The paradox of appetite encompasses the most pressing food issues from around the globe. For some, appetite is frustration; roughly a billion people do not know where their next meal will come from. For others, appetite is an insatiable desire; more people are overweight than are hungry, and I’m part of a generation that will live sicker and die younger than the last.
Earlier this week, some of the food world’s most influential movers and shakers gathered for the fourth annual James Beard Foundation Food Conference, “The Paradox of Appetite: Hungering for Change.” Through a series of panels, lectures and audio clips, presenters discussed some of the world’s more dire issues and offered potential solutions.
I spoke directly with a number of attendees and presenters, including Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition and food studies at NYU; Danielle Nierenberg, cofounder of Food Tank; and Malik Yakini, executive director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network. But Joseph McIntyre summed up the crowd perfectly: “everybody in this room is somebody you want to know.”
Janet Poppendieck, co-founder of the NYC Food Policy Center, started the conference by offering a framework for thinking about hunger. In America, we use the terms hunger and food insecurity interchangeably, but in order to change the dialogue, we may need to change our language. Poppendieck raised the question, “How hungry does somebody need to be, and for how long, and for what reasons, before we count him among the hungry?”
Many of the speakers echoed Poppendieck’s concern over terminology. Karen Washington, cofounder of Black Urban Growers, was appalled by the words people use to describe her low-income Bronx community. “Don’t call my neighborhood a food desert,” she said, “We have food. We have lots of food. What we don’t have is good food. I like to call it food apartheid.”
The first panel of the conference, Hunger in Our Backyard, brought together three drastically different speakers with a common confidence in the power of government. The panel included Mariana Chilton, director of the Center for Hunger-Free Communities; Nikki Johnson-Huston, an attorney who grew up hungry and homeless in Detroit; and Rep. Jim McGovern, a congressman who represents the 2nd district of Massachusetts.
“SNAP is one of the most efficiently run—if not the most efficiently run—government programs,” McGovern said. Chilton agreed, “If we’re going to end hunger, Washington has to lead.” Johnson-Huston’s story also revealed the power of personal testimony. “I know what it feels like to be invisible, but I also know what it feels like to have the opportunity to live your dreams and achieve. I needed food stamps and welfare and health care and student loans. All of you invested in me, and you didn’t even know me.” Attendees erupted in applause after hearing her story.
I left the conference not quite satiated. With a million and a half ideas offered by people who all seem to really know what they’re talking about, why are there still so many hungry people in my own backyard? Among hints of hope, Carolyn Steel’s realism struck me the most: “We can’t have utopia, so let’s just start working with what we’ve got.”