Texas Connect


Man on a mission: Professor of research Raj Patel devotes his life to ending global hunger

Portrait of Raj Patel smiling in front of a black background
Portrait by Leila Saidane

Raj Patel was 5, traveling with his family to India from England during the monsoon season. A young girl, no older than 12, approached their car, carrying a crying infant. Patel says she was skinny, hungry and begging for money and food.  

“I didn’t understand why she was out there, why she was wet, why she was hungry, and I lost my s###. My parents embarrassingly cracked the window and pushed some money out to her,” he says. “Since then, the journey has been to figure out why this  stuff happens.”

Young children are often confused when encountering that kind of poverty for the first time, Patel says. But for him, that moment left a defining imprint on his memory and inspired his lifelong pursuit to grasp the complex ways politics, economics, colonialism, racism and classism fuel global hunger, food systems and health disparities. Through research and work with various nongovernmental organizations and global organizations, Patel discovered that communities that took matters into their own hands held true insight for real change. His role evolved into a researcher and storyteller in an effort to make people care. 

Patel works as a professor of research at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. 

“The idea that it’s the LBJ School of Public Affairs as opposed to public policy feels like a very good fit,” he says. “I’m quite pleased that there’s that recognition that you don’t just write the policy, you have to do the work to make the policy happen.” 

Film poster for the “The Ants & the Grasshopper.”

As an expert in his field, Patel is invited overseas as a consultant on international public policy, based on his extensive research and understanding of data. And his life’s work informs the books he writes and films he produces for audiences beyond the Forty Acres. 

Patel has written seven books, including the New York Times bestseller “The Value of Nothing.” His latest book, “Inflamed,” written with Dr. Rupa Marya of the University of California San Francisco medical school, was released in August 2021. The same year, Patel also debuted his first full length documentary film, “The Ants & the Grasshopper,” at the 2021 Mountainfilm Festival. It went on to play at film festivals around the United States and Europe. 

We have more than enough food in the world to feed everyone. The fact that we distribute it the way that we do it is not inevitable. It’s not God-given. It is a political choice.

Raj Patel

The early days of dead ends and wrong turns  

Upon returning to his family’s home in England, Patel says, his 5-year-old self decided to rent his toys and raise money to stop hunger. It didn’t take him long to realize his kindergarten aspirations would not fix the problem.

“Initially, I thought if you just raise money or buy enough copies of Live Aid, everything will be fine. And that didn’t work,” he says.  

While attending Oxford University, Patel had an idea to switch his major to mathematics. He wanted to believe a formula could reverse the crisis of hunger and poverty — that it was a matter of logistics. He hoped it was a miscalculation or oversight of data. But as he delved deeper into the topic, he learned the political and systemic side of the story. 

“We have more than enough food in the world to feed everyone. The fact that we distribute it the way that we do it is not inevitable,” Patel says. “It’s not God-given. It is a political choice.” 

Patel switched his undergraduate degree at Oxford back to economics and added the study of philosophy and politics to his pursuits. He then worked for several NGOs and landed in the Ph.D. program at Cornell University in developmental sociology. 

From there he worked for the World Bank and United Nations. But even that, he says, didn’t lead to concrete solutions. 

While conducting academic research for his doctorate in southern Africa, Patel engaged with small communities, which began grassroots movements. He watched how they came to find answers about their own struggles through critical thinking and saw how communication and small actions eventually translated into cultural shifts.

“The communities that have ended hunger have really embraced that recognition (of political influence) and mobilized local change with good science and understanding that inequalities in power drive hunger,” he says.

raj patel farm
Chitaya and Patel sit with members of the Black Dirt Farm Collective in Preston, Maryland. Photos courtesy of Raj Patel

How years of study, experience and growth came together in a film  

Patel’s first published works, written while he was at Cornell, were extensive policy papers about the World Trade Organization, specifically unpacking the minutiae of agricultural trade. Yet the exposure of his work remained slight. 

“I was doing some great analysis for an audience of about half a dozen people,” Patel says. “This was unfortunate, for a couple of reasons — not just because I thought my policy briefs were fantastic! But also because part of the work, it seems, is making (nonacademic) people care about this stuff.”

His first book, “Stuffed and Starved,” was a breakout work written for a general audience. While living in the global south Patel created a number of documentaries about communities on the frontlines of hunger and gender inequality. None gained much traction until he met Anita Chitaya of Bwabwa, a rural village in Malawi. Chitaya’s story evolved into an 11-year project with co-director Zach Piper. After a decade of work, research and immersion came “The Ants & the Grasshopper,” which earned the Moving Mountains Award at its Mountainfilm world premiere in Telluride, Colorado. 

Anita Chitaya in Bwabwa, Malawi.

In the film, Chitaya tells the audience how she defied the harsh realities of the gender roles imposed upon her in Bwabwa. As a young teenager, she was abducted and forced into marriage. In her village, women did all the work — from farming to cooking to child rearing. The overburdening of one gender actually limited the yield of food production in their village. Her sadness and fatigue within the patriarchal community she lived in sparked her drive to adjust the social construct of her immediate environment.  To do this, she began with her own marriage. The subtle love story between Chitaya and her husband created a unique opportunity for collaboration that led to a more bountiful harvest. She was married to a man who loved her enough to want something better for her life. Their inequities softened through Chitaya’s strength in communication and love. Patel says allowing Chitaya to show how she made changes herself was more powerful than a series of talking heads who outlined the story based on research and observation. 

“I had been in other people’s documentaries, where I was a talking head,” Patel says, referring to “Food, Inc.” and “A Place at the Table.” “All those documentaries were frustrating because the communities on the front lines were never treated with the respect or dignity that allowed them to theorize their own circumstances.”

Patel says he and Piper originally wanted Jake Gyllenhaal to narrate the story. They had this grand idea of a film with a David Attenborough-esque tale of Malawians like other widely viewed documentaries on popular streaming services. After spending years with Chitaya, and occasionally having his own unconscious patriarchal colonialism thrown back at him in discussion and debate, he realized that she was better at telling her own story and he stepped behind the scenes. 

“I don’t want to pretend that I know what I’m doing here,” Patel says. “I’m definitely making mistakes, but I’m also in the process of trying to decolonize and render my patriarchy less potent than it otherwise might be.”

As the decade of research, filming and editing carries on, continuous drought parches Bwabwa. Chitaya’s village goes from being self-sufficient through rotational and sustainable farming practices to struggling to grow enough nutritious food and access clean, drinkable water. The story illuminates additional mounting components to the global hunger crisis — climate change and global interconnectivity.

“We never went in thinking about climate change,” Patel says. “The climate change element emerged from a workshop that Anita had attended that she told us about, and so that ended up being another part of the story.”

In the last segment of the film, Chitaya wants to travel to the United States to understand how Americans farm and produce food at such a large scale, while her community grows increasingly parched by drought. During her travels, she meets farmers in various states and talks with different food organizations. She explains how the drought in Bwabwa began slowly, then shifted into a state of sudden and acute lack of food and water. She implores American farmers to consider that their practices do in fact impact what happens to her and her family in Malawi. She is met with equal parts support and skepticism throughout the United States.  

“The Ants & the Grasshopper” has yet to find a stage on a mainstream platform. Patel says his audience mostly consists of activist and smaller and rural communities of faith. He also thinks that the film might be intended for that audience because it might be where the film can have the greatest impact.  

raj patel landscape
View from above Bwabwa, Malawi.

Connecting the dots and turning the focus toward Texas 

Before the pandemic, co-author Marya visited Austin to give a talk on police violence as a public health crisis at Dell Medical School. She and Patel had become friends while they both lived in the San Francisco Bay area years before. After her presentation, the two discussed how their research and work intertwined. While Patel drove her to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, they began sharing points that coincided. 

“We decided to write a book together about all of these intersecting things,” Marya says. “Then we chased our tails down the rabbit hole, looking at how exactly they related.”

After Marya returned to San Francisco, Patel says, they began jotting down notes and ideas that came to form the book “Inflamed.” They discussed how worldwide injustices are affecting individuals’ physical health, societies’ social and political health, and the planet’s overall environmental and ecological health. Marya begins by explaining inflammation in the body; she describes a mechanism called interleukin-1, which is essentially responsible for the body’s inflammatory response to virtually every disease. Patel fuses her medical findings with explanations of how social injustices facilitate illness and chronic inflammatory diseases through a breakdown of agricultural, social, political, and economic systems and policies. 

The book is written for a general audience, but it’s making big waves throughout the academic community for Western medicine. 

Patel and Marya pitched their first book proposal in 2019. They received feedback and reconvened at the drawing board to refine the idea. In early 2020, the book was bought by a publisher, and weeks later, the world went into lockdown. Though the research for the book transitioned from global fieldwork to computer screens and home offices, thier years of knowledge and devotion to their respective topics came together and became what is now a widely sought book for medical institutions and activists alike. 

In the summer of 2022, “Inflamed” was translated for Italian medical students at several universities. The book is slowly moving into curricula worldwide so modern medicine can understand the interconnectivity of individual, systemic and ecological health. 

“The book is about advancing the politics of care, the economy of care and a culture of care,” Marya says. “The process of writing the book with Raj really demonstrated that (idea of care) — the way we wrangled and debated, the way we arrived at different conclusions, and (the way our ideas) arrived in a very tender place of deep mutual respect.” 

Marya says the book was inspiring and exhausting. It more acutely informed the cases she saw while working in hospitals on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic. She says that Patel spoke with her regularly on the phone and helped her digest and process the information through her front-line work and research, even when the realities they uncovered seemed too difficult for her to bear. Today they work together in an organization started by Marya, the Deep Medicine Circle. Patel serves on the board. 

As “Inflamed” and “The Ants & the Grasshopper” broaden in circulation, Patel has begun another project with co-director Piper. It features the work of Texas’ own Jim Hightower and is projected to be released in 2024. His next efforts will turn attention inward toward America’s systems and political landscape.

Patel says he’s excited to research and draw out the Southern idea of populism and use Hightower and his cohort of activists to revive the idea of public action in Texas and other parts of the United States.  

“This border state has things to say about the way organizing can happen elsewhere. The idea of populism designed in the South, but built for all of America, is an idea we’re excited to film,” Patel says. “There’s something particularly Texan and particularly American about people getting together and wanting to stick it to the man that defies the conventional left-right distinctions.” 

Despite chapters of discouragement, and an ever-growing need for bandages for the acute global food and health crises, Patel has never wanted to change course. He sees that the world is changing fast. He knows that as fewer people read, he will need to find other ways to reach audiences. He released a viral YouTube video about capitalism, chicken nuggets and the global hunger crisis. He’s given 20-minute TED Talks that summarize the intentions of his books. No matter what gets thrown his way, Patel seems to pivot and course-correct in order to continue pursuing his mission. 

“There’s never been a time where this hasn’t been something that I wanted to do with my life. And so the question has always been, how do I do it?”