At the top tier, a small family gathered to dine. A server placed china dishes of flank steak and vegetable sides on the crisp white tablecloth, along with a large bowl of salad and a glass carafe of juice.
One level down, groups gathered in chairs around an empty spot where a table should be, and snacked on sandwiches, cookies and chips. And one level down still, where the lights of Decker 201 didn’t reach, the largest group gathered on the floor, waiting patiently for their small servings of rice and beans. Women had an even longer wait for both sandwiches and rice, as they were ordered to the back of the line.
Welcome to SUNY Broome’s Hunger Banquet, where a free lunch was served alongside an important lesson about social class, sexism and food insecurity.
“This event is going to deal with a lot of heavy information and it’s a heavy topic,” acknowledged Student Activities Director Jason Boring. “If you feel guilty, don’t – that’s not the intention.”
At the start of the April 19 event, students were randomly split into the three social classes and assigned to different tiers. They then watched a short video, which showed what the world would look like if it was represented by a group of 100 people. The takeaway: If you keep your food in your refrigerator, your clothes in a closet, have a bed to sleep in and a roof over your head, you’re doing better than 75 percent of people in the rest of the world.
Scott Corley, Assistant Professor of History, Philosophy & Social Science, and Venessa Rodriguez, Staff Associate for the Student Success Squad, took turns reading the event’s script, offering sobering statistics: One in five American children lives below the poverty line. The 30 percent of the world we call “middle class” is actually in a precarious place, where illness, a lost job or a bad harvest can easily land them on the margins of society. Fully 50 percent of the world’s population falls into the lowest socioeconomic group, where education remains a pipe dream – especially for girls – and the struggle for food, water and shelter limits opportunities.
Students took turns reading vignettes that represent members of each social group: An Indian business owner who struggles to stay afloat with his family in a one-room apartment. A farm laborer from Guatemala. A Sudanese refugee who manages to rise to the middle class thanks to a gift of chickens, and a Chinese family that falls into poverty due to a sister’s illness and the closing of a plant. A stay-at-home wife and mother from Nebraska, and the sick and injured woman in the overseas factory whose labor created the former’s wealth.
Sexism is a reality, too: Female participants in the middle and lower class sections only had the opportunity to eat after male participants took what they wanted, a rule that made some participants gasp.
“You told us not to feel guilty, but I do,” Professor Chris Origer said.
Quite a few students were slow to partake of their free meal, and those who did often did not look up at their fellow participants.
“I didn’t want to eat at all when the women had to go to the end of the line,” a male student in the poverty section reflected.
The exercise made some students angry; three would-be participants walked out of the room, Boring said. On the whole, students said the exercise made them feel grateful for that they have – and yes, guilty. Although the rules prohibited the sharing of food, participants said they would have shared gladly with those in need.
“Seeing this is a very healthy experience,” one student, assigned to the middle-class, shared with participants. He was born in Jamaica, he explained, and the kind of poverty and food insecurity being discussed is a reality for many there.
SUNY Broome students who wish to raise awareness of food insecurity issues may consider donating to or volunteering with the campus’ food pantry, said Student Assembly President Heather Coggin. They may also wish to raise awareness of homelessness by participating in the annual campus Sleep-Out. More than one thousand individuals experienced homelessness in Broome County in 2014, Coggin noted.
Jason Boring would like to thank all those who helped make the Hunger Banquet possible. They include:
- Emcees Scott Corley and Venessa Rodriguez
- Laura Hodel, who brought the group together and led the charge on approaching this subject
- Erin O’Hara-Leslie, who helped get the word out through her connections at Shared Governance and various other meetings
- Melissa Martin, who was the main point of contact for ticketing and helped keep track of the folks that were going to attend
- Penny DelFavero, who worked on publicity with MarCom
- Debbie Morello, who also helped get the word out and was a big part of shaping what efforts would look like
- Ashley Blackwell from Student Activities, who helped Jason coordinate the event
- Students Regina Robinson, Nisean Cooper and Amanda Soto, who helped seat participants.