Book Review

Hungry Planet

What the World Eats

February 5, 2007

If I could place a book in your hands today and say, “Read it,” Hungry Planet would be that book. In their “culinary atlas,” photographer Peter Menzel and writer Faith D’Aluisio travel to 24 countries documenting what 30 families eat in a week. The authors say they were trying to ascertain the effects of globalization on diet, struggling to make sense of what D’Aluisio calls “the fascinating, baffling, important muddle” of our world’s food. The resulting book is an armchair anthropologist’s dream — and a wake-up call. Although there is great abundance of food on our hungry planet, there is also a worldwide obesity epidemic. This is a situation that demands our attention.

Menzel and D’Aluisio spent a week with each family, charting what they ate, where they got it, and how much it cost in U.S. dollars. Helpfully, the book not just shows but also describes how much of each type of food — dairy, grains, etc. — each family ate. Grocery bills varied from less than $25 a week to more than $500; one American mother told the authors that seeing how much her family consumed in a week was a catalyst for change. National Public Radio conducted an interview with Menzel and D’Aluisio when the book was published in 2005, and simultaneously posted a revealing excerpt.

Those interested in food for food’s sake can see that throughout the book some items are ubiquitous — rice, eggs, root vegetables — but not universal; Hungry Planet is a graphic reminder that the human animal eats a more varied diet than most creatures. But it also points out that as more people eat burgers more often, the price we pay is our health; much of the food we eat now, and the frequency with which we eat it, is not nutritionally sound.

The emphasis in Hungry Planet is on food and diet, but the photos also show a startling amount of packaging. Take, for example, the Le Moines of France, photographed in their dining area with their foods for a week: individual yogurts, a box of Corn Flakes, orange juice in cartons, take-out sushi, and packaged meats. Contrast that with the Mendozas of Guatemala, with their chickens and green beans, rice and eggs; their packaged foods are limited (Quaker oats stand out). And the Natomos of Mali? They eat even less variety, and the packaging is limited to a gallon jug for oil, a couple of bags that hold grains and sugar, and some bouillon-cube wrappers. The message is clear: With affluence comes waste.

This book holds many visual riches, including a fascinating section on street food. There are also essays by Marion Nestle, Corby Kummer, and other well-known food writers. There are even recipes. But the biggest thing I took away from Hungry Planet was a greater awareness of the central food-related question facing us today: What to eat?

Kim Carlson is the editorial director of Culinate.

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