What does the average family grocery list look like? Photographer Peter Menzel must have pondered something similar before travelling to 24 countries to find those average families and photograph them with their weekly groceries. He published the pictures in his book Hungry Planet: What the World Eats in 2005. While all his photos are thoughtful and expertly captured, the families from Canada and Mongolia stood out to me as great examples of their respective societies. See the photos here.
The Canadian family lives on a small island in Nunavut (a relatively new province you may not have heard of) which relies on shipping food from elsewhere. Filling a large pantry with food in bulk must be the norm for families big and small alike. Northern Canada gets sparse sunlight and is understandably too cold to raise crops or livestock. I think this proximity leaves the family especially vulnerable to a concept called nutritionism.
In Michael Pollan’s book In Defense of Food, he explains and critiques the ‘nutritionist’ idea that food is nothing but a sum of its parts, or a list of ingredients and nutrients. He references a case study on Australian aboriginals from the 1980s where city-dwelling aboriginals saw a markedly decreased rate of diabetes when they began a strict traditional diet without alcohol, grains, or processed food. Northern Canada may be the practical opposite of the Australian bush, but both places see native peoples adapting to a diet of mass-produced Western foods.
The Mongolian family may run into a different problem, where even a traditional diet might conflict with our changing environment. They live in the national capital Ulaanbaatar, with population of just over a million, connected to the world by the Trans-Siberian and winding dirt roads. Mongolia’s problem isn’t a new diet, but a new climate. In Full Planet, Empty Plates, Lester Brown describes how demand for meat results in overgrazing that central Asia’s grasslands aren’t able to support. Mongolia can’t raise cattle like the US does because we rely on a huge overabundance of grain to accomplish the task. With the Gobi desert expanding every day, many people will suffer if the area reaches ‘peak goat’ anytime soon.
Menzel, P., & DAluisio, F. (2005). Hungry planet: What the world eats. Napa, CA: Material World Press.
Menzel, P. (n.d.). Hungry Planet: What The World Eats, By Continent. Retrieved March 19, 2018, from https://menzelphoto.photoshelter.com/gallery-collection/Hungry-Planet-What-the-World-Eats-by-Continent/C0000k7JgEHhEq0w
Pollan, M. (2009). In defense of food: An eaters manifesto. NY, NY: Penguin Books.