Last week I attended a “Hunger Banquet” sponsored by Oxfam America. In my role as a citizen of the world and occasional do-gooder, I’ve come to enjoy programs at the Action Center to End World Hunger, which hosted the event; as a wordsmith I was intrigued by the oxymoron of “hunger banquet.”
The first order of business was to pull a slip of paper from a bowl—my fictional persona for the evening. I was Enrique, a 40 year-old farmer in Guatemala, who recently bought a cow with money he received from Mercy Corps (which sponsors the Action Center). I don’t look or sound anything like an Enrique, but I was willing to play along. Almost immediately I learned that “playing along” included sitting on the floor for the event. My slip of paper was green, identifying me as one of the roughly 50% of humanity considered “low income,” meaning they earn less than $800 per person per year.
The low-income group sat in the center of the room. (Enrique, having learned a thing or two in his 40 years, quickly claimed a spot next to a pillar, so he could at least support his old and weary back.) Those who drew the middle-income descriptions sat in chairs; they represented the 35% of people who earn between $800 and $1,200 per person per year. The lucky few, only 15%, sat at a table.
After a few presentations, dinner was served. The high-income group were served salad and pasta, with a glass of wine to drink. (Remember this is in a global context, not a US context. In order to serve even one person a thick steak we would probably have needed a larger venue.) The middle-income group lined up for rice and beans, with a cup of clean, clear water. Those of us in the low-income group got rice and “dirty” water. In the interest of not making guests ill, the water wasn’t really dirty—it was artificially muddied with coffee grounds. The effect was enough to discourage most of us from taking a sip. We also got rice—about three tablespoons of rice in the bottom of a paper cup.
That’s a metaphor for how the world’s food is distributed. In truth, there is enough food in the world for everyone, though many of us would eat rice and beans often. But we could all have safe, nutritious food. The inequalities are not the result of scarcity; they are the result of poverty, corruption, poor infrastructure and distribution, civil strife and conflict.
One thing was different this night: the low-income people sat in the middle of the room. (Like half-starved elephants?) Everyone else had to look at us while they ate. After the meal, a woman who’d sat at the table said they had a lively discussion over their meal, feeling guilty that even for that one evening some of us sat on the floor with a few grains of rice and dirty water. The poor and undernourished are not usually so visible. In most of the world the wealthiest have little contact with the poorest. What they perceive as “poor” are the middle-income group, who don’t look quite so bad with their rice and beans.
For my part, I nibbled at the rice, sniffed the water suspiciously, and said to the young woman sitting next to me that if this were real life, I’d move to the city, get a job as a domestic at their house (gesturing to the people at the table) and feast on their leftovers in the kitchen. Even a larger serving of rice would have felt better than that tiny serving in the bottom of my paper cup.
I know. I’ve done it.
In 1994 I spent two weeks in Ecuador visiting a friend from college who was working for the Peace Corps. As several people told me at the time, two weeks isn’t enough to acclimate to a culture, let alone understand it thoroughly. Yet it was enough to make an impression on me.
If there is a four-star hotel in Ecuador, I never saw it. My friend insisted that we should see the “real” Ecuador, by which she meant the poor street kids she was working with and the other Peace Corps volunteers who regaled me with stories of the difficulties they were encountering. An architect was helping to build decent housing in a poor neighborhood not far from where my friend worked, but he constantly struggled to make sure the homes were constructed properly. In particular workers wanted to spray insect repellent on the insides of walls that were only safe for external use. Another Peace Corps volunteer had approached three sheep ranchers before he found one who was willing to take advantage of his advice. That rancher was now getting twice as much lamb on half as many acres as his neighbor, but it had been an effort to get anyone even to try.
One day we went to a park. I vaguely remember a small lake and some beautiful flowers that seemed exotic to a New York City girl. What I remember clearly was being served lunch: rice. That’s all, just a plate of rice and a little hot sauce for flavor. Unlike the Hunger Banquet it was a heaping plate of rice and it did fill me up. But it was only rice.
Almost six months after I returned from Ecuador, Mom and I went to Chinatown for lunch. It wasn’t something we did often and I don’t remember what prompted that trip—probably shopping nearby. Over lunch I got quiet, which isn’t normal for me, but it had happened more than usual since I returned from Ecuador. Mom asked what I was thinking about, though in hindsight I suspect she already knew.
I burst into tears. “People shouldn’t have to live like that.” Mom didn’t need to ask what I meant. She just patted my hand and said she’d been waiting six months to hear me say it.
The Oxfam Action Corps in New York City is hosting a Hunger Banquet on October 14 at St. Lydia’s in Brooklyn. The event is free and open to everyone, but please RSVP so we have an accurate head count.