I would estimate that about 80% of what I do every day has to do with food. As Gardens Coordinator my work focuses on vegetable production with students, I prepare all my meals for myself from scratch, and the news updates and listserves I receive are all about food, health, and nutrition. This interest made me jump at the opportunity to see the “What I Eat” exhibit at the Museum of Science.
In a single room, visitors to the exhibit travel around the word and dive into the homes of individuals living with incredibly diverse professions, lifestyles, cultures, environments, and personal histories. Because of my interests, the concept of tracking your daily food intake, calorie counts, variation in traditional cuisine, and scarcity and abundance around the world were not new. I did leave the exhibit, however, thinking about several subjects in a different light.
First, it intrigued me that the exhibit was arranged by total calorie count, from lowest to highest. I’ve shied away from thinking about calories in recent years, both with young students and with peers trying to eat healthily. I believe that if one eats plenty of fruits, veggies, and whole grains and waits until getting hungry to eat the next meal, then it’s not necessary to learn or worry about calories. This became even more evident after walking through the exhibit. Though profiles were ordered by calorie intake, body types and visible health of each individual varied and seemed completely out of order. Lifestyle, occupation, and other invisible factors seemed to play a bigger role in achieving health.
Rather than being shocked by the extreme high and low amounts of food at the beginning and end of the exhibit, I found my self salivating at the traditional home grown and cooked meals and sorry for the people eating packaged, processed, prepared meals scattered throughout the exhibit. Individual biographies made it clear that diet choices were rarely actual choices. Often highly processed foods were actually desirable as they indicated the ability to spend money on food prepared by someone else.
I then realized that there was one thing that set me apart from most of the profiled people. I am fortunate and knowledgable enough to have a choice in the foods I eat. Growing up, I learned the skills needed to grow my own vegetables. I was exposed to a variety of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains gaining a preference for these foods because of their familiarity. I dabbled in vegetarianism in 4th-7th grade, and had a mom who knew how to prepare balanced meat-less meals for me. I traveled and lived in other countries, experiencing and enjoying a variety of traditional cuisines (though this did make me aware of foods I really didn’t enjoy, like ugali – featured in several diets in the exhibit). Even in my current urban community with the least amount of green space in New England, I am in vegetable gardens every day of the growing season.
In the United States, our luxury and our challenge lies in the incredible amount of choices presented to us in our neighborhood stores, supermarket aisles, seed catalogues, and advertisements. Certain communities have fewer healthy choices, making food justice and food access work crucial for our nation’s health. Many families struggle to find time to prepare foods from scratch, even though they know it would be healthier than take-out or microwave meals. Compared to all families of the world, however, we are fortunate to have choices.
This choice has become our biggest challenge. As we work to make our communities more healthy, educating ourselves about how to make healthy decisions will continue to rise in importance. Limiting choices in settings like schools and workplaces may end up creating the biggest positive impacts. These lessons reminded me how to focus my health education for the biggest impact. Personally, I was reminded to keep my pantry stocked in foods I knew I could enjoy with a clear conscience, and get rid of the stuff that I knew was bad for me, the environment, and the folks who grew and processed it.
I hope you’ll get to see the “What I Eat” exhibit before it leaves Boston. Even more profiles and pictures can be found in the What I Eat book by Peter Menzel and Faith D’Aluisio. Check it out and let me know what struck you the most!