Do It For Katniss! Food Activism and The Hunger Games

(Originally posted here on HandPicked Nation)

“Starvation’s not an uncommon fate in District 12. Who hasn’t seen the victims? Older people who can’t work. Children from a family with too many to feed…Starvation is never the cause of death officially. It’s always the flu, or exposure, or pneumonia. But that fools no one.” These are the words of Katniss, the main character of Suzanne Collins’s immensely popular novel for teens, The Hunger Games, on her community’s constant struggle with hunger.

Image Source: Wikipedia

Even if you have never read the books, it has been impossible to ignore the hype around the movie The Hunger Games, released today, March 23. Adapted from the first book of Collins’s trilogy, the film is already set for a successful opening weekend, with packs of young (and not so young) adults waiting for the record-breaking midnight showing on Thursday night.

The Hunger Games and the two other books in the series are preoccupied with, as the name might suggest, hunger. Hunger dogs Katniss from her home district, where she illegally hunts for game to feed her family, to the Hunger Games themselves, where she must fight other teenagers to the death while trying to survive starvation and thirst. Katniss lives in a dystopian future version of North America in which the United States dissolved centuries ago to be replaced by a despotic Capitol ruling over thirteen subjugated districts. To ensure their cooperation, the Capitol requires two child “tributes” from each district every year to compete in the Hunger Games, a brutal challenge in which the winner is the sole remaining survivor.

The books certainly have a clear point to make about food and hunger. Hunting, for example, is illegal, although the forest’s game could easily support Katniss’s district. Instead, she and all of the district’s residents are forced into debt by purchasing rations of grain from the Capitol. The inhabitants of the Capitol, on the other hand, binge and purge in order to indulge in their feasts to the fullest. The alimental divide between the haves and the have-nots in the world of the novel is sharp, unforgiving, and, in so many ways, not the stuff of fiction at all.

Like the Harry Potter series before it, The Hunger Games series has gathered a passionate fanbase. And like Harry Potter, community organizers are attempting to harness the power of that fanbase to effect real change in the arena of global hunger. The Harry Potter Alliance, a fan activist group organized in the name of J. K. Rowling’s series, has begun a social campaign called Hunger is Not a Game in the hopes of educating fans of The Hunger Games series on the real problem of global hunger. The beauty of such campaigns, as one New York Times article writes, is that it offers kids and teens “the chance to be a hero like Harry,” providing the framework for their enthusiasm and passion to find an outlet in real-world problems. Hunger is Not a Game is working in conjunction with OXFAM and its GROW campaign to raise awareness of hunger in the United States and abroad and work toward the goals of OXFAM’s five-point plan. Using the movie’s launch on Friday as a focusing point, the campaign urged contributors to start food drives during the month of March and collect on the night of the premiere in movie theaters throughout the country.

The Hunger Games movie itself has partnered with the World Food Programme and Feeding America, using the film’s plot and characters to both educate visitors to the website and call those visitors to action by asking for donations to both organizations.

Dystopian fiction, a genre of which The Hunger Games is undeniably a part, is meant to force the reader to not only think about the future, but to think about the present. Even more importantly, the reader should take action within that present to prevent the dismal fictional future from coming to pass. Part of the excitement surrounding this film, for me, is that it is doing exactly what it is meant to do – both entertain and foster real social change.

So how about you, have you read The Hunger Games series? Know someone who has? How else do you think the book could be used to engage the YA audience in issues of food and sustainability?


Slow Food or Slow Zombies?

I’m always thrilled when the two great loves of my life, food and literary analysis, find each other in a piece of writing. This piece of writing found me, or was found for me, by my partner, who enables my weird scholarly interests.

“Katja,” you say, “why are there zombies on your blog about food?” Blame Michael Newbury, of Middlebury College.

Published this year in the journal American Literary History, Newbury’s article “Fast Zombie/Slow Zombie: Food Writing, Horror Movies, and Agribusiness Apocalypse” does much of what I aspire to do as a scholar. He places his interpretation of a series of contemporary zombie movies against the context of the modern scares in agribusiness to make a convincing argument, essentially about how pervasive our fears of Big Food really are.

Quoting from his conclusion gives you a good idea of his point: “The contemporary zombie movie, in short, is singularly and creatively alert to the difficulty of discovering alternatives outside the systemic power that brings food-like substances and brutally produced meat to our stores, our homes, our tables, and, finally, our stomachs.”

He notes that many zombie movies are placed against a backdrop of trash and junk food, showing the survivors eking out an existence on Cheez Doodles and candy. By constantly associating fast food with the zombie apocalypse, Newbury argues that these movies point out “the horror of modern eating.” He argues that, in that sense, the books of Michael Pollan, Marion Nestle, and others are just a watered-down, zombie-free version of the same critique offered by movies like 28 Days Later. And, just like Pollan, Nestle, etc., these movies offer a solution to the fast food crisis. Newbury argues that there are often attempts by the survivors at formal, candlelit dinners and vegetarianism in these movies: attempts at maintaining a more human/humane way of eating. However, unlike the work of food writers and activists, these horror movies don’t allow these humane acts of eating as a true, viable option by continuously interrupting them with zombie attacks.

I don’t think the article is perfect — I’m not sure that Newbury has chosen to provide exactly the right sort of background on the food movement, for example — but I think that its the sort of analysis we do actually need more of (what? a practical use for English?) This is because he argues that the fear of agricultural apocalypse in zombie movies shows how widespread this fear is, and how pervasive it’s influence, i.e. not just in stories.

I’d like to hear from zombie fans, though, and frankly, anyone else with their two cents. I, admittedly, don’t really care for all the face-ripping. For those of you who have a greater knowledge of the genre than I do — do Newbury’s ideas make sense? What do you think?

I would love to post a link to the article, but unless you have access to literary databases, then I’m afraid we’re out of luck.



Liebster Award and Nominations

I’ve been nominated for a Liebster Blog Award by Humphrey at FinderDog — thank you, Humphrey! FinderDog is the wonderfully narrated story of Humphrey’s “quest to solve the mysteries of my past and of the world, and to do my part to make sure that the iniquitous cannot triumph over the righteous and the good.”

As part of receiving this blog award, I am posting the rules for the award and three of my favorite blogs. I’ve been looking at several, some of which you can see in my blog roll. There are a lot of wonderful words and images in these blogs.

Here are the award rules:

1. Show your thanks to the blogger who gave you the award by linking back to them.
2. Reveal your top three-five picks for the award (with fewer than 200 followers) and let them know by leaving a comment on their blog. (see below)
3. Post the award on your blog.
4. Bask in the love from the most supportive people on the blogosphere – other bloggers.
5. And, best of all – have fun and spread the karma.

Here are some blogs I have been enjoying and think are deserving of this award (in no particular order):

1. Adrianna of “A Cozy Kitchen.” A lot of wonderful recipes with a great design. What’s not to love about jalapeno bacon stuffed mushrooms?

2. Karina of “Gluten Free Goddess.” After getting diagnosed with celiac, this was one of the first places I found with recipes I enjoyed.

3. Jonathan of “Wasted Food.” Jonathan writes on important food policy issues, focusing particularly on…well, wasted food.

Thanks again, Humphrey!


If you’re reading this, you know that my posting has been somewhat lacking in the last few weeks. Please meet the reason why: 

This is Murphy. He is a 15-pound Brittany puppy/ball of craziness. He plays hard and naps harder. Consequently, I spend much of my time running with him, playing with him, training him, and otherwise keeping him busy and, when he’s napping, trying to get everything else in my life done.

As with many things in life, dog ownership makes me think in different ways about — what else? Food. When talking to our dog trainer, she gave us a stack of papers on dog food and proper puppy nutrition. The rescue that Murphy came from asked that he be fed food with no grain fillers such as wheat and corn, and the trainer gave us materials on “how to read nutrition labels.” Lucky me — thanks to my celiac, I’m already a pro at reading food labels. As Marion Nestle says in an interview on the subject, pet food ingredient lists are just as confusing as those for human food. Just as many unknown or unusual ingredients but, unlike in human food, I don’t know what Murphy needs. I know that meat is good for him, but what about “beef lungs” and other weird meat parts? Is the sausage with turkey and spinach and cranberries better than the smellier one with duck and potato?

Either way, I’ll be thinking even more about food as I restock Murphy’s treats this week.

Coming up shortly: a review of/thoughts on Swindled: The Dark History of Food Fraud

Words and Food

I thought that it was time I explained a little more about the inspiration behind my blog’s title — aside from the most literal interpretation (I write about food…using words). I was an English major in college and went to grad school for English, so why the sudden turn to food? What can my training in English possibly give me in this very different field?

As it turns out, I learn more and more that what my professors in undergrad told me was true: English does help with anything and everything, because anything and everything is ultimately, in one way or another, about language. Cooks, food policy-makers, and members of the food industry all use words to make food do what they want it to do, and be what they want it to be. The first time I began thinking about the cross-pollination between my degree in English and my interest in food was in reading Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. In discussing the state of America’s food industry and the plight of the modern consumer (in both senses of the word), Pollan uses the word “legible” six times. While a completely commonplace word in some contexts, the meaning of “legible” seems a bit out of place when discussing food and agriculture: “Clear enough to be read or distinguished.” In Pollan’s usage, “ecological relationship[s],” landscapes, and food labels can all have varying degrees of legibility. 

The English major in me perked up. So it’s all about reading, you say? For Pollan, legibility means clearly readable connections between what we grow or raise, what we see in supermarkets, and what we eat. That applies to both where the food is grown and where it ends up — behind food labels. How easy are food labels and ingredients lists to understand? This is a question asked in an increasing number of debates centering around the clarity of food labels.

Marion Nestle, in her book Food Politics, deconstructs the careful word choices of food policy makers.Take, for example, the crucial difference between “eat less” and “choose,” as in “eat less meat” vs. “choose leaner meats.” “Eat less,” industry officials maintain, will always have negative connotations of avoidance and “bad” foods, while “choose” has a more positive, proactive connotation. Such a little difference, yet the source of such heated debate.

In fact, there are so many times that I’m grateful for my English major that I’m surprised that a Google search for “English major + food” only results in sites offering advice on how to feed oneself on an English major’s budget. Our experience of food is always filtered through words, so it only makes sense that careful word choices affect what food we eat and why.