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Eating Up the Hunger Games

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

A recent comic strip summed up life in these United States in 2012. Several rotund Americans are waiting in line at the movie theater. All are holding massive tubs of popcorn, jumbo candy bars and vats of soda. They’re queuing to watch “The Hunger Games.”

The movie is the hit of the year. In case you haven’t read it, the popular book takes place in a future United States that’s been rocked by civil war. A new “Capitol” is based in the Rocky Mountains, surrounded by 12 “Districts.”

Author Suzanne Collins seems to be warning that the modern U.S. is similar to Rome. Many of the characters in the book’s Capitol have Latin names: Caesar, Claudius, Octavia, etc. And the people of the Capitol are certainly obsessed with their “bread and circuses,” with the Hunger Games themselves serving as the ultimate distraction.

As in the U.S. today, life in the Capitol is comfortable, with modern innovations and plenty of food available upon demand. That’s not the case in the other Districts, where most struggle to get enough to eat. The book’s hero, Katniss, hails from the poorest region, modern-day Appalachia. She supplements her family’s table by hunting almost every day.

In that way, at least, the Hunger Games seems to have taken readers back to the future.

At the dawn of humanity, the quest for food was each person’s biggest concern. Hunter-gathers lived hand-to-mouth, never more than a few days away from starvation. Eventually humans domesticated animals and crops. That made life somewhat easier, as food could be stored and animals could supply nutritious milk and meat.

Still, right into the 20th Century, humans struggled to get enough to eat. At the dawn of World War II, “officials said at least 40 percent of potential military recruits were undernourished,” the Fayetteville Observer recalled earlier this year. No longer. “Today, just over a third of U.S. adults are obese. By 2030, 42 percent will be,” the Associated Press reported recently.

In The Hunger Games, the country’s rulers have an excess of abundance.

“They do surgery in the Capitol, to make people appear younger and thinner. In District 12, looking old is something of an achievement since so many people die early. You see an elderly person, you want to congratulate them on their longevity, ask the secret of survival,” Katniss observes. “A plump person is envied because they aren’t scraping by like the majority of us.”

The Capitol uses food as a weapon. The United States isn’t at that point. But our government has had a hand in our obesity epidemic. For years, the USDA’s food pyramid encouraged people to load up on grains.

Starting in 1992, the federal government “recommended five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables. But these were secondary to the recommendation of six to 11 servings of bread, cereal, rice and pasta. It didn’t differentiate between refined and whole grains,” CNN reported last year.

That was poor advice. “It promoted eating so many grain servings, it was promoting obesity,” Prof. Marion Nestle of New York University said. A new government “plate icon” now encourages Americans to get half their calories from fruits and veggies, but in today’s society that will be easier said than done.

Washington still provides generous subsidies to encourage farmers to grow grains. For example, the liberal Environmental Working Group says the federal government provided some $3.5 billion to corn growers in 2010, the most recent year for which information is available.

That tends to make corn cheap, so it ends up in everything from soda (as high fructose corn syrup) to cattle (as feed). As a consequence, it’s less expensive to grab a half pound bag of chips and a two litre bottle of soda or a fast food value meal than it is to snack on fresh fruits and vegetables (which usually aren’t federally subsidized).

In the book, Katniss has a final warning for Americans. “Destroying things is much easier than making them,” she observes while preparing to get rid of her opponents’ stored food and weapons.

Doing so gave her a leg up in the Hunger Games, since she knew how to get her own food. Most of us don’t, just as most of us don’t know how to manufacture the computers, cars and appliances that make modern life so comfortable.

There’s no reason to expect our future to look like The Hunger Games. The story of human development is a story of remarkable improvements, with life getting steadily longer, safer and happier. If the U.S. renews its traditional commitment to first principles, especially free market economics to encourage innovation and risk-taking, our future should be even brighter than our present.

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