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What I Eat, Hungry Planet, Material World. Your geography curriculum in three gorgeous books

material world japan

I’m not exactly sure where I was or what I was doing when I first ran across Peter Menzel’s first book, Material World, A Global Family Portrait. Pretty sure it was some sort of social studies conference years ago and a vendor had some poster size images from Material World. And I was captured.

The images were powerful. The text informative and engaging. The teaching and learning possibilities endless.

It was a simple concept.

Photograph families around the world with all of their stuff, their material stuff, out on their respective “driveways.” Publish the photos and commentary in a large, slick, full color coffee table book format. You can get a sense of the 50+ photo stories at the PBS World in the Balance site. And it’s possible to still actually purchase resources and lesson plans aligned to the content in the book 20 years after Material World was published.

The book was such a success, Menzel went on to create similar books.

In 2007, he published Hungry Planet: What the World Eats. It was similar to Material World in that it was a study of 30 families from around the world, revealing what people eat during the course of one week. Each family’s profile includes a detailed description of their weekly food purchases; photographs of the family at home, at market, and in their community; and a portrait of the entire family surrounded by a week’s worth of groceries.

Menzel then took the theme of food to a more individual level with What I Eat: Around the World in 80 Diets. Menzel traveled to 30 countries and more than a dozen U.S. states to shop, cook, and eat with a strikingly diverse range of people.

The photos run the gamut. A child in a Chad refugee camp still skinny after eating 2,300 calories a day, a seal hunter in Greenland who appeared healthy eating 6,500 calories a day, and a British woman binging on more than 12,000 calories a day. The centerpiece of each photoessay is a portrait of the subject with that day’s worth of food, a text about daily life, and an exhaustively researched food list detailing every item consumed, along with the total calorie count.

Yeah . . . and?

If nothing else, the images from all three books are about as ready made writing prompts as I can imagine.

Although the Namgay family of Bhitan is wearing a rainbow of colors, two other dominant colors appear in the photograph. What are those colors, and why are they so widespread?



How are the families in Thailand and the US both the same and different? Why do the differences exist?


Does geography play a role in what people eat? How might human interaction with the local environment impact the kinds of food available for families?

The commentaries and text provide all sorts of data to crunch and opportunities for investigative work by your students. Get a few more ideas for lessons here, here, and here.

Get full color photos from all three books at Menzel’s site:

You might also be interested in some cool photos of school lunches from around the world. Never Seconds is a blog started by Martha Payne that shares pictures of what kids eat in schools from all sorts of countries. An article at the Daily Mail site gives a shorter version of some of Martha’s pics. Seems like a cool way to hook your kids into learning more about econ and geography.

school lunches

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Lisa #

    Saw a first year teacher use the Material World photos (posters) last year. His students were learning about standard of living, GNP/GDP, literacy rate, etc. VERY cool resources that sparked some incredibly insightful conversation among the students as they worked in groups.

    June 2, 2015
    • glennw #


      Just so many different things that are possible. Thanks for the comment!


      June 2, 2015

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