Thursday, August 25, 2011

Our Own 'Hunger Games'

Caryn D. Riswold
August 2011

We had homemade whole wheat oatmeal pancakes with fresh local farmers market blueberries cooked into a sweet sauce right before delivering a donated all beige chicken and starch dinner served in Styrofoam to the local homeless shelter. I ate fresh un-genetically-modified corn tortillas hand patted and grilled in an open air kitchen in an indigenous village in Mexico, and two weeks later sat in the formal dining room of a Holland America cruise ship off the Alaskan coast while Filipino and Indonesian wait staff dance the “napkin ballet” to begin our five course meal designed by an award winning chef. All summer long, brown children stared at us, wide-eyed with famine in the horn of Africa, every night on the evening news.

Reading Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy this summer gave me a new frame for the many ways that food and social class are interconnected.  In the young adult fantasy novels, the heroine Katniss Everdeen is a fierce hunter and trader, shooting squirrel and other wild game in order to help feed her undernourished community in the Seam, an impoverished part of District Twelve.  Katniss is whisked off to The Capitol to participate in a death match designed to maintain political stability and entertain its citizens.  While there, she eats sumptuous foods, eventually learning that residents of The Capitol have a pill that they can take which will induce vomiting so that they can go on gorging themselves on even more rich gourmet food.  Throughout the novels, food is a key illustrator of privilege and oppression. 
If you pay attention, you can see how it is in our daily lives as well.

A lot of people and institutions benefit when we do not see social class. Progressive Christians like Jim Wallis have been relentless at pointing out how much of the bible talks about poverty. Particularly as a way to hold conservative Christian politicians accountable, perhaps to point out the flaw in their fixation on homosexuality in the bible. But it doesn’t work. They don’t see class, and they don’t want to see class. How else can we explain a massive deficit reduction deal that does nothing to ask corporations and wealthy people to pay more, while cutting social programs and services relied on disproportionately by poor and elderly people? What other reason is there for eight Republicans running for president to stand on a debate stage in Ames, Iowa, and pledge to never accept a tax increase even if it were matched with ten times as much money in budget cuts? How else can we explain the idea promoted recently that poor people need to pay more taxes?      
Billionaire investor Warren Buffett makes people nervous when he sees social class.  He talks publicly and repeatedly about how much less in taxes he pays than anyone else working in his office, including his secretary.  He challenges Congress to tax him and his wealthy friends more.  He makes wealth and privilege visible.

Poverty matters in many religious traditions, and so does food. The Jewish Seder, Christian Eucharist, Muslim Eid feast, kosher and halal rules, along with Buddhist practice of mindful eating are just a few examples. Food symbolizes beliefs, reflects commitments, and reinscribes a traditions. What we do with food matters in religious practice and beyond religious practice. 

One of my first extended forays into theological construction was via the Eucharist. In my dissertation and first book, I focused a lot on two parts of this Christian sacrament that are helpful for thinking theologically about seeing social class. In the words of institution used by many Christian churches, Jesus says “This is my body, broken for you; This cup is the new covenant in my blood; Do this in remembrance of me.” Two key phrases “this is” and “do this” are the indicative and imperative elements of the sacrament. The indicative element means that the sacrament indicates something about the world. This is my broken body. Broken in a world that is unjust, damaged, and violent to the point of death. These are things to see, to name, and to confront. The imperative, do this, is a response. It is a call to action, service, new leadership, care and protest in the face of what is wrong in the world. It is hope in reply to a hard truth. 

So if there is something unjust in the fact that urban food deserts persist, we need to support small businesses that are bringing fresh produce into those neighborhoods. If it is wrong that some of the most affordable foods are those that are worst for our health and environment, then we need to create stronger networks of sustainable local food production. If there is something wrong with the fact that the local food bank sees more needy patrons every month, we need to not only donate when we can, but we must address systemic poverty in our local communities.
But first, we have to see it.

Caryn D. Riswold, Ph.D., is a feminist theologian in the Lutheran tradition, and teaches religion and gender and women’s studies at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois.  She is the co-creator of three books, many articles, four oversized tomato bushes, a barrel-planter full of basil, and a lot of cobblers featuring Calhoun County Peaches.  You can follow her on Twitter @feminismxianity.


  1. This reminds me of the Marian Wright Edelman poem our family says around the table every Thanksgiving:

    God, we thank You for this food
    for the hands that planted it
    for the hands that tended it
    for the hands that harvested it
    for the hands that prepared it
    for the hands that provided it
    and for the hands that served it.
    And we pray for those without enough food
    in Your world and in our land of plenty.