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Activist fears U.S. is exporting its weight problem to poor countries

by Ed Cohen

May 1, 2013


In 2010, when the world’s population stood at nearly 7 billion people, about 1 billion people were hungry and 1 billion overweight or obese.

“How crazy ironic is that?” activist, author and entrepreneur Ellen Gustafson asked an audience of business students at the University of Notre Dame.

A one-time reporter on terrorism issues for ABC News, Gustafson said she changed careers after discovering that terrorist hotbeds tended to be in places that suffered from chronic hunger. She co-founded a successful business that sold fashionable bags for women, the proceeds from which paid for food aid for starving children around the world.

In her talk at Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business on March 22, 2013, however, the young entrepreneur described why she has changed her thinking. Instead of raising money to feed the hungry through shipments of U.S. grain, she is now raising the alarm about the perils of MAD – “the Modern American Diet” – spreading throughout the world.

Gustafson is the founder and executive director of the 30 Project, an organization aimed at connecting global hunger and obesity while promoting ideas for food-system improvements. According to the organization’s website, the name comes from changes in the global food system that began about 30 years ago, 1980, precipitated by the consolidation of U.S. agriculture, a decrease in U.S. aid to farmers abroad, and the creation of new and cheap processed foods like high-fructose corn syrup.

Gustafson said much of the blame for people being overweight in the United States can be traced to a diet heavy on processed foods that are rich in high-fructose corn syrup and poor in fresh fruits and vegetables. As poorer countries have developed economically and the prevailing U.S. diet has spread around the globe, she said, the same health problems have followed.

“It’s obviously the diet, it’s the way we’re producing food, it’s the way we are eating,” she said. “I would say this is the issue for our generation: understanding how to end hunger … and not turn people who are hungry directly into people who are overweight.”

Gustafson said well-intentioned efforts such as U.S. food aid shipments typically consist of sacks of U.S. corn. A better idea, she said, would be to pay local farmers in impoverished countries to produce fruits and vegetables. But such a policy would upset the U.S. farm lobby because the government buys enormous amounts of U.S. grain for food aid shipments, she said.

Gustafson said that over time, too much emphasis has been placed on improving corn yields, which has made processed foods cheaper. Her presentation included a slide showing that in the past 30 years the prices of soft drinks and other junk foods have actually decreased, while prices for fresh fruits and vegetables have more than doubled.

“The least healthful foods have rapidly become wildly less expensive than the most healthful foods. So, clearly, being rational consumers, we’re all going after the cheapest, easiest thing to buy,” she said.

Gustafson said one way to bring about change is for people to make different buying and eating choices. She’s heartened by certain trends, she said. Sales of organic produce are up 20 percent since 1990, and local food sales in the United States have grown from $4 billion in 2002 to $11 billion in 2011, she said.

Gustafson’s talk was part of the Mendoza College’s The Ten Years Hence speaker series, which explores issues, ideas and trends likely to affect business and society over the next decade.

The series is sponsored by the O'Brien-Smith Leadership Program, made possible by a generous endowment from William H. O'Brien (ND '40) and his wife, Dee. The O’Brien-Smith Program endowment provides an opportunity for students and faculty to interact with distinguished leaders from business, government and nonprofit sectors.