In Catching Fire, food is as much of a character as Katniss. We cannot understand Katniss until we examine her relationship with food in its scarcity or its abundance.
Hunting and gathering
When we first meet Katniss she is preparing to go hunting. It is a matter of life or death that she gathers enough food after the loss of her father in the coal mine. The scope of her concern extends only as far as “me and mine” which includes her hunting partner Gale and his family. She is aware that other families in her district, and presumably across Panem, suffer from degrading, endemic and persistent hunger – but she doesn’t think much about why this is the case. She feels she couldn’t make any difference even if she did dwell on it. Gale thinks about it though, and his anti-Capitol tirades in the woods scare Katniss. She has a good thing going, poaching game and gathering wild edibles. If they get caught, she is certain starvation will overtake her family.
When she is sent to the Capitol as a Tribute in the Hunger Games the horror of what awaits her in the arena is pushed aside by the wonder of readily available food, delivered by servants or even through the walls at the push of a button.
There is so much of food in The Hunger Games series that someone even wrote a Hunger Games based cookbook. (I’ve been meaning to make the lamb stew with dried plums for quite a while now.)
After Katniss wins in the Hunger Games, personal hunger and fear of starvation for her family is no longer a factor. Her pantry is stocked, and she will always have enough money to buy whatever she wants from the shops in town. However, with this freedom comes a new awareness of the suffering around her. She still hunts, taking over Gale’s snares when he he goes to work in the mines, because even though he works full time it’s still not enough to feed his growing brothers and sister.
The day before she is to go on the official Victory Tour with Peeta, her fellow victor, she checks the snares and takes the catch to Gale’s mother, Hazelle. Katniss must have talked about what she ate in the Capitol because as she leaves the humble cottage Hazelle gives her a hug and tells her to enjoy the food.
The truth about bread and circuses
On the last night of the Victory Tour Katniss has an epiphany about food in Panem.
The party at the presidential palace was opulent to say the least. Amazing food covered tables every where Katniss looked. Even on her self-imposed one-taste-per-dish regimen, she filled up quickly. And she’d only sampled a small number of the dishes available.
But this is not the tragedy. It is the revelation that at a small corner table there are tiny stemmed glasses of emetic. The shock fills Katniss’ mind with images of emaciated children brought to her mother for healing. They could recover just fine, but the prescription is the only thing the parents don’t have – more food.
“And here in the Capitol they’re vomiting for the pleasure of filling their bellies again and again. Not from some illness of body or mind, not from spoiled food. It’s what everyone does at a party.”
At this moment Katniss begins to see the truth in Gale’s rant. The Capitol is a bureaucracy of welfare, controlling the poor with starvation so the privileged can sedate themselves with surplus. It is a mirror: Katniss could not see past her immediate need to recognize others’ hunger, the Capitol elites will not look past their opulence to recognize true need when they see it.
This is a shameful reflection of the current nutritional state of our nation. In America, inner city and rural “food deserts” mean people are surviving on highly processed foods that have long shelf lives, and are developing third world nutritional deficiencies like rickets because they are not getting enough fruits and vegetables. And this is assuming the children are getting enough to eat to start with. According to Feeding America’s Hungry Children, 12.4 million children live in “food insecure” households. Hard to believe – since this is one of the wealthiest nations in the world. Just last summer a Philadelphia woman was threatened with a $600/day fine if she continued to feed lunch to the needy children in her neighborhood. Capitol bureaucracy trumping logic once again.
This verse from Amos chapter 2 suddenly sound very relevant to us today: “… they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals. They trample on the heads of the poor as upon the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed.”
Shame on us, America. Chances are if you are reading this you are among America’s Capitol Elite. Perhaps you don’t live in D.C., but you are privileged none-the-less. As residents of a blessed nation, you have the responsibility to be a blessing in return. It is time we examine ourselves. Are we a part of the solution bringing grace and hope to the needy, or are we merely taking another bite.