Roman Food Troubles

Almost over the jetlag from a great [work!] trip to Rome… and quickly trying to readjust to our glittering world of jumbo processed food and fluorescent lights. I posted my thoughts about this whole food mess we’re in over here on our EchoDitto blog, and I’m cross-posting it here:The neon sign and manufactured aroma emanating from the Cinnabon into Dulles’ main airport terminal was one of the last images of the American food culture that stayed with me as I boarded Lufthansa flight 9253 flight for Rome last Monday night.Carey, Jim, Nicco, and I spent the better half of last week working with a team at the U.N. World Food Programme‘s (WFP) headquarters in (ironically) the unofficial food capital of the world. Not surprisingly, I’ve had the opportunity to think about food at almost every step—where it comes from, where it goes, and what we’re doing with it once/if we get it. The problem, to put it simply, is that one in seven of us in the world are not receiving the food we need to survive—even though we (the world) currently produce enough food to feed everyone. The WFP’s mission, as the world’s largest humanitarian aid organization, is to help solve the food distribution problem and move societies to the point where they no longer need external assistance.Accordingly, the WFP is made up of truck-drivers, pilots, nutritionists, and logistics people who figure out how to get food and supplies to 90 million hungry, poor people around the world. With operations in more than 80 countries, the WFP is a bit like the UPS and FedEx for the rest of the world, except they operate in places without roads and tarmacs. The WFP’s massive logistics network is designed to provide food relief to victims of natural disasters (like the recent tsunami) or political conflict/instability (Darfur) in addition to implementing programs that address hunger at its roots (i.e. their school feeding program).The irony of doing this hunger-related work in Rome is that we were regularly confronted with some of the best food (and coffee and wine!) in the world. We spent half of our mealtimes feeling guilty about eating so well while millions of others are starving. On the other hand, it seemed completely appropriate for us to be doing this work in a culture that has such a strong appreciation and respect for food and its important role. We were hard-pressed to find any evidence of corporate food production/distribution, like Cinnabon, in Italy, except for one awkwardly placed McDonald’s across from the Pantheon.It quickly became clear to me that our efforts to industrialize the agricultural and meat processing systems here in the U.S. has come at a significant cost. We may have some of the highest crop yields and food surpluses in the world thanks to these advances, but we have sacrificed quality and our ability to appreciate food. For most of us in the US., food is little more than a necessary means to an end—more fuel so that we can keep working. We get our coffee in cups to go; we eat lunch at our desks or between classes; and only a small percentage of families still have dinner together, around the same table. And only our country’s poorest families (of which there are plenty) think twice about food waste. When I looked around the WFP cafeteria, which feeds a mix of 1,000 HQ staff from around the world, I noticed that almost everyone had finished what was on their plate.In Italy (and much of Europe), the societal importance of food is reflected in its quality—fresh, local, and largely unadulterated. Italians stop what they’re doing to have their coffee or food. You don’t feel sick or full from the preservatives and countless chemicals, because your food there isn’t “processed” in a factory before it’s cooked. And if you don’t know what pieces of land your meal came from, you probably know the name of the butcher or baker who sold it to you. In Europe, food is something to be enjoyed. Food brings family or friends together for countless hours, or community members in a coffee bar. For more on this, check out the international Slow Food Movement, rooted in Italy.So, all of this is to say that across our cultures, it’s incredible that we still have such vastly different understandings of and appreciations for one of the few things that is truly fundamental to our species’ survival. And it’s refreshing to be working with an organization that has the operational and logistical capacity to take the lead in the movement to end world hunger.

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One thought on “Roman Food Troubles

  1. Please note:Rome has been raided by MacD. Five in total but pasta and Olive oil still reign supreme.The two hour long ‘lunch hour’ in Rome is sacred. Life comes to a stand still.Africa needs better trade deals and good governance more than Food Aid. Aid cripples economies but good trade deals build societies.

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