Hunger Banquet Offers WSU Students A Unique Perspective On Poverty
Last week, a group of students at Wichita State University hosted an interactive meal called a hunger banquet. The goal of the event was to participate in a lesson about global income disparity and unfair food distribution. KMUW’s Abigail Wilson attended the banquet and has this report.
It’s dinnertime, and the 50 or so people gathered in the ballroom of the Rhatigan Student Center at WSU are hungry--but they have no choice as to where to sit or what to eat.
About two dozen people are seated on the tile floor. On their laps are shiny black plastic plates on which there are small mounds of rice. There’s no silverware accompanying their meager meal, and the diners aren’t given anything to drink.
This group represents the majority of the world’s population--roughly 50 percent--whose average income is about $2.83 a day.
Rocio Delaguila, a professor at Wichita State, is among this "low-income" group. She randomly drew a card from a paper bag when she entered the large ballroom on campus. The card gave her her “role” for the evening. All of the attendees drew similar cards and roles.
The information on the cards is based on worldwide poverty statistics. They dictate each person’s social economic status and illustrate the consequences of being born into one economic class versus another.
Tonight, Delaguila is Miguel, a sugar farmer from the Dominican Republic who works 11 hours a day but can't save any money.
A smaller group of about 15 is several feet away from Delaguila’s group, They sit around a table like children in an elementary school cafeteria--crammed together, eating rice and beans out of disposable bowls. This group has spoons and glasses of water.
Josh Chase, a junior at WSU, is wedged between two others at the table. The random card he drew gave him a middle-income role at the banquet: that of Chang, a 38-year-old woman from Cambodia who works on a farm and is married to a construction worker.
Across the room is yet another collection of people. This group is the smallest: Just ten people represent the high-income population of the world. To be a member of this group, the minimum yearly income is just $6000.
Their table is draped with a white linen cloth. Servers bring them lemonade, iced tea, salad, pasta, bread and a brownie for dessert. Marie Yoshimizu, a senior at WSU who is originally from Japan, was lucky enough to draw a card placing her at this table; her role tonight is Manuel, a 40-something mayor in Peru who lives a comfortable lifestyle.
The rice-only group, the beans-and-water group and the white-linen-table people are taking part in a hunger banquet, an experiential dinner created by the global aid organization Oxfam America. The idea is to teach a sensory lesson about worldwide poverty and hunger.
Nancy Delaney, who works for Oxfam and oversees the hunger banquet program, says the idea was created by a volunteer in the early 1970s. There are between 500 and 600 volunteer-led hunger banquets held nationally each year. The group hosting the banquet at WSU is a combination of students on the university’s community service board and others who are taking a semester-long course focused on eliminating hunger.
“Every event is a little bit different because each community, each group of volunteers, customized the event to meet their own particular objectives and needs," Delaney says.
One thing that holds true for all of the banquets is being able to see and feel the symbolic injustice of income disparity and inequitable food distribution--even if it’s just for the hour the dinner takes place.
“Very often for participants, it’s the first time they’ve actually had to think about the consequences of being born in one economic class versus another, or had to think about the implications of having access to resources or not having them," Delaney says.
The Oxfam Hunger Banquet model focuses on global gaps and levels much lower than we traditionally think of in the U.S. Here certainly we would not think that $6000 a year would entitle us to white linen and servers, but in much of the world, that $6000 is considered high-income.
“I think that’s one of the most powerful and stunning statistics in the event," Delaney says. "The fact that when you hear that and you look around the room and think, 'I don’t know anyone who makes that little.' And yet, that’s all it takes to sit at the table. It really brings that question of inequality to life.”
But does play-acting poverty really make a difference? Delaney says yes--but the event is more about interacting with one another.
“People will find it in themselves to share very personal stories because they’re seeing the power that the event has and they want to contribute to that. They want to be part of that," Delaney says.
A young man named Richard Thach, who is seated on the floor as part of the low-income group, shares his story at the end of the banquet. Thach says his card--assigning him the role of Moon, a 55-year-old paddy-field farmer from Thailand--actually describes some of his family members.
“It speaks to me because my family is actually from the Southeast Asian area and we were very poor down there," he says. "But my mom ended up making it to America and….[s]he was poor and her sisters and brothers and my grandma just tried to survive."
Thach grew up in Wichita’s Planeview neighborhood. Later, his family has was able to move to a nicer neighborhood and have a more stable life.
"Now we are middle class and I am just blessed to be where I am at right now," he says.
Some leave the banquet happy, some leave curious--and some leave the banquet hungry.
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