AMY J. BARRY, Special to the Day
We know - even when we choose to ignore the glaring facts - that we are what we eat.
But what we eat affects a lot more than our own bodies. It impacts our families, our communities, the economy, and beyond, according to a new exhibit at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, "Big Food: Health, Culture and the Evolution of Eating."
Interactive, comprehensive and hands-on, "Big Food" is a collaboration between the Peabody, the Community Alliance for Research and Engagement (CARE) at the Yale School of Public Health and the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity.
Aimed at both kids and adults, the exhibit brings dry facts and statistics off the page and out of the lecture hall into vivid color and three dimensions.
"This is a big issue," says Yale professor Jeannette Ickovics, exhibition curator and director of CARE. "We spend $2 trillion a year on food (in the U.S.) and obesity has skyrocketed to 50 percent of adults either overweight or obese.
"Our mission is to educate and entertain, but it's also a call to action," Ickovics stresses. "We want people to leave thinking, 'What am I going to do to make a change for myself, my family, my community?"
"Big Food" designer Laura Friedman understood the importance of creating an eye-catching exhibit. Her job, she says, was "to figure out ways to make these ideas visual and very intuitive, so that people can see them in a very (concrete) way."
Visitors entering the exhibition are greeted by a display noting the amount and types of food consumed by the average American in a given year. (Americans drink twice as much soda as milk, and 36 pounds of potatoes annually-mostly in the form of French fries.)
"There's a disconnect between what we know about what we should eat and what we eat," notes Marlene Schwartz, deputy director of the Rudd Center. "We're swimming up the proverbial evolutionary stream. There are so many things we can change that cause (multiple) changes."
The interactive displays drive home wide-ranging points explored in the exhibit from behavioral choices in nutrition and exercise to the sustainability of our food system.
In "What is Food?" visitors guess what food items - anything from a box of cereal to a Twinkie - are hidden behind doors labeled with the item's nutritional facts. The idea is to help families better understand healthy and unhealthy food choices.
The "Smash Your Food" online game allows visitors to squish, for example, a jelly doughnut, and as the jelly runs out the game show how much sugar and oil it contains.
In another section of the exhibit, a fully furnished teenager's bedroom, courtesy of IKEA, in which a boy lounges on the bed with his hand in a bag of chips surrounded by glowing TV and computer screens, addresses how marketing influences young people's eating habits.
"Kids see 10,000 ads a year, which tend to be for food that's very high in sugar and fat," Schwartz says, noting that companies are so sophisticated in their marketing to children that "they're completely skipping over the parent and going straight to the kid.
"Products marketed to kids through advertising tend to be the worst-and that's what parents should get most angry about," she adds.
Schwartz says she's glad the USDA finally came out with nutrition standards in the national school lunch and breakfast programs last month.
"It's ideal to give kids choices, but all the choices should be good ones," she says.
Other powerful presentations include sections of a normal heart next to one with enlarged heart chambers, and a section of a normal liver and a fatty liver-both results of excessive fat and obesity.
"Obesity causes diabetes, high blood pressure, congenital heart failure, asthma, strokes?there is no organ system that's not impacted by obesity," says Dr. Eina Fishman, chief medical officer of Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield, the exhibition's presenting sponsor.
The exhibit organizers agree that the price we're paying for the food we eat is a result of economics on every level.
"Obesity costs trillions of dollars, so it will take a social/political/economic shift-but it costs a lot more to do nothing," Ickovics states.
"We have to change the economic policy in ways people purchase food," Schwartz says. "The cost of sugary drinks has gone up, but the price of fruits and vegetables have gone down. A soft drink tax is highly controversial, but it could raise tremendous amount of revenue, as well as discouraging consumption of these products."
Fishman points to the "Hunter Gatherers" section of the exhibit-and a small display illustrating a big picture: how a 70-square-foot patch of high-yield corn produces 14 pounds of animal feed to produce just one steak.
"We're beginning to see the cost we pay for the diets we eat," she says.
Ickovics stresses that the exhibit is a wide-reaching community collaboration, as evident in a display where you can scan your cell phone under a QR code to find a farmer's market in New London County-or anywhere in the state-and that school groups are coming from throughout Connecticut to see and engage in "Big Food."
There are many big and small ways people can take a stand and make a difference, Ickovics says.
"Just commit to eating 100 fewer calories per day," she urges. "Drink skim milk instead of whole. Skip the cheese on the sandwich. Have the apple, skip the pie.
"We hope this will be a museum exhibit that will really change your life-it's not just doom and gloom. It really is fun and brings us together," she says. "It's an equal opportunity exhibit. We want everyone interested and inspired."