At first, Springfield College junior Nick Gaetano was nothing short of thrilled that he received the equivalent of a golden ticket upon entering the Hunger Banquet in Cheney Dining Rooms A and B on Tuesday, Nov. 13 as part of National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week.
Gaetano, who attended the event with a group of friends, had been one of the few lucky participants to be placed in the high-income group, while the majority of students, including his friends, marched to either the middle-or low-income sections of the room. As a member of the high-income class, Gaetano was seated at a table and waited upon by members of the Springfield College Outreach Committee club, who went out into Cheney Dining Hall to personally bring back his order. As the event progressed, however, Gaetano’s initial excitement turned to near nausea as he heard the information presented about hunger and homelessness and witnessed his friends and other participants eating minuscule portions on the floor.
“I was like, ‘Hey, I got lucky, I’m going to get a good meal tonight,’ and then as I sat down, I looked around the room, and I felt really, really bad. I couldn’t even look on the right side of the room I felt so bad about it, and I couldn’t even finish my meal,” Gaetano said. “As the meal went on, I see them sitting on the floor, and they have small portions, and I’m sitting at a table with any choice of food that I can get. It’s just really unfair.”
Gaetano was not alone in his realization that the ratio between the classes was nowhere close to being equal. This visual representation, which involved the students directly in the presentation, appeared to open up many eyes about the issue of hunger. For Director of Student Volunteer Programs Charlene Elvers and senior host Keri Cecilia, they considered that a mission accomplished.
“This is really a participatory, awareness-raising event. There’s nothing like hearing about the global hunger situation and feeling it at the same time,” Elvers said. “Most of the people that come into this banquet are going to be hungry.”
The Hunger Banquet, held from 5:30 to 7 p.m., was organized based on a script that Oxfam America puts online for groups to use. According to their site, Oxfam America is “an international relief and development organization that creates lasting solutions to poverty, hunger and injustice.”
According to Elvers, the event has been going on as part of National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week for around eight years, but for Cecilia, this was her first time hosting the event.
“I believe that world hunger, or even hunger in America is something that when we go out and leave Springfield College, we might see,” Cecilia said. “For other people to hear that, I think it really raises the awareness and especially around Thanksgiving when everyone’s looking forward to eating turkey, stuffing, all of those fixings, that they can think about all those other people who really aren’t getting that.”
The Hunger Banquet was designed exactly for that purpose. As students entered Cheney A and B, they were given an identity that placed them in one of three areas of the room: the low-income class on the floor, the middle-income class in just chairs, and the high-income class seated at tables in the front of the room.
As more and more students filed in, the visual representation became abundantly clear. In the end, the room resembled the statistics that Cecilia hoped to get across. The number of students in each income group represented a percentage of the world’s population. Approximately 15 percent of the room was seated at the tables, 35 percent at just the chairs, and 50 percent on the floor. In other words, 85 percent of the participants did not make it into the high-income class.
Since the percentages represented the world’s population, Cecilia introduced just how much money each class made to be classified as low, middle or high. High income earned a per capita income of $12,000 or more per year, middle income earned between $987 and $11,999, and low income earned less than $986 per year.
“I think that most people, at least that I’ve talked to, think that they’re in middle class in America, and I would say the same thing. But if you look at the middle class here, in this event, it was the world’s middle class,” Cecilia said. “I think for those people, they realized that how we define the middle class is different from how it really is in the world.”
Cecilia spoke about these statistics and other hunger related issues while Elvers updated the number of children who die of diseases on a sideboard. The number ended up at 480 by the time the banquet concluded, or approximately one every 10 seconds.
After Cecilia spoke, the participants were served their dinner…or forced to get it themselves. The high-income class was catered to by student waiters and waitresses, the middle-income class was given rice and beans from Elvers from a spring serving dish, and the low-income class were allotted one scoop of rice and some water that they had to get themselves.
After their meal, Cecilia turned over the program to Andrew Morehouse, the executive director of The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts. Morehouse spoke about his organization’s role in trying to solve the problem of hunger locally while continuing to raise awareness about the issue.
“Hunger exists because people don’t have enough to buy what they need, in this case food,” Morehouse said in his presentation. “In our region, it’s actually one in eight people (we’ve updated the numbers) are at risk of hunger or experience hunger in any given week or month of the year. That translates into 135,000 people in western Massachusetts alone – [located] in this great country, the United States of America, number one, the most powerful country in the world – and yet there are people who are going without food. It doesn’t seem right.”
After showing a video about his organization’s mission, Morehouse concluded his portion of the evening and Cecilia wrapped up the event with some final thoughts. As students left, most with growling stomachs and a few with nauseous ones, Cecilia hoped that one way or another, their experience would get passed on.
“It’s almost like Facebook. You post something, someone sees it, [and] the word spreads,” Cecilia said. “That’s kind of what I wanted to do here tonight, is have people come and spread the word.”
By going hungry for an hour and a half, SC students took part in raising awareness and took a stand against hunger.