-Dazs Vanilla Almond Ice Cream, and takeout from KFC. Such is the global food market in the early 21st century.

Interspersed among the gorgeous, living images of families on their trips to market, preparing and sharing meals at home, or gathering food in fields or fishing boats, are essays from some of the leading thinkers on hunger, health, and food justice, as well as recipes, grocery bills and categorized lists of how each family spends their money to feed themselves.

In and of itself, this book is a worldchanging resource. It blends the emotional power of a family photo album, the revealing content of a documentary, and the educational value of world food statistics presented clearly and simply. A reader could spend hours on end taking in the imagery and information filling the pages of Hungry Planet.

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