Tuesday, August 02, 2005

The US Open of What?

Flipping through the channels this morning, my husband and I stumbled upon a morning news show reporting on the current starvation crisis in the African nation of Niger. The sight of beautiful brown-skinned children with their deeply shadowed and sunken eyes, flies buzzing around their emaciated frames, surrounded by hundreds of other children and their equally malnourished mothers both angered and shamed me. Why did I not know anything about this sooner? What is being done? How are my two sponsor children doing in Swaziland and the Dominican Republic? Where is the money going, the monthly contributions that I make in their names? What else am I going to do? Who are the amazing people, these foreigners who wade into those battle zones, fighting to save lives rather than to end them, with bread, rice, porridge, as well as seeds and seedlings for future crops? Why was I born into such a wealthy nation when so many are born into such despair? Why does such inequity continue to exist in the world? If we can import computer chips, Harley Davidson t-shirts, and cocaine from around the world, why can’t we export even more of our corn, wheat, and barley around the world? I know we are already the world's largest distributor of food aid, but why can’t we give more – especially in light of that fact that we also served as the host nation for one of the most ridiculous competitions in existence???!!!

Sitting there in bed this morning, silenced by the outcry of those desperately hungry people, I was even more deeply disturbed by the sublimely outrageous spectacle I’d seen less than 48 hours before: the US Open of Competitive Eating. Yes, that’s right. This nation recently hosted competitors from around the globe to compete in the “sport” of overeating. Appropriately sponsored by Alka Seltzer, men and women of all ages and sizes gathered in Las Vegas for several rounds of 15 minutes in duration during which they consumed as much food as possible. I was simultaneously repulsed and captivated by the broadcast.

The competitors (I simply refuse to refer to them as “athletes” even though some of them are in fantastic physical condition.) were paired up, much like in the US Open Tennis tournament: top seeds faced bottom seeds and the challenger who had consumed the most food at the end of each round advanced. The rounds I saw involved the consumption of spaghetti and meatballs, salad (quarterfinals), potato skins (semifinals), and six pound appetizer platters (finals). Just to provide a little perspective, the first and second place finishers in the potato skins round ate 72 and 54 potato skins respectively – each topped with bacon and two kinds of cheese. That’s 36 and 27 whole potatoes! The appetizer platters contained chicken fingers, a bowl of chili, a buffalo chicken sandwich, chopped vegetables, artichoke and spinach dip, and a few other things I don't remember - on each platter. The two finalists ate more than two platters each. What surprised me most was that the second place finisher was a very, very slight Asian woman whose country of origin I didn’t catch. The man to her right was Japanese and is best known as the long time reigning king of the Nathan’s hot dog eating contest. According to the commentator, neither of them weighed more than 145 pounds.

This morning’s famine report bombarded us with critical statistics on how many people will certainly die of starvation within the next month if nothing is done to help them immediately. However, this crisis did not start yesterday, last week, or even last year. I have spent the last several weeks and months listening to criticism of the UN and its leadership, some of which is well deserved. I have spent the last several years, perhaps even decades, listening to criticism of the leadership of many African nations, especially those where the poor and powerless slowly starve to death while the prosperous and powerful slowly fatten themselves on the financial and food aid that is being sent for the dying. That too is criticism that must be taken seriously and dealt with purposefully.

But perhaps the most deep-seated, the most shameful, and the most quickly dismissed form of corruption is the one that has turned my nation into the most obese in the world when so many millions are dying of starvation. The most sobering and devastating statistics I have heard in the past few years are those that denote the number of American children suffering the ravages of diet and lifestyle induced diabetes and other chronic illnesses. The greatest waste of resources is right here in the US of A where we drive our gas-guzzling, road-hogging vehicles to the drive through window, where we order family-sized meals for each individual in the car, eat the entire 800 calorie burger, 450 calories of french fries, throw away half the aspartame-laced soda (“and a large diet coke”). Upon returning home, we engage in three more sets of arm curls as we pump ice cream, nacho chips, and peanut M&M’s into our chubby cheeks, all the while shaking our fists in rage at international waste, greed, and overindulgence.

So I ask myself: what am I going to do with the anger, shame, and frustration I’m feeling right now? What difference am I going to make in the fight against starvation in Africa and gluttony in America? What am I teaching my children that will make a difference in the way the next generation eats, gives, and lives on this shrinking planet with its shrinking resources? What on earth prompted somebody somewhere to convert gluttony into a televised and highly compensated activity? And why on earth didn’t I turn away from watching it? That is a rhetorical question I can and will answer: I was taking notes for this very blog!

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