Hunger Banquet shows plight of the impoverished

Release Date: 12/9/2011

If, for some strange reason, you are looking for a good oxymoron, how about this one: Hunger Banquet. Why would anyone refer to a meal as a banquet if people are going to be hungry?

And yet the extreme contrast between the words "hunger" and "banquet" underscores the point that Dr. Jesse Weiss' Critical Inquiry class wanted to make with their very own "Hunger Banquet." They organized their hunger banquet, modeled after the Oxfam America Hunger Banquet®, to raise awareness about hunger issues and to collect food donations for the Johnson County Food Bank.

As the guests began to make their way into the room, Dr. Weiss held a small plastic container high up and shook the contents around. The first guest reached up and drew a slip from the container, then showed it to Dr. Weiss. "You sit over there," Dr. Weiss said, pointing to an elegantly decorated banquet table on one side of the room. The next guest drew a slip and looked over to where her friend sat at the banquet table. "No, you'll sit there," Dr. Weiss said, pointing to the floor.

The first world meal.

The guests designated as first world received a meal of salad, bread, and pasta. The fact that only six guests were at the first world table underscored the imbalance in access to food throughout the world.

As more slips were drawn from the plastic container, it seemed that the guest at the banquet table would be eating alone. Again and again, Dr. Weiss pointed across the room to a seat at a plain table, or to the floor. Finally, another guest was seated at the banquet table, then another; eventually six of the 40 or so guests were seated at the two banquet tables. With everyone finally seated, the hunger banquet began.

"First world people, help yourselves to the food," Dr. Weiss said, addressing the six guests at the banquet table. "We have some over here, and more over there. Take anything you'd like. Take as much as you want. Feel free to go back for seconds." The guests lined up and began filling their plates with salad, hot rolls, and pasta. As everyone else watched, Dr. Weiss said, "The meal that the first world guests are eating is pretty much comparable to a meal that the average first world person would be eating on a Thursday night." As the six made their way back to their tables, Dr. Weiss asked them, "Now first world, have you gotten enough food? I want to let you know that if want more, feel free to go back for seconds if you'd like."

Satisfied that the first world guests had all they wanted, Dr. Weiss allowed the guests sitting at the plain tables -- those designated as second world -- to fill their plates. However, their fair was very different: black beans, rice, and water. "Take as much as you'd like," he encouraged them.

Once the second world guests had returned to their seats, the beans and the eating utensils were taken away, and Dr. Weiss finally invited the guests on the floor to eat. "Because you guys are in the third world, and much of the third world's meal consists of rice, you guys can feed yourselves using what you see on the table. So help yourselves," he said. It didn't take long for each third world guest to spoon a single scoop of rice onto his or her plate and return to a seat on the floor.

As the guests ate, the presentations began.

The first presentation addressed the issue of poverty in the United States. In spite of the fact that the U.S. is a very wealthy nation, the students pointed out that poverty is on the rise, and that the statistics hit very close to home. Arkansas has the fifth highest level of poverty in America, and one in four residents in Johnson County lives in poverty. Scotti Burnside, one of the students who helped create the presentation, said, "It was surprising…I didn't think America had that much poverty. Out of this country - how great we are - you don't realize how many people need help."

The next presentation explained how the first world, second world, and third world designations were created after World War II, when the world was divided into three major geopolitical blocks, based on different spheres of influence. Although these definitions have never been made official, they are still widely used today, and tend to be roughly associated with how economically and industrially developed the countries are.

The students described first world countries as being typically democratic-industrial countries, often characterized by strong economies with great wealth. First world countries normally have high literacy rates, and lower rates of poverty.

The third presentation focused on hunger and poverty issues in second world countries.  Second world countries are those which were originally aligned with the former Soviet Union, countries which were once, or still are, communist-socialist states. The students showed that while some second world countries have growing economies, the overall poverty rate in these countries is very high. Rural areas have been hit especially hard by the recent economic downturn, and it is the children who often bear the brunt of the poverty.

Those countries not identified as first or second world are often referred to as third world countries. Fully three-quarters of the world's population live in these areas, many suffering from extreme hunger and starvation. The students' presentation began with a warning: "The images you are about to see are graphic in nature." But the numbers are shocking…in these third world countries, it is estimated that 22,000 children die of starvation each day. To put it into perspective, that's like losing the entire population of Clarksville -- twice -- in a single day. As the students progressed through their slideshow, one grim statistic followed another: 17 million children are born with low birth weight each year; one-third of all childhood deaths are caused by hunger; 400 million children have no access to safe drinking water….

As the banquet drew to a close, the guests slowly made their way out of the conference center, all of them stepping back into their first world lives. But the students in the CI class believe their hunger banquet taught everyone a good lesson. While the guests knew that the three menus were only symbolic - that they wouldn't really have to do without - the lesson was summed up by one second world guest. When asked if she was disappointed to be given only beans and rice, she responded, "It's better than what third world will have…."