International Problems may be More Domestic than You Think

by: Brittany Larson

Imagine: your stomach growls and a familiar pang shoots through you, unmistakably screaming for your attention. It’s time to fill up. You look through your cupboards and refrigerator, turning up some cereal, instant cup ramen, and cheap soda that you picked up at the last sale. Maybe you have a couple of other items, but the trend remains—nothing fresh. Why? Well, nowhere within a mile of you sells fresh items. Perhaps the distance is even greater. Accessibility to fresh food is limited, so you live on an unhealthier diet of items that last longer, that can be found at your local convenience store or picked up cheaply from the neighborhood McDonald’s.

Where does this sound like? Another country? Not necessarily. A similar narrative may be from any number of locations across the United States, from the areas known as “food deserts.” The U.S. Department of Agriculture maps the areas across the country where residents live in low-income, low-access areas, as Sarah Corapi discusses in her article, “Why it Takes More than a Grocery Store to Eliminate a ‘Food Desert.’[1] Despite attempts to the contrary, such as Pennsylvania’s program to create or expand 88 food retail outlets, the diet and health problems resulting from food deserts continue to exist.[2] Professor of public health Steven Cummins discusses why this trend holds out—people in low-income areas have developed habits to keep costs as low as possible and know where to get good deals. Changing habits may not be so simple, even if residents tend to have a better impression about the state of their neighborhood after the arrival of such food retailers.[3]

What this shows is that food security is not an issue only found across the ocean. The World Food Program observes three aspects of food security—availability, access, and utilization.[4] People should have access to sufficient quantities of food on a regular basis, and the food should be nutritional. These food deserts fall short of fulfilling that. Not only that, but with the food crisis in 2008, the international impact of food security and insecurity were clearly felt. This crisis pushed an additional 115 million people into hunger, according to Gillian Crowther in her book, Eating Cultures.[5] The exact causes of the food crisis, which sent food prices shooting up, are uncertain, but some point to the rise in oil prices driving focus away from food production and environmental problems, such as droughts and natural disasters, as the culprits.[6] The increased food costs resulted in riots, and the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) warned industrialized countries that a failure to “increase yields, eliminate barriers and move food to where it is needed most” could result in a “global catastrophe.”[7] A food shortage in the U.S., perhaps caused by an epidemic or pests, could look similar to any other country strongly affected by the 2008 food crisis. Like the FAO said, these issues will continue into the future, especially as the world’s population continues to grow. The situation around the world will continue to decline unless preventative measures, such as changing the distribution of food worldwide, are taken.

The global system, in addition to being affected by price shocks, has seen an increase in movement of people and cultures. As Johanna Mendelson-Forman observes in Conflict Cuisine: Teaching War Through Washington’s Ethnic Restaurant Scene, “you can always tell where in the world there is a conflict by the new ethnic restaurants that open.”[8] In the course on Conflict Cuisine, we had the honor of speaking with immigrants and refugees alike. Opening a restaurant is one of the easiest ways for those who may not speak perfect English to have success in the U.S., though that is not to say the road is simple. Still, one need only to look at “Doughnut King” Ted Ngoy who made a fortune in California, as well as provided livings for other refugees, with his doughnut stores, or at Guadalupe Guerrero who managed to transform her culinary culture into her own restaurant with some help, or even at any other ethnic diaspora chef to see this rings true. [9] Food does not require words, but actions. If it tastes good, people will eat it.

These restaurants bring another aspect to a culture whose image may be marred by warfare or other negative associations. That is exactly why countries like Thailand, Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Peru, among others, have created campaigns to send their cuisine around the world, hoping to attract interest and tourism.[10] It is also why the U.S. has a program through the State Department that uses chefs to work abroad in other countries, presenting small workshops or meals in an act of diplomatic soft power.[11] But the culinary diaspora do even more than that—they have the potential to blend culinary cultures together. Chef Mariano Ramos spoke to our class about how using cooking techniques from one culture and the ingredients from another culture can create some of the fusion cuisines around the world, changing cuisines and creating new potential.[12] Food brings people around the table and acts as one part of culture that can mesh deliciously with another culture. Understanding this can bring us closer to peace in the world through increasing understanding—after all, if we can fuse our food together, what is stopping us from combining efforts to create peace?

[1] Sarah Corapi, “Why It Takes More Than a Grocery Store to Eliminate a ‘Food Desert’,”  PBS(2014), http://www.pbs.org/newshour/updates/takes-grocery-store-eliminate-food-desert/.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] World Food Program, “What Is Food Security?,” World Food Program, https://www.wfp.org/node/359289.

[5] Gillian Crowther, “Gastro-Anomie: Global Indigestion?,” in Eating Culture: An Anthropological Guide to Food

(2013), 224.

[6] Ibid., 230-31.

[7] “Un Sets out Food Crisis Measures,”  BBC News(2008), http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/in_depth/7432583.stm.

[8] Johanna Mendelson Forman, “Conflict Cuisine: Teaching War through Food in Washington,” Public Diplomacy Magazine2014.

[9] Greg Nichols, “Dunkin’ and the Doughnut King,” The California Sunday Magazine., Robin Jolin, “Cooking up a Better Life,”  2014.

[10] Paul Rockower, “Recipes for Gastrodiplomacy,” Place Branding and Public Diplomacy 8(2012): 238-42.

[11] Tom Sietsema, “Chefs Are the New Diplomats,”  Washington Post(2012).

[12] Mariano Ramos, Culinary Culture(Carlos Rosario Public Charter School2016), Lecture.

 

 

About the Author:
Brittany Larson is a graduating senior in the School of International Service at American University. Her studies focus on U.S. Foreign Policy and Peace and Conflict Resolution, with a regional concentration in East Asia. She studied abroad in Japan during the 2014-2015 academic school year. In her free time, Brittany enjoys experimenting with cooking, reading and writing, and spending time with friends wandering the streets of D.C.

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