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TEDxEast

Ellen Gustafson: Obesity + hunger = 1 global food issue

May 7, 2010

Co-creator of the philanthropic FEED bags, Ellen Gustafson says hunger and obesity are two sides of the same coin. In her talk, she launches The 30 Project -- a way to change how we farm and eat in the next 30 years, and solve the global food inequalities behind both epidemics.

Ellen Gustafson - Social entrepreneur
Co-founder of FEED and creator of The 30 Project, Ellen Gustafson is trying to change the way the world eats. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
I'm Ellen, and I'm totally obsessed with food.
00:16
But I didn't start out obsessed with food.
00:19
I started out obsessed with global security policy
00:21
because I lived in New York during 9/11, and it was obviously a very relevant thing.
00:23
And I got from global security policy to food
00:26
because I realized when I'm hungry, I'm really pissed off,
00:28
and I'm assuming that the rest of the world is too.
00:31
Especially if you're hungry and your kids are hungry
00:33
and your neighbor's kids are hungry and your whole neighborhood is hungry,
00:35
you're pretty angry.
00:37
And actually, lo and behold, it looks pretty much like
00:39
the areas of the world that are hungry
00:41
are also the areas of the world that are pretty insecure.
00:43
So I took a job at the United Nations World Food Programme
00:45
as a way to try to address these security issues
00:47
through food security issues.
00:49
And while I was there, I came across
00:51
what I think is the most brilliant of their programs.
00:53
It's called School Feeding, and it's a really simple idea
00:55
to sort of get in the middle of the cycle of poverty and hunger
00:57
that continues for a lot of people around the world, and stop it.
01:00
By giving kids a free school meal, it gets them into school,
01:02
which is obviously education, the first step out of poverty,
01:05
but it also gives them the micronutrients and the macronutrients they need
01:08
to really develop both mentally and physically.
01:10
While I was working at the U.N., I met this girl. Her name is Lauren Bush.
01:13
And she had this really awesome idea
01:16
to sell the bag called the "Feed Bag" --
01:18
which is really beautifully ironic because you can strap on the Feed Bag.
01:20
But each bag we'd sell would provide
01:23
a year's worth of school meals for one kid.
01:25
It's so simple, and we thought, you know, okay,
01:28
it costs between 20 and 50 bucks
01:30
to provide school feeding for a year.
01:32
We could sell these bags and raise a ton of money
01:34
and a ton of awareness for the World Food Programme.
01:36
But of course, you know at the U.N., sometimes things move slowly,
01:38
and they basically said no.
01:40
And we thought, God, this is such a good idea and it's going to raise so much money.
01:42
So we said screw it, we'll just start our own company, which we did three years ago.
01:45
So that was kind of my first dream, was to start this company called FEED,
01:48
and here's a screenshot of our website.
01:51
We did this bag for Haiti, and we launched it just a month after the earthquake
01:53
to provide school meals for kids in Haiti.
01:56
So FEED's doing great. We've so far provided 55 million meals
01:58
to kids around the world
02:01
by selling now 550,000 bags, a ton of bags, a lot of bags.
02:03
All this time you're -- when you think about hunger,
02:06
it's a hard thing to think about, because what we think about is eating.
02:09
I think about eating a lot, and I really love it.
02:11
And the thing that's a little strange about international hunger
02:13
and talking about international issues
02:16
is that most people kind of want to know: "What are you doing in America?"
02:18
"What are you doing for America's kids?"
02:21
There's definitely hunger in America:
02:23
49 million people and almost 16.7 million children.
02:25
I mean that's pretty dramatic for our own country.
02:27
Hunger definitely means something a little bit different in America than it does internationally,
02:30
but it's incredibly important to address hunger in our own country.
02:33
But obviously the bigger problem that we all know about
02:36
is obesity, and it's dramatic.
02:39
The other thing that's dramatic is that both hunger and obesity
02:41
have really risen in the last 30 years.
02:43
Unfortunately, obesity's not only an American problem.
02:46
It's actually been spreading all around the world
02:48
and mainly through our kind of food systems that we're exporting.
02:50
The numbers are pretty crazy.
02:53
There's a billion people obese or overweight
02:55
and a billion people hungry.
02:57
So those seem like two bifurcated problems,
02:59
but I kind of started to think about, you know,
03:01
what is obesity and hunger? What are both those things about?
03:03
Well, they're both about food.
03:06
And when you think about food,
03:08
the underpinning of food in both cases
03:10
is potentially problematic agriculture.
03:12
And agriculture is where food comes from.
03:15
Well, agriculture in America's very interesting.
03:17
It's very consolidated,
03:19
and the foods that are produced lead to the foods that we eat.
03:21
Well, the foods that are produced are, more or less, corn, soy and wheat.
03:24
And as you can see, that's three-quarters of the food that we're eating for the most part:
03:26
processed foods and fast foods.
03:29
Unfortunately, in our agricultural system,
03:31
we haven't done a good job in the last three decades
03:33
of exporting those technologies around the world.
03:35
So African agriculture, which is the place of most hunger in the world,
03:38
has actually fallen precipitously
03:41
as hunger has risen.
03:43
So somehow we're not making the connect
03:45
between exporting a good agricultural system
03:47
that will help feed people all around the world.
03:49
Who is farming them? That's what I was wondering.
03:51
So I went and stood on a big grain bin in the Midwest,
03:54
and that really didn't help me understand farming,
03:56
but I think it's a really cool picture.
03:58
And you know, the reality is that
04:00
between farmers in America,
04:02
who actually, quite frankly, when I spend time in the Midwest,
04:04
are pretty large in general.
04:06
And their farms are also large.
04:08
But farmers in the rest of the world
04:10
are actually quite skinny, and that's because they're starving.
04:12
Most hungry people in the world are subsistence farmers.
04:15
And most of those people are women --
04:17
which is a totally other topic that I won't get on right now,
04:19
but I'd love to do the feminist thing at some point.
04:21
I think it's really interesting
04:23
to look at agriculture from these two sides.
04:25
There's this large, consolidated farming
04:27
that's led to what we eat in America,
04:29
and it's really been since around 1980,
04:31
after the oil crisis,
04:33
when, you know, mass consolidation,
04:35
mass exodus of small farmers in this country.
04:37
And then in the same time period,
04:39
you know, we've kind of left Africa's farmers to do their own thing.
04:41
Unfortunately, what is farmed ends up as what we eat.
04:44
And in America, a lot of what we eat
04:47
has led to obesity and has led to a real change
04:49
in sort of what our diet is in the last 30 years.
04:52
It's crazy.
04:55
A fifth of kids under two drinks soda.
04:57
Hello. You don't put soda in bottles.
04:59
But people do because it's so cheap,
05:01
and so our whole food system in the last 30 years
05:03
has really shifted.
05:05
I think, you know, it's not just in our own country,
05:07
but really we're exporting the system around the world,
05:09
and when you look at the data of least developed countries --
05:12
especially in cities, which are growing really rapidly --
05:15
people are eating American processed foods.
05:18
And in one generation,
05:20
they're going from hunger,
05:22
and all of the detrimental health effects of hunger,
05:24
to obesity and things like diabetes
05:26
and heart disease in one generation.
05:28
So the problematic food system
05:30
is affecting both hunger and obesity.
05:32
Not to beat a dead horse,
05:34
but this is a global food system
05:36
where there's a billion people hungry and billion people obese.
05:38
I think that's the only way to look at it.
05:41
And instead of taking these two things as
05:43
bifurcated problems that are very separate,
05:45
it's really important to look at them as one system.
05:47
We get a lot of our food from all around the world,
05:50
and people from all around the world are importing our food system,
05:52
so it's incredibly relevant to start a new way of looking at it.
05:55
The thing is, I've learned --
05:57
and the technology people that are here, which I'm totally not one of them --
05:59
but apparently, it really takes 30 years
06:02
for a lot of technologies to become really endemic to us,
06:04
like the mouse and the Internet and Windows.
06:07
You know, there's 30-year cycles.
06:09
I think 2010 can be a really interesting year
06:11
because it is the end of the 30-year cycle,
06:13
and it's the birthday of the global food system.
06:15
So that's the first birthday I want to talk about.
06:17
You know, I think if we really think that
06:19
this is something that's happened in the last 30 years, there's hope in that.
06:21
It's the thirtieth anniversary of GMO crops
06:24
and the Big Gulp, Chicken McNuggets, high fructose corn syrup,
06:26
the farm crisis in America
06:29
and the change in how we've addressed agriculture internationally.
06:31
So there's a lot of reasons to take this 30-year time period
06:34
as sort of the creation of this new food system.
06:36
I'm not the only one who's obsessed with this whole 30-year thing.
06:39
The icons like Michael Pollan
06:42
and Jamie Oliver in his TED Prize wish
06:44
both addressed this last three-decade time period
06:46
as incredibly relevant for food system change.
06:49
Well, I really care about 1980
06:52
because it's also the thirtieth anniversary of me this year.
06:54
And so in my lifetime,
06:57
a lot of what's happened in the world --
07:00
and being a person obsessed with food --
07:02
a lot of this has really changed.
07:04
So my second dream is that I think
07:06
we can look to the next 30 years
07:08
as a time to change the food system again.
07:10
And we know what's happened in the past,
07:12
so if we start now, and we look at technologies
07:14
and improvements to the food system long term,
07:16
we might be able to recreate the food system
07:18
so when I give my next talk and I'm 60 years old,
07:20
I'll be able to say that it's been a success.
07:22
So I'm announcing today the start of a new organization,
07:25
or a new fund within the FEED Foundation, called the 30 Project.
07:27
And the 30 Project is really focused
07:30
on these long-term ideas
07:32
for food system change.
07:34
And I think by aligning international advocates that are addressing hunger
07:36
and domestic advocates that are addressing obesity,
07:39
we might actually look for long-term solutions
07:41
that will make the food system better for everyone.
07:44
We all tend to think that these systems are quite different,
07:46
and people argue whether or not organic can feed the world,
07:48
but if we take a 30-year view,
07:51
there's more hope in collaborative ideas.
07:53
So I'm hoping that by connecting really disparate organizations
07:55
like the ONE campaign and Slow Food,
07:58
which don't seem right now to have much in common,
08:00
we can talk about holistic, long-term, systemic solutions
08:02
that will improve food for everyone.
08:05
Some ideas I've had is like, look,
08:07
the reality is -- kids in the South Bronx need apples and carrots
08:09
and so do kids in Botswana.
08:12
And how are we going to get those kids those nutritious foods?
08:14
Another thing that's become incredibly global is production of meat and fish.
08:17
Understanding how to produce protein
08:20
in a way that's healthy for the environment and healthy for people
08:22
will be incredibly important to address things like climate change
08:25
and how we use petrochemical fertilizers.
08:28
And you know, these are really relevant topics
08:31
that are long term
08:33
and important for both people in Africa who are small farmers
08:35
and people in America who are farmers and eaters.
08:38
And I also think that thinking about processed foods in a new way,
08:41
where we actually price the negative externalities
08:44
like petrochemicals and like fertilizer runoff
08:47
into the price of a bag of chips.
08:50
Well, if that bag of chips then becomes
08:52
inherently more expensive than an apple,
08:54
then maybe it's time for a different sense
08:56
of personal responsibility in food choice
08:58
because the choices are actually choices
09:00
instead of three-quarters of the products being made just from corn, soy and wheat.
09:02
The 30Project.org is launched,
09:05
and I've gathered a coalition of a few organizations to start.
09:07
And it'll be growing over the next few months.
09:10
But I really hope that you will all think of ways that you can
09:13
look long term at things like the food system
09:15
and make change.
09:17
(Applause)
09:19

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Ellen Gustafson - Social entrepreneur
Co-founder of FEED and creator of The 30 Project, Ellen Gustafson is trying to change the way the world eats.

Why you should listen

Ellen Gustafson co-founded FEED Projects in 2007, creating an immensely popular bag whose profits are donated to the UN World Food Program (WFP). As a former employee of the WFP, she supported their mission to provide school lunches in developing countries so that children could receive both the nutrition and education they need. FEED has also created special bags and a new fund to address the crisis in Haiti, helping the children they once fed at school to rebuild their schools.

At TEDxEast in May 2010, Gustafson launched The 30 Project -- an effort to address the world’s hunger and obesity problems as a holistic global food issue. In her new venture, she hopes to stimulate a movement that will change our food and agricultural systems over the next 30 years so that healthy, balanced meals are available to all. Before her efforts to fix the world’s food issues, Gustafson’s primary concern was international security. She wrote and edited pieces on international terrorism for ABC and was a research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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