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Stuffed and Starved

stuffed and starved Raj Patel

I’ve been meeting with a lot of people in Berlin, getting to know other journalists and food-focused friends-of-friends as I find my way here. A few weeks ago I had coffee with a photographer and videographer who spends his time working on documentaries and heading up an NGO focused on education outreach. When the topic turned to me, writing about new restaurants, decadent meals, and exciting ingredients seemed a little trivial, especially in context of the larger picture.

While I do feel that the stories of chefs, producers, food culture, and time-honored recipes are important, Raj Patel shows the other importance of food writing in his book Stuffed and Starved, the second I’ve read for Dialogue’s book club. Patel, a journalist, activist and academic, discusses the politics and economics of the global food system as well as its influences on sustainability, poverty, and communities at the root of food production.

Stuffed and Starved takes a hard look at the disparity in the food system in a clear and fluid way, helping to make the statistics and facts Patel presents digestible. I can’t say that this is an easy book to read, but I do think it is a great introduction to these very important topics and worth digging into.

I’ve become more and more aware of the effects of agriculture on the environment, and know the difference in taste between small farm produce and commodity crops. While these topics are covered in the book, I think the most eye opening is Patel’s explanation on the human cost of food production and the inequality in the food system. Whether it’s Ugandan farmers being paid pennies for coffee beans that earn mass conglomerates multitudes more; Mexico’s agricultural economy, which has suffered severely as a result of NAFTA and the importation of low cost, subsidized products; or a slew of farmer suicides everywhere from China to the U.S., Patel shows that the global food system can be extremely costly.

When thinking about these heavy topics, a first thought might be that changing shopping habits in order to support ethical and sustainable systems can be too costly. When searching the shelves of mega-grocery stores with their array of inexpensive, mass produced goods, organic and Fair Trade is always more expensive. But when you think about that added price going towards the people who produced the products, the choice seems like a no brainer. No one wants to work for less then they deserve, and yet people around the world do just that in order to produce food for our tables.

We were luckily enough to have Patel join in on our book club meeting (via Skype). He was extremely charismatic and deeply passionate about the topics, talking about these serious issues in a conversational way that drew you in. After his call, the group discussed the book, and our personal reactions to it, a little more in depth. It was so great to hear from the author firsthand, and to also speak with this group in Berlin—expats from all over the world and Germans—to see how this information sits on the mind. Although change is difficult, both in our personal choices and on the global level, understanding the who’s, what’s, and why’s of our food helps make those decisions all the more clear. For someone interested in looking at the serious affects of the global food system, I thoroughly recommend this book.

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