Eating together and expanding the table

Changing the way we eat, by consuming and wasting less, can help to resolve global hunger.

Indian people eating food cooked and ser
About thirty percent of the world's food production is discarded, lost, or spoiled [AFP]

The training we receive around the dinner table has implications for the way we think about global hunger. Some of these lessons are positive, such as the belief that everyone has a right to sustenance and that we ought not to waste food (the focus of this year’s World Environment Day on June 5). Other practices, however, can be negative, such as who we consciously or unconsciously exclude from the table. 

Last month, I saw Michael Pollan give a talk on his new book, Cooked. Pollan is a best-selling author who is probably best known for another book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Pollan is also a rock star in the US local food movement. In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan explored industrial food production in the US as compared to organic and locally sourced food.

Now, he is turning his attention to the way we prepare food and its effects on nutrition, arguing that we need to move away from ready-made meals and return to a tradition of home cooking. The book also points out that home cooking has many social benefits, as it involves the family eating together.

Eating together

Humans have been eating together for a very long time, at least since we began using fire for cooking. But Pollan and others report that Americans increasingly eat alone, in front of their TVs, computer monitors or in cars – a startling break from a tradition of collective eating.   

While I am tempted to say that eating together is the “natural” way, I have increasingly come to believe that this is a learned practice. I have no evidence to prove this, just the anecdotal experience of my wife and I and exerting a considerable effort most evenings to get our kids to sit down and eat together with us as a family. They appear to have absolutely no innate interest in such a practice.

But we persist, dragging them to the table each evening, knowing that at some point this custom will be internalised or even desired. Add to this anthropological studies across Western cultures that show Americans at one extreme of eating alone, and the French at the other in terms of preference for eating together, and I am convinced that collective eating is a learned practice, and not necessarily natural.

In eating together, we learn a lot of important social lessons. Most obvious is the concept of sharing food, that all members of the group have a right to a certain amount of sustenance. Although, to be forthright, the degree to which this is done equitably varies tremendously by culture, with the order in which one is served, and the quantities one receives, often being influenced by hierarchies of age and gender.   

Even more interesting is the degree to which we police the boundaries of the family or collective meal: who is welcome and who is not. Americans are uptight about only welcoming those to the table who have been explicitly invited. This contrasts with my experiences in West Africa where all were welcomed.

In Mali, where I lived and worked for several years, anyone walking by at the dinner hour would be encouraged to join the meal. Such openness tends to make us uncomfortable in the US where meals and quantities are carefully proportioned, not to mention the strangers who might show up. We worry that there would not be enough food if all were welcome at the table.

Of course, some Americans are more relaxed about this than others. I had a good friend whose mother famously welcomed anyone to the table. When there was not enough food to go around, her password to the family was FHB – short for “family hold back”. In other words, just eat a little less, and there will be plenty for everyone. 

Insecurity in Mali worsens food crisis

Americans often project these same concerns on the world stage. Paul Ehrlich, the Stanford University population biologist, articulated this angst in his 1968 classic The Population Bomb. In the opening chapter of his book he wrote:

“Americans are beginning to realise that the undeveloped countries of the world face an inevitable population-food crisis. Each year food production in undeveloped countries falls a bit further behind burgeoning population growth, and people go to bed a little hungrier.  … it now seems inevitable that it will continue to its logical conclusion: mass starvation.” 

Expanding the table

Accordingly, our response has often been to tell poor, rural families in sub-Saharan Africa to have fewer babies. Never mind the fact that, given their way of life, they need children to help grow food or require family to support them in old age. Interesting, is it not, that Americans are reluctant to consider “family hold back” as an alternative option in such instances? 

More recently, Americans have become concerned with the eating habits of the Chinese (see, for example, World Watch Institute, 2008, State of the World). Though the Chinese have a lower fertility rate than Americans, some in the US worry they are eating too much – and, worse yet, that they increasingly eat like Americans. The fear is that there just will not be enough to go around.

The global policy response is that we need to grow our way out of this problem. Never mind the fact that growing more food often means using more fossil fuels, pesticides and inorganic fertilisers, a cycle that often undermines the long-term integrity of the environment and our children’s future. But, we argue, this is the only solution because “family hold back” is not an option.   

Never mind the fact that we could increase the global food supply by 50 percent by switching to an all-plant diet, by using crops to feed people rather than animals (Foley, “Can we feed the world and sustain the planet?”, 2011). Now, truth be told, I like meat just as much as the next person – and I am not quite ready to become a full-fledged vegetarian. But I also know that it might actually be good for me if I ate a little less meat. Or that huge savings can be incurred when we switch from grain-fed beef (the Hummer H2 of food in terms of energy inefficiency) to poultry, pork or pasture-fed beef.    

There is also the inconvenient fact that 30 percent of all the food we produce is discarded, lost, spoiled or consumed by pests. My grandmother used to tell me to eat everything on my plate, to think of the starving Armenians. And I used to wonder: how is my wasting less food going to help the starving Armenians? 

This was a question of ethics for my grandmother: that is, it is wrong to waste when others are hungry. But behind those ethics was an economic reality – the cumulative effect of small actions by millions of people. 

When we waste less, we eat less, we put more food back on the market, and prices remain lower for everyone. Reducing waste is also not just about individual action, but about changing policies that encourage waste, such as American subsidy programmes that result in the over-production of maize (or corn) for non-food purposes.

So perhaps “family hold back” is an option Americans ought to take more seriously. If we eat a little differently and waste a little less, others may emulate our example, and we can all be well-fed. This could be the “miracle” that resolves global hunger.   

William G Moseley is Professor, Chair of Geography, and Director of African Studies at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

Follow him on Twitter: @WilliamGMoseley