This week I had the absolute honor of examining the nutrition archives at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations in Rome, Italy. The FAO was founded at the end of the 1929 depression to help stabilize the world food supply. Originally headquartered in Washington DC, both Eleanor and Franklin D Roosevelt believed in the mission of the FAO which is and was to reach across borders to ensure the people who need food have access to it. The World Food Program, for example, which is designed to get food to starving people living in countries who need food most, arose from the FAO.
In order to fulfill the mission of the FAO, one task of the agency is to examine how much food individuals in countries across the globe can access and potentially consume. They do this by examining several food commodities such as: grains, fish, meat, poultry, fruit, vegetables, and sugars. In my field, the second biggest challenge that we have to address after undernutrition (not having enough food or lack food security) is overnutrition. Across the globe, even outside of the United States, often people have access to food that is high in calories (sugar and fat) but low in nutritional value (vitamins and minerals) which leads to weight gain without much in terms of health gain. Although the US led the charged, we have seen overweight and obesity increase all around the world. It has been an unfortunate consequence to increased poor quality food access.
I was interested in taking a look at historic food consumption data in countries across the globe so I spent 3 days in the library of the FAO looking through the historical archive. I pulled data tables that were as old as 1945. I now have so much data to use that I am struggling to get my brain around how to analyze and present it. My goal is to examine if access to certain food commodities are more associated with increase in obesity. I want to do this country by country and adjust for factors such as country wealth and overall population. It should be fun!
Besides the fantastic archives, the FAO has an amazing cafeteria with very authentic Italian food. I was buying my lunch one day and the cashier spoke first to me in Italian, then French. When he could tell my French was fairly accented, he said “What are you?”. Funny question, right? I said “Uh, American?”. I wasn’t sure what he was getting at so I answered the question with a question. He reaction was one of confusion, followed by a loss of words. In the 10 seconds it took him to respond back to me, I tried to contemplate what in the world he was asking. Finally, he said “You don’t look American.” A huge smiled crawled across my face and I said “Thank-you?”. Again, I wasn’t exactly what I was supposed to say. This experience has happened to me over an over again. When we landed in Amsterdam, the customs agent pointed to the European Union passport control lines for me to go through. When I spoke and he realized I was anything but European.
Back to the FAO and my lunch. I spent the next 30 minutes of my lunch processing the cahsier's statement and my reaction to it. Why did it make me happy that I didn’t look American? Was I happy that I was blending in? Do I believe that looking like an American is somehow offensive? How did he know what an American looks like? Why did I care? I came to realize that there are many things that infuriate me about being an American. Often we are perceived to be only concerned with our own well being and to have a superiority complex. At the same time it seems we uninterested in any culture other than our own and certainly uninterested in learning another's language. We are considered to be a gun carrying, space craving, arrogant, all consuming people. I am not any of those things. Maybe a little confident with a flare for arrogance at times but the rest not so much. So I was flattered when I didn’t "look" American.
I couldn't help but look at my own thoughts about being an American a little deeper. I love my birth country dearly and tear up at our patriotic songs from American the Beautiful to Proud to Be an American. I identify strongly with the ideas of democracy, freedom, and liberty. When Lin-Manuel Miranda so cleverly told the story American's founding in Hamilton, I found myself to be quite the patriot. I still cry when I listen to his song “One Last Time” in which George Washington describes his desire to step down from being president after giving so much of himself to create our new nation. I loved the music from Hamilton so much that I had to read Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton and was even more inspired by the men who built the nation that produces Americans. I could see myself clearly in what they were fighting to create so again why wouldn't I want to be seen as an American?
This experience of living in France and traveling to other parts of Europe has made me realize that many of the ideals embodied by being an American are exactly why I was glad to not be easily identified as being an American. I love the idea of independence yet not all of our people have access to the benefits of that independence. I love the innovation that capitalism provides and loathe the disparities it creates. I love our opportunities for education and I really believe that I can do anything I want to do. But I wish we took a more global stance at education. Why don't we teach languages in elementary school? At the end of the day we are so lucky to have the freedom to have both the good and the bad that comes with our value system. While I am here, I hope I am showing the people I meet that not all Americans are what they see in the movies. I am also glad that I found within myself a little American pride even if I don't look like an American at first sight.