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Home » Ellen Gustafson: Obesity + hunger = 1 global food issue (Transcript)

Ellen Gustafson: Obesity + hunger = 1 global food issue (Transcript)

Ellen Gustafson

Ellen Gustafson – TRANSCRIPT

I’m Ellen and I’m totally obsessed with food. But I didn’t start out obsessed with food.

I started out obsessed with global security policy, because I lived in New York during 9/11 and it was a very relevant thing I got from global security policy to food because I realized when I’m hungry, I’m really pissed off, and I’m assuming the rest of the world is too.

Especially if you and your kids are hungry and your neighbor’s kids are hungry and your whole neighborhood is hungry. And actually, it looks like the areas of the world that are hungry are also the areas of the world that are pretty insecure.

So I took a job at the United Nations World Food Programme as a way to try to address these security issues through food security issues.

There, I came across what I think is the most brilliant of their programs. It’s called School Feeding and it’s a really simple idea to get in the middle of the cycle of poverty and hunger that continues for a lot of people around the world, and stop it.

A free school meal gets kids into school, which is education, the first step out of poverty, but it also gives them the micronutrients and the macronutrients they need to develop mentally and physically.

While I was working at the UN, I met this girl. Her name is Lauren Bush. And she had this really awesome idea to sell the bag, called the “Feed Bag” — which is really beautifully ironic because you can strap on the Feed Bag.

But each bag we’d sell would provide a year’s worth of school meals for one kid. It’s so simple, and we thought, OK, it costs between 20 and 50 bucks to provide school feeding for a year. We could sell these bags and raise a ton of money and awareness for the World Food Programme.

But at the UN, sometimes things move slowly and they basically said no. And we thought, this is such a good idea, it’s going to raise so much money. So we said screw it, we’ll start our own company, which we did, three years ago. That was my first dream, to start this company called FEED, and here’s a screenshot of our website. We did a bag for Haiti just a month after the earthquake to provide school meals for kids in Haiti. So FEED’s doing great.

We’ve so far provided 55 million meals to kids around the world by selling now 550,000 bags, a ton of bags, a lot of bags. All this time you’re really — hunger is a hard thing to think about, because what we think about is eating. I think about eating a lot and I really love it.

And the thing that’s strange about international hunger and talking about international issues is that most people want to know: “What are you doing for America’s kids?” There’s definitely hunger in America: 49 million people and almost 167 million children.

I mean that’s pretty dramatic for our own country. Hunger definitely means something different in America than it does internationally, but it’s incredibly important to address hunger in our own country.

But the bigger problem that we all know about is obesity, and it’s dramatic. The other thing that’s dramatic is that both hunger and obesity have really risen in the last 30 years. Unfortunately, obesity’s not only an American problem.

It’s actually been spreading all around the world and mainly through our kind of food systems that we’re exporting. The numbers are pretty crazy. There’s a billion people obese or overweight and a billion people hungry. So those seem like two bifurcated problems, but I kind of started to think about, you know, what is obesity and hunger? What are both those things about?

Well, they’re both about food. And when you think about food, the underpinning of food in both cases is potentially problematic agriculture. And agriculture is where food comes from. Agriculture in America’s very interesting. It’s very consolidated and the foods that are produced lead to the foods that we eat. The foods that are produced are, more or less, corn, soy and wheat. And that’s three-quarters of the food that we’re eating: processed foods and fast foods.

Unfortunately, in our agricultural system, we haven’t done a good job in the last three decades of exporting those technologies around the world. So African agriculture, which is the place of most hunger in the world, has actually fallen precipitously as hunger has risen.

So somehow we’re not making the connect between exporting a good agricultural system that will help feed people all around the world. Who is farming? That’s what I was wondering.

So I went and stood on a big grain bin in the Midwest, and that really didn’t help me understand farming, but I think it’s a really cool picture.

And the reality is that between farmers in America — who actually, quite frankly, when I spend time in the Midwest, are pretty large in general. And their farms are also large. But farmers in the rest of the world are actually quite skinny, and that’s because they’re starving. Most hungry people in the world are subsistence farmers. And most of those people are women — which is a totally other topic that I won’t get on right now, but I’d love to do the feminist thing at some point.

I think it’s really interesting to look at agriculture from these two sides. There’s this large, consolidated farming that’s led to what we eat in America, and it’s really been since around 1980, after the oil crisis, when, you know — mass consolidation, mass exodus of small farmers in this country.

And then in the same time period, we’ve kind of left Africa’s farmers to do their own thing. Unfortunately, what is farmed ends up as what we eat. And in America, a lot of what we eat has led to obesity and has led to a real change in sort of what our diet is, in the last 30 years.

It’s crazy. A fifth of kids under two drinks soda. Hello! You don’t put soda in bottles. But people do, because it’s so cheap, and so our whole food system in the last 30 years has really shifted. I mean, you know, it’s not just in our own country, but really we’re exporting the system around the world, and when you look at the data of least developed countries — especially in cities, which are growing really rapidly — people are eating American processed foods.

And in one generation, they’re going from hunger and all of the detrimental health effects of hunger to obesity and things like diabetes and heart disease in one generation. So the problematic food system is affecting both hunger and obesity.

Not to beat a dead horse, but this is a global food system where there’s a billion people hungry and a billion people obese. I think that’s the only way to look at it. And instead of taking these two things as bifurcated problems that are very separate, it’s really important to look at them as one system.

We get a lot of our food from all around the world and people from all around the world are importing our food system, so it’s incredibly relevant to start a new way of looking at it. I’ve learned — and the technology people here, which I’m totally not one of — but apparently, it really takes 30 years for a lot of technologies to become really endemic to us, like the mouse and the Internet and Windows.

You know, there’s 30-year cycles. I think 2010 can be a really interesting year because it is the end of the 30-year cycle, and it’s the birthday of the global food system. That’s the first birthday I want to talk about.

If we really think that this is something that’s happened in the last 30 years, there’s hope in that. It’s the 30th anniversary of GMO crops and the Big Gulp, Chicken McNuggets, high-fructose corn syrup, the farm crisis in America and the change in how we’ve addressed agriculture internationally.

So there’s a lot of reasons to take this 30-year time period as sort of the creation of this new food system. I’m not the only one who’s obsessed with this whole 30-year thing. The icons like Michael Pollan and Jamie Oliver in his TED Prize wish both addressed this last three-decade time period as incredibly relevant for food system change.

Well, I really care about 1980 because it’s also the 30th anniversary of me this year. And so in my lifetime, a lot of what’s happened in the world — and being a person obsessed with food — a lot of this has really changed.

So my second dream is that I think we can look to the next 30 years as a time to change the food system again. And we know what’s happened in the past, so if we start now and we look at technologies and improvements to the food system long-term, we might be able to recreate the food system so when I give my next talk and I’m 60 years old, I’ll be able to say that it’s been a success.

So I’m announcing today the start of a new organization, or a new fund within the FEED Foundation, called the 30 Project. And the 30 Project is really focused on these long-term ideas for food system change. And I think by aligning international advocates that are addressing hunger and domestic advocates that are addressing obesity, we might actually look for long-term solutions that will make the food system better for everyone.

We all tend to think that these systems are quite different and people argue whether or not organic can feed the world, but if we take a 30-year view, there’s more hope in collaborative ideas. So I’m hoping that by connecting really disparate organizations like the ONE campaign and Slow Food, which don’t seem right now to have much in common, we can talk about holistic, long-term, systemic solutions that will improve food for everyone.

Some ideas I’ve had is like, look, the reality is — kids in the South Bronx need apples and carrots and so do kids in Botswana. And how are we going to get those kids those nutritious foods? Another thing that’s become incredibly global is production of meat and fish.

Understanding how to produce protein in a way that’s healthy for the environment and healthy for people will be incredibly important to address things like climate change and how we use petrochemical fertilizers. And, you know, these are really relevant topics that are long-term and important for both people in Africa who are small farmers and people in America who are farmers and eaters.

And I also think that thinking about processed foods in a new way, where we actually price the negative externalities like petrochemicals and like fertilizer runoff into the price of a bag of chips — Well, if that bag of chips then becomes inherently more expensive than an apple, then maybe it’s time for a different sense of personal responsibility in food choice because the choices are actually choices instead of three-quarters of the products being made just from corn, soy and wheat.

The is launched and I’ve gathered a coalition of a few organizations to start. And it’ll be growing over the next few months. But I really hope that you will all think of ways that you can look long-term at things like the food system and make change.

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