For most of my twenty-one years in Mumbai, I knew where my next meal came from. But I didn't really know where many of the ingredients came from. At the time, I didn't think to care. During graduate school in the U.S., there were many occasions when instant ramen noodles did the trick. On one occasion at the University of Florida, when I had spent the last of my money getting a value meal at KFC; only to discover that I drove away with it on the top of my car; I went to bed hungry. I've had the luxury of never having to settle on being hungry since.
Nowadays, I am obsessed with trying to find out where the ingredients I use to prepare the food at my restaurant come from. For the masses, an exploration will reveal that the supply chains can be twisted mangles of unclear and sobering facts. And now, Sysco buys U.S. Foods to form the largest single food distribution company in the United States controlling almost 25 percent of food distribution market in the United States. One of the hotly debated (and rightfully so) points of the Farm Bill involves the massive proposed cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Regardless of where one might stand on the issue, the fact of the matter is even more children in the United States are at risk of not knowing where their next meal will come from. I recently requested and received a copy of A Place At The Table from Chef Tom Colicchio's office. For anyone who hasn't seen it, it is a documentary about the stories of three Americans who are trying to maintain their dignity even as they struggle to eat. It will be required viewing for an honors course I will be co-teaching on Food Anthropology at Stetson University next semester. In Mumbai, where the disparity between the haves and have-nots is perhaps as great as any place in the world, it is not uncommon to see children scavenging from the garbage for something to appease their pangs of hunger. A few days ago, a U.S. veteran did that in broad daylight on a busy street in DeLand, Florida.
I have intentionally intertwined the different avatars of not really knowing where our food comes from -- whether it be the prospect of food itself or the ingredients themselves. We have labels on our clothes, shoes, and electronics. But most meats and seafood are required to have minimal labeling, if any, about their source. What is it going to take to change this murky landscape sooner rather than later? The irony is when there is an outbreak of a food-borne illness from consuming something bought at a grocery store, within a day or two, the government agencies are able to pinpoint the culprit source. So, why can't we know that source when we purchase the ingredient in the first place? Is it because there is only so much room on a label already filled with a litany of preservatives?
The amount of food waste in the developed (and developing) world is staggering. Soup kitchens and community centers alone cannot solve the problem of hunger in this country. It's going to take a concerted and committed effort to minimize food waste, create better distribution, develop more efficient public and private assistance programs, and last but not least, a generate a greater awareness of where our food comes from. We are at a tipping point. Let's choose to tip towards our own health and sustainability.
Hari Pulapaka is a two-time James Beard nominated chef who serves on the Advisory Board of The Chef Action Network, a non-profit organization that connects chefs to tools and resources that will help them create significant and lasting change in their communities, the country and the world. CAN is focused on harnessing the power of America's preeminent chefs in support of a strong, sustainable, just and healthy food system. He and his wife Jenneffer, a podiatric surgeon own and run Cress restaurant in DeLand, FL. Hari also has a Ph.D. in Mathematics from the University of Florida and is a full-time tenured Associate Professor of Mathematics at Stetson University in DeLand, FL.