Hunger and Obesity - Two Sides of the Same Broken Food System


From Ellen Gustafson's TED talk about hunger, obesity and how they're connected, and how the 30 Project will work on both.

It might seem counterintuitive, but hunger and obesity share a common root. Ellen Gustafson says she made the connection between the two during the years she spent working on global and food security issues at both the UN and her own organization, the FEED Foundation, which provides lunches for school kids. Gustafson explained the connection and what she hopes to do about it in her TED talk in May 2010.

Globally, 1 billion people are overweight or obese and at the same time, 1 billion people are hungry. Here in America, one-third of children and 67 percent of adults are overweight or obese and those rates have increased dramatically in the last 30 years. Also, 49 million people in America are hungry. The obvious connection between the two issues is, of course, food. The underlying cause? Our broken food system.

Farming in this country has become increasingly consolidated over the last 30 years. Small farms are regularly swallowed up by larger organizations, and this has changed how we farm and by extension, how we eat. Gustafson cites some interesting facts about both:

  • There are more refined grains and added fats, oils and sugars in our food than there were 30 years ago.
  • 80 percent of U.S. corn feeds cows, chicken and fish both internationally and abroad.
  • 12 percent of U.S. corn becomes corn chips or high fructose corn syrup.
  • 60% of US soybeans become soy oil for frying.
  • One-fifth of kids under the age of two drink soda because it is so cheap to buy.

According to Gustafson, the year 2010 marks the 30th anniversary of the global food system. Not coincidentally, 2010 also marks the 30th anniversary of such things as the Big Gulp and GMO crops. In observance of this anniversary (and her 30th birthday), Gustafson is starting the 30 Project as part of the FEED Foundation, to spend the next 30 years fixing our broken food system by building partnerships with organizations that address both international hunger and domestic obesity issues. She says her dream partners include organizations like ONE, Slow Food, Just Food and Heifer International.

Gustafson says that kids in the South Bronx need access to apples and carrots just as much as the kids in Botswana do, so one goal of the 30 Project is to figure out how to provide easy access to fresh fruits and veggies for every person on the planet.

As we export and expand our troublingly intensive factory farm system, an especially dark side of our food system, to other countries we encourage other countries to adopt our broken system. In an effort to turn the tide, Gustafson has set a goal for all meat and fish to be raised sustainably for both environmental and human health.

Of course, one of the reasons people in America eat the way they do is because food based on corn and soy is so cheap, and it’s so cheap because it’s so heavily subsidized. Farmers are producing more calories but with a lot less nutrition. A 2007 study found that a 2,000-calorie diet based on junk food would cost just $3.52 per day whereas a diet consisting of low-energy dense foods would cost $36.32 per day.

If the price of a bag of chips were to reflect the societal and environmental negative externalities of its production, like the cost of petrochemical fertilizers and fertilizer runoff, it would be much more expensive. An apple might not seem so expensive in comparison, and people might make healthier choices. Gustafson, therefore, set another goal for processed foods to carry prices reflecting all negative externalities.

Although her goals may seem large, Gustafson is taking a long-term view of the solutions required to change our food system. With the global population expected to reach almost 9 billion people by 2040, making the changes suggested by Gustafson are crucial if we hope to have adequate nutritional resources for everyone.

When Gustafson turns 60 and looks around her, instead of seeing hunger and obesity in such giant proportions, let’s hope she sees a healthy and thriving global population.