Last week, I had the privilege to attend the Borlaug Dialogues, hosted by the World Food Prize. There were incredible conversations that I got to participate in for work, but the casual conversation at lunch on Thursday was one that struck me personally.
I had been delayed getting to the lunch and was thrilled to see an empty seat not too far from the door I came in. The program was under way so I quietly walked up & asked if the seat was taken. It wasn’t so I quickly sat down.
I realized the table had a very interesting mix of people at it, none more diverse than the people on either side of me.
On my right was a local high school student who looked at the menu and wasn’t sure whether she would like any of the food. It was an eclectic mix for sure but she was most struck by the fact she couldn’t really decipher it.
Her mom said they didn’t eat those kinds of food much and I said I was sure that was a fairly common possibility in the room since people had gathered from around the world, but in looking at the menu I thought the organizers were trying to have a set of global dishes. That way most people would have something a bit familiar to them. And then we talked through the dishes one by one, explaining what chutney, cous cous & other items were. The grilled chicken seemed the best fit and she relaxed a bit as we waited for our plates.
I turned to my left and found I was seated next to a Kenyan scientist who is working to improve potatoes for his homeland. We talked through the primary staples of diets in east Africa — corn and potatoes — and the benefits advancements in these crops could have for farmers and there communities there.
The poverty faced by rural communities and farm families in Africa is staggering. And hearing his personal stories of the country led me to believe I should really get to planning a trip to Mount Kilimanjaro and maybe a safari, but I would also like to spend part of my time there making a difference.
I asked about the infrastructure challenges, crops grown and more. Finally, realizing we had never talked about wheat (my family LOVES breads & pastas), I asked about it. He said it was for the wealthy. And I asked if he remembered first having bread, he said high school. Wow.
I turned to the high school student and relayed the story. She was so shocked that I think she physically would have reeled if she wasn’t sitting down. She looked bewildered saying that everyone in the US has bread…. Even the poorest of the poor. And just like that, we had found a very real way of showing the differences in global food supply.
Soon, my new Kenyan friend pointed out how he doesn’t think of a burger as a meal. A burger is just a snack. A real meal should be hot foods, served with hot drinks for digestion. And I thought how different the experience is for us.
But more than the differences, I was captivated by the interest of all of us at the table to better understand the challenges various people faced when it came to food. Was there enough in some places? How do those of us who have so many options and a seemingly endless supply make the best choices for ourselves? How do our choices impact others?
And I realized that the World Food Prize & the Borlaug Dialogues wasn’t just about hearing from easily recognized dignitaries like former prime minister Tony Blair, nor is it just about celebrating accomplishments. It is about individuals who care to learn more and hopefully act on what they have learned for years to come.
Who knows, in the decades to come, maybe we will be celebrating the accomplishments of a Kenyan researcher who has solved devastating diseases on potatoes or the new groundbreaking efforts of a city girl from Iowa who traces her interest in meeting global food challenges to a luncheon she went to in Des Moines.
Either way, I would sure love to be in the crowd cheering them on to more breakthroughs!