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How much food does your family eat in a week?
That's the basis of a fascinating new exhibit at the Bell Museum at the University of Minnesota, which shows how dinner varies throughout the world in quantity, substance and cost.
"Hungry Planet: What the World Eats" is based on the stunning book of the same name by Peter Menzel and Faith D'Aluisio, which won the James Beard Foundation's Book of the Year award in 2006.
But let's get back to the dinner table. For the Melander family of four in Germany, one week of food cost the equivalent of $500.07.
For the 15-member extended Natomo family in Mali, it was $26.39.
For the Ayme family of nine in Ecuador, it was $31.55.
In the United States the Revis family of four spent $341.98.
While those figures don't reflect the food costs in relation to the incomes of these families, the photographs in this exhibit convincingly show the dramatic difference in quantity and packaging that goes with the higher costs.
In short: The more money spent on food, the larger the quantity and the more it is packaged and processed. (And not so incidentally, at least for these families, the fewer that need to be fed. Where food costs appear to be less in dollar amounts, families -- often extended -- are large, and the food costs actually are a higher proportion of income.)
One surprise (which perhaps shouldn't be): Families throughout the world rely on soda for liquid (one family was drinking 20 quarts of Coke a week with meals).
At least two of the families involved in the project, both from the United States, were themselves shocked at the types of food they ate and have since made changes to their diet.
The book, in large format
The book is compelling -- the disparity of food supply among countries is sobering; the data is fascinating, from meat consumption and obesity rates to sweets consumption and number of McDonald's per country.
But the exhibit with its larger-than-life photographs makes the images even more irresistible, as well as easier to comprehend. Those dark blobs in the picture of the family from Greenland, in large format, are clearly dead birds. Those bottles of soda on so many tables throughout the world are often Coca-Cola.
The packaging -- particularly in Germany and Japan -- will shock even a non-green shopper. (The sheer number of items in the Japanese meal is astounding, too; the authors note that it is because of the complexity of the cuisine. As for all the Japanese packaging, there is a national preference for packaging even foods that have no need to be packaged: produce, for example.)
Menzel and D'Aluisio are authors of the Material World series of books, in which they photographed people with all -- yes, all -- their worldly possessions. Some of the families from their earlier projects were tapped for this one as well, aided in part by the fact that the authors paid for the week of groceries for each family.
Jennifer Menken, curator of the Bell Museum exhibit, has focused on 10 countries, many that are representative of Minnesota immigrants. (The book itself follows 30 families in 24 countries.)
She has effectively placed images of different types of farms together that subtly contrast the agricultural methods (a vegetable garden in Mali, a lettuce field in California, a hillside farm in Ecuador). Fast food images are also contrasted: a drive-through in the U.S., a Beijing food stall, a McDonald's walk-up in Russia.
Menken has gone beyond the photographs to include in the exhibit experiential elements for school-age children (to determine where mealtime foods are from, for example) and weekly programming throughout the year on Thursdays.
Today at 4 p.m., this includes an open house for K-12 teachers on how to use the exhibit today. Other weeks include a discussion of etiquette and table manners throughout the world, and a showing of the film "Black Gold" (on coffee production). There will also be monthly discussions on food at the Bryant-Lake Bowl in Minneapolis (Tuesday, Nov. 24, 7 p.m.: How to feed the people of Africa, with Paul Porter, University of Minnesota professor of agronomy and plant genetics).
The exhibit lasts until early May, at which point the Bell Museum expects that it will become a traveling exhibit. To see more images from the book, go to startribune.com/tabletalk.
Lee Svitak Dean • 612-673-1749