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