The 1973 science fiction film Soylent Green commands attention for its chilling prescience. Set in 2022 New York, the film depicts a grim future overheated by pollution and overpopulated with hungry people. Without homes, people sleep in overcrowded apartments, shelters, and streets. Without jobs, people work amidst incredible pain and peril for basic sustenance. Without food, people consume each other in massive violence. Sound familiar?
I first saw Soylent Green earlier this year, amidst MAZON’s Food Stamp Challenge and in the shadow of Haitian food riots. I was frightened by how closely the fictional New York’s hungry masses and police brutality mirrored the global food crises and political upheaval. The root cause of the violence seems to be a lack of basic food – wheat & rice in Haiti, soy & lentils (“soylent”) in the film. Yet, these staples exist in surplus rations, carefully controlled and artificially limited by market and other regulations.
This flawed distribution system affects both the poor and the middle class. Even heroic Detective Robert Thorn (Charlton Heston) has to smuggle food and toiletries over the course of an investigation. Although he has a secure job, he still struggles to afford basic necessities. As Detective Thorn learns more about the unjust process and distribution of soylent foods, he becomes increasingly active. His passionate coda, “You’ve got to tell them!” is the most famous call for hunger advocacy in cinematic history.
Further connections to our work at MAZON come from Thorn’s roommate, heart, and conscience, Sol Roth (Edward G. Robinson). The elderly Jewish educator breaks into tears when Thorn presents him with a single piece of fresh fruit. This response confuses Thorn, who is accustomed to a diet of cheap, processed soylent products. He knows natural food is an expensive luxury, but either doesn’t know or doesn’t care about its health value.
I connected deeply with this moment during my short period on the Food Stamp Challenge. Like Sol, I knew the importance of healthy eating, but like Detective Thorn, I had to be realistic about it; fresh food was out of my reach, and I had to concentrate on feeling full instead of eating well. Thousands of hungry families across the nation share this dilemma every week. As food prices and household needs climb higher and higher, the decision between nutritious meals or filling junk foods will only become more difficult.
Detective Thorn & Sol differ from us in one key way: they are lone wolves overwhelmed by a corporate conspiracy. When confronted with the darkest depths of their social food chain, they collapse under the burden. For the sake of the millions of hungry people worldwide, we must run a different course. Whether you’re a MAZON donor, grantee, volunteer or advocate, when we educate each other to speak up and act out, we work towards insuring the world of Soylent Green remains a fiction.