Shocked Into Fitness By Big Food

A man is staring at a row of spoons. Arranged vertically like a 3D bar graph, each row of spoons demonstrates how much sugar is found in various beverages, from juice boxes to cans of ice tea and bottles of soda.

The amount—6, 10 or 15 spoonfuls in a single container—can seem staggering to those who’ve never considered it. “Can you believe this?,” the man mutters to the people nearest him, then calls across the room, “Honey! Look at this!” To himself, he says, “I am drinking too much soda.”

“People are telling me it’s changing their lives,” says Jeannette Ickovics of Big Food: Health, Culture and the Evolution of Eating, the new Peabody Museum exhibit she helped organize.

Ickovics is a professor at the Yale School of Public Health, and also director of CARE (Community Alliance for Research & Engagement), a Yale-based organization which finds practical methods to apply new scientific research so it directly benefits citizens of New Haven.

When she went to work out at the gym last week, Ickovics overheard her fellow exercisers discussing the Big Food exhibit. Now, as she stands amid Big Food’s colorful curved partitions, engaging displays and whimsical quotations from Benjamin Franklin, M.F.K. Fisher, and Dr. Seuss which line its walls, Ickovics watches a busy mother chase a group of children toward an array of baby bottles with soda pop logos emblazoned on them. “Look!,” the

Big Food:
Health, Culture and the Evolution of Eating

at The Yale Peabody Museum
170 Whitney Ave., New Haven (map)
Mon-Sat 10am-5pm, Sun 12-5pm
(203) 432-5050 

woman instantly reacts as she passes the display case, “They’re marketing soda to babies! That’s just wrong!”

Big Food is not an abstract concept, depicting some far-away alien Planet of the Obese. Many of the prominent displays which change regularly on the museum’s first floor space (next to the famous Hall of Dinosaurs) are touring exhibits designed by other museums. Big Food is homegrown, devised and designed here in New Haven. When a documentary film which accompanies the exhibit (and is also watchable online) warns of the bad dietary habits which arise in “food deserts”—areas where you can find oodles of fast food joints but nary a supermarket—the film’s director Ann Johnson Prum shows you recognizable stretches of Hartford and North Haven. The backdrops for scenes about healthy eating include New Haven’s Common Ground high school and the new Elm City Market at 360 State Street.

David Heiser, the Peabody’s Head of Education and Outreach, says the museum has done several shows on infectious diseases, including one just before Big Food came along, Invasion of the Bloodsuckers—Bedbugs and Beyond. “The Natural History connection was always insects,” Heiser says. “We eventually realized we could do a show

sponsored by

New Haven Shops

about chronic disease and make it feel ‘Peabody.’”

“Jeannette’s been the lead curator, from soup to nuts,” Heiser says, without bothering to add “no pun intended.” Ickovics also was able to use her Rudd Center and Public Health connections to bring in some ideal sponsors for the project. The Patrick and Catherine Weldon Donaghue Medical Research Foundation “was the first to step up,” Ickovics says, and the Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation generously became the presenting sponsor. “I wrote a lot of grants, and nobody said no.” Local outlets of such chains as Blue State Coffee and IKEA contributed concepts and products to some of the displays.

“What we asked ourselves,” Ickovics says, “is, ‘How can we engage people in this important discourse around food, community and health?’”

The approach they took was both fact-oriented—“Every word, image and object, every message about food here is scientifically based,” Ickovics says—and proactive. They weren’t out to shame or degrade. “It’s about striking a positive balance,” Ickovics says. The obesity epidemic “isn’t just any one thing. It’s not just what people eat, but what is offered them, and the proportions they’re served. When you think about the costs of food, the supersizing phenomenon… It’s not just genetics, it’s not just behavior, it’s not just environment. It’s a synergy of the three.”

“Moderation can work for many people. Our our most important take-home messages is that people walk out of here knowing that there is something they can do.” As museum-goers exit Big Food, they’re asked to “Make a Goal” and “Take a Stand” by dropping wooden coins into receptacles which offer several choices. “Exercise More” has been a popular choice, as has urging government to set more policies in place regarding nutritional information.

But “Honey! Look at this!” is a great start too.

Written and photographed by Christopher Arnott.

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Christopher Arnott has written about arts and culture in Connecticut for over 25 years. His journalism has won local, regional and national awards, and he has been honored with an Arts Award from the Arts Council of Greater New Haven. He posts daily at his own sites and New Haven Theater Jerk (

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