Playing the “Hunger Game” in the United States: When the odds are NOT in your favor

Posted on November 20, 2014 by ELCA World Hunger

This weekend the “beginning of the end” of one of the most popular book and blockbuster film series of the decade hits the big screen. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 will no doubt lure fans of Suzanne Collins’ best-selling dystopian trilogy to movie theaters in droves across the country. People of all ages will be on the edge of their seats to see whether Katniss will prevail in the fight against the Capitol, how the love-story will unfold and, of course, whether or not the movie is true enough to the book to appease the most loyal fans.

While I must admit that I have read all three Hunger Games books, and did so in perhaps what was near-record time, my interest this week in anticipation of the movie release lies more along the lines of the connections we can draw between the perils of Panem – the fictitious setting of the novels – and the culture of food, class and justice in the United States. A quick Google search of “The Hunger Games + real life” reveals everything from conspiracy theories to blog rants about how the United States of America IS the Capitol. Although I don’t take quite the extreme view, I do find several specific connections compelling:

1) the rising role of food as a marker of social class in the U.S., and 2) the outrageous excess and waste of our consumption we too often fail to recognize.

From the outset of the series, a vast food gap is depicted between the Capitol and the various districts of Panem. Vignettes of extreme gluttony and extravagance – Capitol residents are able to take a pill to make themselves throw-up some of their food in order to continue indulging in elaborate meals – are contrasted with desperation, as Katniss revels in the acquisition of a single burned loaf of bread. The food gap in the United States may not look the same as that portrayed in the Hunger Games, yet food is nonetheless becoming an increasingly prominent marker of social class. In the United States the food gap reveals itself more in the type of food consumed. The well-off continually seek out healthier, fancier, more ethically produced foods. Those struggling financially often have little access to choices other than the empty calories of inexpensive, processed foods. In September of this year, the Harvard School of Public Health released a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association Internal Medicine[1. http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/press-releases/u-s-diet-shows-modest-improvement-but-overall-remains-poor/.] tracking the eating habits of just under 30,000 Americans between 1999 and 2010. The study revealed that over the last decade “diet quality has improved among people of high socioeconomic status but deteriorated among those at the other end of the spectrum.”[2. http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/09/access-to-real-food-as-privilege/379482/ This article also notes the study’s conclusion that diets in the US have improved overall when socioeconomic status is not accounted for, but one of the researchers notes that “the growing gap between the rich and poor (is) ‘disturbing.’… There can by no tenable ‘overall improvement’ when there is growing disparity around a point so critical to preventative medicine, or when there is deterioration among any such sizable marginalized population.”]

The paradox of this situation is that the push to improve overall health of Americans – from easing the obesity epidemic to lowering health care costs and incidence of diet-related diseases – seems to be a ubiquitous value. Yet, what is considered “healthy” is often only accessible to a relatively small portion of us. Healthy lifestyles are not solely determined by the foods we eat, but also by the ways we use our bodies, the air we breathe, the water we drink. Families and individuals who struggle to feed themselves healthy food because of financial limitations are unlikely to have the time or energy to exercise regularly.[3. http://thinkprogress.org/health/2014/08/22/3474767/poor-people-use-diet-supplements-more/.] All of these problems compound rising healthcare costs, which can be an added burden, especially for families with children. Furthermore, the widening food gap promises to have cyclical consequences; as people fail to afford healthy food, their health is susceptible to deterioration, which can then intensify and deepen income inequality, and so on.[4. http://www.cbsnews.com/news/rich-poor-dietary-gap-widening-in-u-s/.] It just goes to show, when you don’t play fair, nobody wins – especially in the real life “hunger game.”

Food’s role as a marker of class has been recognized and discussed for some time, as The Washington Post notes in their article about the 2014 Harvard study.[5. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2014/09/02/americas-growing-food-inequality-problem/.] (See this piece in Newsweek from 2010). So if the problem has been known for the last half a decade or more, why has the gap just kept on growing? It would be nice if the food gap could simply be closed by single solutions, like taxing junk food at increasingly greater rates or building a Whole Foods in every low-income neighborhood.[6. Whether or not introducing health foods stores in low-income areas improves diet is debated. http://www.scirp.org/journal/PaperInformation.aspx?PaperID=42342 This study actually takes an analytical look at the impact of health foods stores in gentrifying neighborhoods and reveals that this would actually probably not work at all. Other research suggests there are myriad benefits to their introduction from diet quality to economic boon. Policy Link and The Food Trust state, “Living closer to healthy food retail is among the factors associated with better eating habits and decreased risk for obesity and diet-related diseases.” http://thefoodtrust.org/uploads/media_items/executive-summary-access-to-healthy-food-and-why-it-matters.original.pdf ] But the reality is that, like most things, this problem is multi-faceted.

What we eat is an incredibly personal part of our lives, and whether we recognize it or not each of us has a relationship with food. Research reported on by Policy Link and The Food Trust “reveals that healthy eating is embedded in a complex set of relationships…[including] transportation options, quality and price of produce and other healthy food options, marketing of unhealthy food to children, and cultural appropriateness of neighborhood food choices.”[7. Ibid.] The food gap is stretched by income inequality, education inequality, food access inequality and limited choice, differences in taste and tradition, and the fact that often times it seems like what is considered “healthy” just plain old keeps changing faster than most people can keep up with! While this cacophony of policy problems is inevitably frustrating, I like the takeaway of a response to the Hunger Games’ themes of food and power written a few years ago. The author says: “Those of us with so much, we need to share.”[8. http://www.agriview.com/news/regional/the-real-world-hunger-games-not-so-far-fetched/article_4a6bc506-a537-11e1-9244-0019bb2963f4.html.]

And the thing is, we DO have plenty to share here in the United States. A report from the USDA released in February 2014 suggests that we waste approximately 1,249 calories of food per person, per day in the United States.[9. http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2014/02/27/283071610/u-s-lets-141-trillion-calories-of-food-go-to-waste-each-year.] Much of this food waste is fruits, vegetables, and other healthy foods that “spoil” or are discarded due to irregular appearance. I find this startling. Perhaps the American food scene is more akin to that in the Capitol than I first suggested. The enormity of our waste is captured eloquently by National Geographic: “More than 30 percent of our food [in the United States], valued at $162 billion annually, isn’t eaten. Pile all that food on a football field and the layers would form a putrefying casserole miles high.”[10. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/10/141013-food-waste-national-security-environment-science-ngfood/.] So maybe that isn’t so much eloquent as it is disturbing. The good news is that reducing food waste, along with encouraging healthy eating, is a trend people are tackling more and more (football pun intended). Globally, new storage methods are being introduced. Here in the US businesses are innovating to cut down on waste. Farmers and producers are innovating to lessen food loss. [11. Ibid. ]

There is no doubt a long way to go in righting food distribution injustices of waste and inaccessibility. In all we do to eradicate food loss, we should always keep an eye to how we can help those who don’t have enough food or enough good food, have more on their table. We should remember just how much abundance there really is in the world, and that there is always something – resources, knowledge, compassion – to share.

(The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 isn’t your only option for a food-centric movie-going experience this weekend. Food Chains, a documentary about a grassroots movement for farm workers’ rights, will be released nationwide on November 21st. More information about the film and the movement at www.foodchainsfilm.com.)

Gina Tonn is a Program Assistant with ELCA World Hunger through the Lutheran Volunteer Corps. While an avid reader, she rarely makes an effort to see the latest films. “I just can’t sit still that long!” she says, when pressed about the fact that it took her approximately a month to watch “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.” She is still working up the wherewithal to start “The Two Towers.”


 

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