ST. PETERSBURG — At a candlelit table on the stage, a trio of Eckerd College students dined on whole wheat penne Mediterranea, served by a well-dressed butler who frequently refilled iced tea and water glasses.
Nearby, about 60 students and staffers sat on the floor of the Hough Center, having waited in line for a serving of rice and water.
The Eckerd community got a stark first-hand look and feel for world hunger this week by staging an Oxfam Hunger Banquet, a powerful experience that raises awareness of brutal global inequality. The anti-hunger and social justice group has supported 450 to 700 such events annually since the first one in the 1970s, and more than 100 were on hand for the eye-opening and somewhat awkward Eckerd dinner.
“This is really interesting,” said Leah Bilski, a junior biology major. “I had no idea it was going to be this way. I expected maybe a couple speakers talking about hunger. But this is really hands-on, you really get a sense of what it’s like to be in this position. Like, ‘This is my dinner tonight?’ And I have to deal with it.”
Attendees were handed slips of paper as they entered the hall that gave them a global persona and determined their short-term fate: They would be classified as low-income, earning less than $1,000 a year; middle-income, earning $1,100 to $6,300 a year; high income, earning over $6,300 a year; and “the 1 percent,” the ultra-wealthy who control nearly half the world’s income.
“Life isn’t fair – and neither is this,” is Oxfam’s motto for such events.
The low-income designees, represented at the dinner and in life by about 50 percent of the population, were directed to the floor for their meal of rice and water. The middle group, representing about 30 percent of the population, sat at bare tables and received helpings of beans and rice. The well-off, about 20 percent of the population, sat at tables adorned with tablecloths and dinnerware, and were served meals provided by Chipotle Mexican Grill. And the three who drew the elite cards savored the dishes prepared by Gratzzi Italian Grille.
“I feel kind of guilty being in the 1 percent, to be honest,” said Zoe Brazier, a first-year student in communications. “It’s uncomfortable. But the food’s really good.”
There were many indignities to endure. At one point, moderator Ginny Hamilton, a junior marine biology/psychology major, singled out two participants seated at the middle-income table who had the personas of Senegalese farmers. She advised them of an unfortunate turn of events – a multinational corporation had acquired the land they farmed in order to develop a gold mine. One lost his land; the other had cows killed off by the pollution in a stream the mining company had fouled.
“I’m going to have to ask you to make a place for yourself with the low income group,” Hamilton said.
It was only an exercise, but Bilski, one of the pair downgraded, didn’t take the news well.
“It was kind of a shock,” she said. “I couldn’t believe it. It’s like, I’m already here, now I’m going even lower.”
When the poorest group rose to line up for rice, moderator William Tucker, a junior in sociology and management, reminded his fellow students that in keeping with global custom, men would be served first and women should retreat to the end of the line.
To a round of boos, he quipped, “Hey, I didn’t write the script.”
Data from Oxfam was projected onto screens. Malnutrition is a leading cause of child mortality, accounting for one-third of all deaths of children under age 5. The number of global food emergencies has increased from an average of 15 per year during the 1980s to more than 30 per year since 2000. As of December 2013, 842 million people worldwide suffer from chronic hunger.
The mood wasn’t entirely glum. At one point, a few members of the poorest group wielded the pieces of cardboard they were sitting on as “signs” and jumped up to protest at the “1 percent” table.
Prior to the meals, William Felice, a professor of political science and associate dean of general education at Eckerd, spoke on hunger and how organizations such as Oxfam were tackling the problem.
Hunger “is not something we keep front and center as one of our primary and fundamental concerns,” Felice said.
“But imagine our concern and the attention of the world’s media were an earthquake to strike San Francisco, killing 35,000 people in a single day. Imagine our concern were a virus to descend on London, killing 18 children a minute without stop, week after week after week. Imagine our concern were nuclear weapons to explode in capitals of the world’s major industrial countries, killing 13 million people and maiming and injuring a billion more in the surrounding countryside.
“These are the precise figures of the human devastation resulting from hunger in the world today,” he said.
Eckerd’s Office of Service Learning organized the event, relying on instructions and a kit provided by Oxfam. “We are really committed to public education to influence the conversation about global inequality and poverty,” said Nancy Delaney, manager of community engagement for Oxfam America.
“We find that by enabling as many people as possible to bring this interactive event into their community, it is really helping to foster those conversations.”