Sitting down at a table in Leo’s with friends, I never talk about where my food comes from. Usually the conversation involves the bad feeling Leo’s food leaves in our stomach. They point out the dry meat, cold noodles, stale cookies, and valiantly assert that they would do anything to avoid eating the cafeteria food. Hating on Leo’s seems to be a favorite past time for many Georgetown students. As much as we criticize the meals, it is important to recognize where our food comes from and how it influences our health, society, and economy.
As a food lover, I jumped at the chance to go to the “Food: Our Global Kitchen” at the National Geographic Museum. My dad is an excellent cook, always attempting strange and out of the ordinary meals like spinach and naan topped with a fried egg. I have been spoiled with delicious and healthy food, yet I have never taken the time to understand how it is grown and how it landed in front of me at the dinner table. The beginning of the exhibit surprised me. Lining the first long corridor were signs and models explaining the genetic modification of food. Through preservatives, special fertilizers, and selective breeding, our food has increased in size, but this comes at a cost: The loss of powerful taste. To my disappointment, I learned that many of those juicy, plump, bright red strawberries I find at farmers’ markets have been genetically modified. We naively believe that bigger is better, but this exhibit harshly explained that this can have negative impacts on our health and on our environment.
Turning the corner, I stepped up to an interactive screen depicting the movement of food. I pressed the banana image and it proceeded to detail the banana’s journey from Ecuador to a US port on a cargo ship. I then chose the rice button and the screen illustrated all the places rice from South Asia is sent around the world. The countless food trajectories traversing the globe helped me understand how deeply connected our world is due to the seemingly simple medium of food. This revelation led me to the next part of the exhibit. Circling the next room were three models of typical meals from England, Morocco, and China. While Leo’s may seem to offer many different types of meals daily, these three simple rooms illustrated the wide diversity of food that can be used, cooked and shared across the world.
Seeing the creative, wide array of meals, my stomach began to grumble. Luckily, halfway through the exhibit I came upon a test kitchen with themes that change weekly. This week’s theme was root vegetables. The chef had prepared a ginger, apple and carrot juice drink. Even though I’m not much of a juice drinker, I quickly downed the sample. The combination was a little strange, but I enjoyed the tangy ginger aftertaste. Leaving the small test kitchen, I entered another part of the exhibit that made my heart sink. Lining the wall was a weight chart placing the countries in order of increasing obesity, and I of course located the United States near the top with 69 percent of the population considered overweight. Many Asian countries fell at the bottom of the list while small Pacific islands appeared alongside the US at the top.
The chart illustrations explained that the prevalence of fast food as well as the decline in physical activity contribute to the growing rate of obesity. Coming from a privileged school with a very healthy student body, these figures astounded me. Questions filled my mind: How did we get to this level? What can be done to reverse this trend? This powerful, depressing chart helped me to appreciate the access I have to healthy food and the opportunity for physical activity made me realize that there is a lot to be done to make healthy food more accessible and affordable to lower income families.
The exhibit ended on a happy note with large, bright photos hanging on three walls depicting the relationship between food and community. Highlighting the strong impact food has on creating relationships, these photos reminded me of fun memories laughing and chatting with friends at Leo’s and instilling nostalgia for family meals around my dinner table at home. The exhibit effectively explained the issues surrounding food, such as transportation, cost, the decline in fertile land, and the rise of obesity. It also made me appreciate the diversity of food and the power it has to connect cultures and create communities. In order to truly appreciate and enjoy food, we need to address and fix the negative impacts the worldwide food system can have on our health and environment. As we happily remember our delicious Thanksgiving dinners and special time with family and friends, take the time to think about where our food comes from and how we can use it to improve our world.