Peabody serves ‘Big Food’

“Big Food: Health Culture and the Evolution of Eating,” a new exhibit at the Peabody Museum of Natural History, includes interactive features and displays about the history, science, and culture of food.
“Big Food: Health Culture and the Evolution of Eating,” a new exhibit at the Peabody Museum of Natural History, includes interactive features and displays about the history, science, and culture of food. Photo by Michael Marsland.

Shelves filled with bags of chips and bottles of soda may feel more like a supermarket aisle than a museum, but the “Big Food Corridor,” which shows an average American’s yearly food consumption, is the entrance to a new Peabody exhibit.

On Saturday, over 850 visitors attended the opening of “Big Food: Health, Culture and the Evolution of Eating” at the Peabody Museum of Natural History. The exhibit features educational displays and interactive experiences that engage visitors in the history, science and modern-day culture surrounding food. Museum administrators said in a press release that they want to use the exhibit to help visitors understand the complex factors, risks and consequences involved in their eating habits.

“‘Big Food’ pushes the envelope for the Peabody,” said Derek Briggs, director of the Peabody Museum.

In addition to participating in health-related activities such as a scavenger hunt for children and a Zumba fitness class, Saturday’s visitors explored the exhibit’s offerings. Past the “Big Food Corridor,” information displays present everything from the neuroscience of appetite and the genetics of obesity, to the composition of food and the influence of the media on our food-related decisions. One display shows the teaspoons of added sugar in drinks like Coca-Cola and AriZona iced tea. Another provides visual examples of the recommended portion sizes for foods, such as a serving of meat the size of a deck of cards.

Visitors are also encouraged to interact with the exhibit’s hands-on experiences. A stationary bike enables museum guests to see how long they have to pedal to burn off the number of calories in a french fry. Across the room, guests can learn about the sugar, salt and oil content of milkshakes and hamburgers while playing the virtual “Smash Your Food” game.

Marlene Schwartz GRD ’96, deputy director for the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, explained that with increasing rates of obesity and chronic disease, people need access to reliable information on how their choices affect them.

In the center of the exhibit, visitors can see and feel the health consequences of obesity. One display showcases models of healthy and unhealthy organs — including a liver, heart and kidney — to show how obesity damages the organ system. Next to the display of organs, visitors can see and feel a model of five pounds of body fat.

“Genetics accounts for 30 percent of the differences in body size and shape, the rest is the environment,” Schwartz said, emphasizing the role of individual choices in maintaining health.

She added that she hopes exhibit will provide museum guests with the tools to change their lifestyles and improve their health.

In the final area of the exhibit, visitors are encouraged to place wooden tokens in jars as pledges of healthy changes — such as exercising more and drinking less soda — for themselves, their families and their communities. Jeannette Ickovics, director for the Community Alliance for Research and Engagement at the School of Public Health, said the pledge jars were inspired by a similar system at Blue State Coffee, where customers vote which local nonprofit should receive a donation.

“We hope that it will educate and entertain, and leave people walking out ready to make a change,” Ickovics added.

“Big Food,” a collaboration between the Peabody, the Rudd Center and CARE, will remain open through Dec. 2, 2012.

Correction: Feb. 15

The photograph with this article was incorrectly credited to the Peabody Museum. In fact, the photograph was taken by Michael Marsland.

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