In Margaret Peterson Haddix's novel Among the Hidden, what did Luke say about grain that made Jen so excited?
In Margaret Peterson Haddix’s young-adult novel of population control measures in a futuristic totalitarian society, Among the Hidden, grain is a fundamental source of sustenance – not unlike its value in today’s world. Grain, however, is a global commodity the prices for which can fluctuate wildly depending upon political and environmental factors. If a famine results in vastly diminished yields, the price goes up, and the costs of staples like bread similarly increase. In the case of the Garner family, grain is important to their ability to survive economically. The Garners are farmers, and their fortunes are determined by issues such as government-imposed conditions on farming practices. The Garners have a bigger problem, however: they are even more dependent upon their livestock, specifically, the hogs they raise. And the fact that encroachment from the nearby city is bringing housing to the borders of their farm, with the inevitable complaints from those dumb enough or narcissistic enough to purchase rural property abutting a hog farm and then complain about the smell, and wealthy landowners have more political clout than the subsistence farmers whose land is increasingly being usurped. Late in Chapter Five, Harland and Edna Garner, Luke’s parents, are now confronted with a threat to their very existence. As Edna rhetorically asks, "Those hogs are our bread and butter," she said. "With grain prices the way they are... what are we going to live on?" The hogs eat the grain, and the hogs bring good money, because of the scarcity of meat. The two commodities are intrinsically linked.
Jen Talbot, the illegal daughter of a member of the Population Police, whose job it is to locate children like his daughter whose birth exceeded the Government’s restrictions, but who is secretly working to change the system, befriends Luke, and it is their conversation in Chapter 17 that reveals to Jen the key she needs to help her father. Upon hearing from Luke of the Garner family’s occasional treat of consuming meat, when the Government is “encouraging” the entire population to become vegetarian and meat is scarce, Jen explains to Luke the facts of life:
"Something about vegetables being more efficient," she said. "Farmers have to use a lot more land to produce one pound of meat than to produce a pound of—what's it called?—soybeans."
Luke wrinkled his nose at the thought of eating soybeans. "I don't know," he said slowly. "We always fed our hogs the grain we couldn't sell because it didn't meet Government standards. But since the Government made us get rid of our hogs, Dad just lets that grain rot in the field."
"Really?" Jen grinned as if he'd just announced the overthrow of the Government. She thumped him on the back just as he took his first sip of soda. Between the bubbly drink and her enthusiastic pounding, Luke started coughing. Jen didn't seem to notice. "See, I told you you'd be a big help. I'm going to go post that on a bulletin board right now!"
What Luke has revealed to Jen emerges as the first major step in the latter’s efforts at discovering the Government’s motivations behind the imposition of the Population Law that limits families to no more than two children. As Haddix has Jen explain the situation to Luke:
"It's all about food," Jen said. "The Government was scared we'd all run out of food if the population kept growing. That's why they made you and me illegal, to keep people from starving."
Jen has posted on the chat line used by illegal “third” children – the “hidden” – the government’s restrictions on farming practices, and the encroachment on farmland, have directly contributed to the very food shortages that same government now fears, and uses to justify the Population Law:
He [Luke] watched as Jen typed in, "If the Government let farmers feed their animals the grain they can't sell, there'd be more meat."
Jen’s excitement at Luke’s comments regarding grain – that his family let their “grain rot in the field” – stems from her recognition of the linkage between government-imposed agricultural policies and government-imposed population restrictions.