Here in the Bay Area, food isn't just grub — it's grist for activism, at every level. Globally, we mull over "food security," the buzzword for a population's access to sufficient nutrition. Regionally, we look to local food — produced within 100 miles — as our current ideal. And on our tables at home each night, we know that food represents family, love, cooperation, life.
It is the same everywhere, that sentiment, even if there's no actual table. In their 2005 book, Hungry Planet: What the World Eats, Peter Menzel and Faith D'Aluisio asked 30 average families from 24 countries to purchase the food they'd typically eat in a week. Menzel then photographed the families with their groceries, producing portraits that range from affluence to privation, overabundance to desperation. What comes across primarily, however, is a bracing commonality. Everyone needs food, and everyone, it seems, buys liters of Coke if they can afford them, whether they're in Sicily, Cuernavaca, or Cairo.
Menzel's photographs are being displayed this fall at the Museum of the African Diaspora (MOAD.) The exhibit, which shares its title with the book, is organized by COPIA, Napa's wine and food education center, and, like the book, is accompanied by a breakdown of each family's nutritional intake and how much they spend on what (starchy foods, dairy, meat, vegetables, condiments, snacks, etc.), along with their country's environmental and economic status. The numbers are enlightening: In one week, the family from North Carolina spends $71.61 on fast food and $41.07 on fruits, vegetables, and nuts, while the family from Bargteheide, Germany, spends $78.10 on fruits, vegetables, and nuts, $91.01 on vitamins and supplements — and nothing on fast food.
But the images tell the best story. There's both voyeurism and a shock of the familiar involved in seeing the raw materials of a family's existence alongside the families themselves. We see the Aymes of Tingo, Ecuador, sitting on a dirt floor, encircling bags of potatoes, piles of bananas, and bowls of grains, all but the youngest of seven children wearing traditional felt hats and grinning broadly. The Caven family of California poses in a white-tile-counter kitchen, surrounded by vanilla wafers, Skippy peanut butter, Red Baron frozen pizza, and Whiskas for the cat.
Menzel and D'Aluisio, who are married and live in Napa, first collaborated 13 years ago on a book called Material World: A Global Family Portrait, in which families were photographed with all their worldly belongings displayed in front of their homes. The book was a surprise hit, probably because it accomplishes what Hungry Planet does: It makes us see our own lives with new eyes. In an interview with NPR from 2005, Menzel talked about how shocked he was to return to Napa Valley and see how much larger Americans were than people from other countries. An exhibit like Hungry Planet helps us recognize the line between need and consumerism, without the alienating glare of criticism.