What do you eat in one week? What does a typical American eat? What does a typical Brit eat? What does a family in the Darfur Refugee Camp in Chad eat? What do the people of the world eat?
These are the questions that photographer Peter Menzel seeks to answer through his coffee table book of pictures and information: What the World Eats.
The pictures of families from around the world with their week’s worth of food and the short accounts of their eating habits were interesting. In the end, however, I felt Menzel’s book was forcing a social problem on the reader, and it seemed to further contribute to stereotypes of eating habits around the world.
My main frustration with Menzel’s book is that he set out to prove that a lifestyle of fast food and processed food, the stereotypical lifestyle of Americans, is bad. Does any one argue with that? Yet, he had a point he wanted to make (as explained in his introduction) and every statistic and story he shared seemed to support his argument, rather than allowing the readers to make our own determinations about world eating habits.
Further, he reinforced the stereotypes we have of various countries in the world by sharing the eating stories of just one or two families in each country. We read of a bacon and eggs breakfast in England, a beef-heavy diet in the Australian bush, a pizza dinner in the U.S., tortillas and Coca-Cola in Mexico (for a family in which the father had illegally immigrated to the U.S. to find work), fish in Japan, and unhealthful rice three meals a day in the Darfur refugee camp. Because Menzel represented each country with just one family (with a few exceptions), it seemed to reinforce stereotype rather than build any understanding of the world’s eating habits.
Between the stories, Menzel did provide statistics for the represented countries relating to average caloric intake, average sugar consumption per person per year, and other food-related statistics. This was a nice touch, and I may have appreciated it better if I hadn’t felt Menzel was trying to force his message through the accompanying stories. Menzel’s stereotypes may be rather accurate in general. However, I felt his book generated the wrong message overall because it only built on the stereotypes rather than showing that each country has many varying ways of eating. For example, there are many American families (like mine) who rarely eat out or eat processed food. Believe it or not, I cook with vegetables!
Further, this book is horribly edited: typos abound. This is a problem that could have been ignored had I not been so annoyed by Menzel’s stereotypes.
In the end, however, I was touched by the account of the refugee camp because that is a stereotype I am unfamiliar with. Having read about a diet that lacks so many essential nutrients, I want to learn more about the situation in Darfur (something that somehow didn’t capture my attention even during Maw Books’ month-long refugee reading project).
I initially selected Menzel’s book as a “World Issues” book for the World Citizen Challenge. What the World Eats was an interesting look at eating habits around the globe, but because it was so stereotypical (and ultimately geared toward telling Americans how poorly we eat), I probably will find something else related to world poverty or hunger (specifically Darfur) because I am very interested in the issue.
See a few sample photos from Menzel’s book in this article from Time magazine. Also, a family that wasn’t featured in the book is featured on Menzel’s website, whattheworldeats.com (the site only appears to work in Internet Explorer, unless my firefox is just having problems today).
What do you eat in a week? Do you fit the stereotype? Do you think highlighting stereotypical families is a good representation of the countries of the world? Maybe that is the best way to illustrate the statistics. What do you think?