Tessera (plural: tesserae) are tokens worth a meager year's supply of grain and oil for one person.
The option to receive tesserae is available in the districts of Panem to children between the ages of 12 to 18 (those eligible to participate in the Hunger Games). If their family is struggling for food, they can have their name added additional times to the reaping once only per family member, in exchange for an equal number of tesserae.
Once a child has claimed tesserae, they can collect oil and grain rations once a month for a year. This, however, is not enough to ensure survival as many still require money for basic needs such as rent, soap, thread, and candles. Tesserae entries are cumulative, therefore the number of reaping entries from the current year are carried over into the next.
In the districts
The practice of exchanging reaping entries for tesserae is mainly claimed in the poorer districts such as Districts 10, 11 and 12, while far less common in richer districts such as Districts 1, 2 and 4. The largest gap is between Districts 1 and 12, with nearly a 1:800 ratio. District 12 is considered the poorest district since it has the most amount of people taking tesserae. District 1 is considered the richest district since it has the fewest amount of people taking it. It is a possibility that children in Career districts take tesserae in order to get their name added into the reaping ball more times. This is unlikely however because most tributes from the Career districts are volunteers.
Characters taking tesseraeThe series' main character, Katniss Everdeen of District 12, has taken tesserae for each of the 3 members of her family (herself, her mother, and Primrose Everdeen, her sister) every year since she turned 12. This has given her three extra entries in the reaping per year, with a total of 20 by the time of the reaping for the 74th Hunger Games, at age 16. At the same reaping, Katniss' friend, Gale Hawthorne, age 18, had a total of 42 tesserae entries: one for each of the 5 members of his family (Rory, Posy, Vick, his siblings, and Hazelle Hawthorne, his mother). During Catching Fire, things in District 12 get so dire that Rory is forced to take tesserae to Hazelle and Gale's discomfort.
Although they also live in District 12, Madge Undersee and Peeta Mellark have never needed to take out any tesserae because Madge was the Mayor's daughter and Peeta's father owned a bakery. During Catching Fire, because of food shortages, kids in District 12 that took out tesserae never got grain from their tesserae.