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Culture Shock: What I’ve Learned About Sustainable Food from the Hunger Games

January 24, 2013

On brutal winter days like yesterday – 10 degrees! – there’s nothing I’d rather do than get a hot drink and read. Or to quote C.S. Lewis, “You can’t get a cup of tea big enough, or a book long enough, to suit me.” While I have no desire to actually go outside, I have been reflecting on what pop culture teaches about some of my pet subjects: sustainable food and bicycling. Some of my favorite blogs dissect how specific pop culture reflects societal values, but I won’t be going quite so deep. Instead, I’ll look at the broad lessons that these books are teaching, or at least the lessons that I got out of them, for good or bad.

The Hunger Games and its accompanying sequels were both some of my favorite books all year, and perhaps of all time. I’m a big fan of well-written dystopias and found the characters compelling, especially the heroine Katniss Everdeen. As the title suggests, The Hunger Games focuses largely on finding and providing food, so it has a lot to say about our society’s relationship with it. I’ve tried to keep it these mostly spoiler-free, but there are a few hints here and there, so just a warning if you don’t like any information about a book ahead of time.

1) Skills related to food passed down through generations can help us get through even the toughest times.
In the beginning of the book, Katniss describes how after her father’s death, her family was struggling to survive. On the brink of starvation, she realizes that the skills of gathering and hunting her father taught her would provide their salvation. While most of us will never be in that position, we do have a lot to learn from the generations before us. Skills such as gardening, saving seeds, home canning, and fermenting can help us eat much more locally and drastically increase the sustainability of our food systems. The methods that helped our grandparents survive the Great Depression can help us transform the current recession into a much more functional economy. The Transition Movement calls this reskilling; I tend to call it learning from earlier generations.

2) Gathering wild foods can open up a whole new world of options.

One of Katniss’s key characteristics is her ability as an expert archer. She also has the wild gatherer background mentioned above. During the course of the book, she gathers apples, blackberries, greens, wild onions, and medicinal herbs. While I deeply respect those who do hunt for food, I myself can never imagine being a hunter. However, I’d love to learn more about wild gathering, from mushrooms to mullen. I haven’t taken a class on it yet, but I’m hoping to go on an edible identification nature walk in the future.

3) Delicious foods can be found in unlikely places.
It’s obvious that author Suzanne Collins did her research – I never heard of a number of the edible wild plants Katniss describes, including her namesake. She says, “In late summer, I was washing up in a pond when I noticed the plants growing around me.  Tall with leaves like arrowheads.  Blossoms with three white petals. I kneeled down into the soft mud, and I pulled up handfuls of the roots.  Small, bluish tubers that don’t look like much of anything but boiled or baked are as good as any potato.” Also known as arrowhead or duck potato, I’m pretty sure I’ve seen this plant in ponds and swamps a bunch of times but had no idea it was edible. Of course, now I want to go try it!

4) How we treat food in a society reflects how we treat its people.
In the Hunger Games, there are two worlds – the impoverished pain of the Districts and the luxurious waste of the Capital. While people in the Districts never quite have enough food and must put their children into a lottery of death just to earn grain and oil, the residents of the Capital take drugs to throw up their food so they have space to eat more. More importantly, the Capital’s waste is created on the backs of the workers, particularly in Districts 9 and 11. While the book says little about District 9, it points out the people in District 11 are among the most malnourished and poorly treated of the entire population.

When you hear modern-day stories about the conditions of tomato workers in Florida and pork workers in North Carolina, you start to realize that this part of the Hunger Games is less of a satire and more of a reality for many people in the U.S. Of course, it’s far from limited to the U.S. – child slavery is a huge issue in the cocoa trade.

5) Providing food for each other can create and maintain essential ties between individuals and within communities.

Katniss’s main relationships across the series – with her sister Prim, with her friend Gail, and with her fellow contestant Peeta – are all based on sharing food. She takes pride in her ability to provide for her younger sister, who herself later raises a goat that provides cheese for the family. Gail and Katniss split the wild game they hunt, drawing from each others’ skills in trapping and archery. Peeta’s kindness by giving Katniss a piece of bread while she’s starving inspires her ability to save her family. I personally think cooking and sharing food with people is an essential bonding experience, so this lines right up with my philosophy.

Beyond individual relationships, sharing food is fundamental to the District 12 community. Katniss and Gail trade with the mayor and the local market, providing one of the few sources of meat to the whole community. While few communities in the U.S. can’t get meat like District 12, many lack access to fresh produce. Growing and sharing produce through community gardens, gleaning programs, and mobile markets can help increase food access. Most community cooks don’t need to illegally make stew out of wild dog like the Hob’s Greasy Sae, but “Gray Markets” and food incubators can help not-yet-licensed food businesses get started.

In addition to the relevant social commentary, there’s also a lot of in-depth descriptions or “food porn” for the hungry among us. I bought Chris The Hunger Games cookbook for Christmas, so I’m hoping to make some the recipes, especially the ones involving wild gathered food. If I can actually get the ingredients I’ll definitely write about how they turn out!

Have you read The Hunger Games? What did you think about its commentary on society and food in particular?

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