Photograph by PLCjr via Flickr Creative Commons
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A view of the World Fair in New York, August 1964.
Photograph by PLCjr via Flickr Creative Commons

Next World Fair is Focusing on Food

The 2015 World Expo (a.k.a. World Fair) arrives in Milan in May with one thing on its hungry mind—food.

And the USA Pavilion could be the most important Presidential food statement since John Kennedy called himself a jelly doughnut.

They had me at Milan. Plus never before has a World Expo focused solely on food, and not just for the pleasure and fun of it (although much of that will be had). “Expo Milan: Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life” is well timed for countries to express nationalism productively, with a psychological competition to present solutions for feeding a global population of 9 billion by 2050.

In March President Barak Obama announced that America will participate, along with 140 other countries, exhibiting our contributions to and innovations in the food world to “improve agriculture, nutrition, and the health of people around the globe.”

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Photograph by U.S. Department of Agriculture

Ours will be a $60 million, 40,000 square foot USA Pavillion themed American Food 2.0: United to Feed the Planet. With exterior walls comprised of a functioning vertical garden (the future of agriculture as vertical space dwindles), the planned pavilion will be a living, organoleptic American food museum. A food truck corridor will dish out classic American regional food and an offsite James Beard American restaurant will showcase a rotating roster of our best chefs.

Funded entirely with private money donated by individuals and corporations and raised in conjunction with the James Beard Foundation, the pavilion isn’t just a gleeful foodie playground—interactive exhibits on obesity and foods containing Genetically Modified Organisms will be complemented by workshops and hackathons about the future of food. Incidentally, I predict that an American exhibit on obesity will be a major international attraction.

It’s easy to dismiss a food initiative such as this as a flashy show pony but international food relations are serious business. Underscoring the pavilion’s importance to foreign relationships, Secretary of State John Kerry gave remarks at a US reception celebrating the pavilion groundbreaking last month. Kerry commented that in his first meeting after becoming Secretary of State, President Obama tasked him with making a mark on food security. And White House Counselor John Podesta has convened corporations to discuss food security…security as in, will we be able to grow food after we have our way with the environment and, in turn, global warming has its way with us? The pavilion’s construction, and the construction of the World Expo generally, bring these issues to the forefront. We can either choose to focus on it, or wait until an enormous international food crisis forces us to. I vote for the former.

Food takes center stage in the Administration’s promotion of travel to the US too, known as culinary tourism. To this end, Brand USA produced the gorgeous Discover America Culinary Guide, highlighting regional chefs, food specialties, festivals, and holidays.  Although it’s written for an international audience (‘flavour,’ ‘favourite’) to promote one of our best friend-making exports—cuisine—it’s worth a read for Americans too. Duff Goldman’s recipe for Pumpkin Pie and Art Smith’s secret for Oprah-Winfrey worthy fried chicken are worth the conversion of grams and milliliters in the recipes.

Beyond the US pavilion, the Expo’s more than 1 million square feet will attract more than 20 million visitors with a Children’s theme park, arts and food area, and a future food district with new food technologies from around the globe. The World Expo’s custom of focusing on innovation continues, examining “traditional cultural values and the use of new technologies” in food. With career-long work in food technology,, culture, and law—and the maiden name Zupa, Italian for ‘soup’—I’ll be in Milan with good walking shoes and stretchy pants.

Truly smart money would rent an apartment there for the duration of the Expo, from May 1 through October 31, and meander daily through each country’s pavilion. Francethe United Arab Emirates, and Thailand each deserve a day.

Friends of the U.S. Pavilion is still raising money for the project but if fully funded, ‘World Fair food’ could from now on conjure far different images than ladies with parasols marveling over microwaves. 

This story is part of National Geographic’s special eight-month Future of Food series.