Winning the real-life version of 'The Hunger Games'

Posted 03/12/12

Link to editorial in the Asheville citizen Times on March 11, 2012.

In an uncanny coincidence, the movie “The Hunger Games’’ premieres the same month that Asheville was ranked the third-worst in food hardship among 100 metropolitan areas in the U.S.

Filmed in Western North Carolina, “The Hunger Games” is set in the fictional District 12, a rural Appalachia where youths are forced to compete for survival in a televised wilderness removed from the resource-rich capital.

(If you haven’t read the book, imagine good-looking teenagers from Reynolds, Owen and Asheville High released into Pisgah National Forest to forage and hunt while we watch on a big screen downtown at the drum circle.)

The movie’s trailer features this foreboding line: “Happy Hunger Games.” But on the screen and in reality, we know that hunger games are never happy affairs.

Mallory McDuff, Ph.D. is the author of “Sacred Acts: How Churches are Working to Protect Earth’s Climate.’’ She teaches at Warren Wilson College.

According to the Food Research and Action Center in Washington, D.C., more than one in five people struggle to afford food in the Asheville area, defined as Buncombe, Henderson, Haywood and Madison counties. Last year, MANNA FoodBank and Feeding America reported that almost 30 percent of children younger than 18 in Western North Carolina are “food insecure.”

These findings are unsettling when you consider that we live in “foodtopia,” where local food bumper stickers outnumber those ubiquitous “My Stick Figure Family” decals on the back of minvans. In the last decade alone, Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project has made our region a national model for linking local economies to local food.

In “The Hunger Games,” unsolicited help to the contestants arrives in a parachute that brings food or tools from the home region. Here in Asheville, our faith communities have the power to help — not by some pie-in-the-sky miracle — but by integrating healthy food into our religious lives.

Our houses of worship have land, intergenerational networks and a theological mandate to feed the hungry. Across the country, congregations are connecting food and faith through gardens outside parish halls, canning parties in church kitchens and local food potlucks at synagogues.

Christ Church in Little Rock, Ark., has opened its kitchen, certified for commercial use, to local sustainable food businesses that cannot afford certified kitchen space. This winter, Sara Miles, author of the book “Take this Bread,” visited Montreat College and shared how the sanctuary of her church in San Francisco becomes a weekly food bank run by those in need.

As we face the concurrent challenges of food insecurity and an obesity epidemic, it becomes paramount for congregations to model the importance of nutritious food in healthy communities.

Here in Asheville, parishioners working at Grace Covenant Community Garden harvested 500 pounds of broccoli this year, giving 75 percent to local food banks. The church expanded its gardens into three other counties, distributing 40,000 pounds of cabbage this winter. Haywood Street Congregation also grows food in a community garden and hosts the weekly meal called the Welcome Table.

Much is being done, but every congregation with a manicured lawn could produce vegetables, share skills such as canning and cooking, and change our food-insecure community into a true bountiful city.

Thankfully, resources exist to help congregations to this end. The organization GreenFaith has published The Good Food Toolkit, which includes directions on conducting a congregational food audit. Interfaith Power & Light developed a Cool Harvest Kit that connects food, faith and climate action.

Certainly skeptics might say that congregations have no business tending a garden when they need to attend to shrinking memberships and budgets. But that’s exactly why producing food – not just for those in need – makes sense. At Oakley United Methodist Church, the Rev. Shelly Webb said that their garden has transformed the congregation from a “dying church” to a vibrant faith community within the past 18 months.

Last year, this church involved 35 volunteers in the garden, which gave food to 100 people, with a startup cost of $2,000 in grant money for tools and supplies. Now the congregation holds canning parties, gives visitors a jar of its salsa, and hosts a new farmers market in their parking lot. By tending its garden, the church has reconnected with its neighbors — the Oakley community.

To raise awareness and money for world hunger, the stars of the movie The Hunger Games have partnered with World Food Programme and Feeding America. But we don’t have to walk the red carpet to achieve these same goals at home: let us share hope, grow food, and break bread together.

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