Forty U of C students were served serious food for thought at service fraternity Alpha Phi Omega (APO)’s Hunger Banquet this past Saturday in McCormick Tribune Lounge.
Hosted by the campus chapter of Oxfam, an international network of famine relief and public health organizations, the banquet relied on role-playing to simulate the full experience of poverty and malnutrition.
Participants were handed cards marked “low,” “middle,” and “high,” to indicate the socioeconomic class that they would assume for the night. Each card also included brief character summaries of fictional roles.
First-year Damini Sharma, for example, played a Filipino single mother named Elizabeth who was faced with dire food shortages brought on by a drought similar to the one that wracked the country in 2010.
“Hunger banquet is theater,” said second-year Melissa Almonte, one of the event’s organizers and APO’s assistant pledge master.
The simulation intensified once dinner commenced. The few students with “high” income cards were seated at a candlelit table and served pasta and breadsticks, while “middle-income” actors had to make do with only chairs, eating rice and vegetables.
The low-income majority ate scraps of rice on the floor. What’s more, those with low incomes were seated in the middle of the room, to be gazed upon by the surrounding middle- and upper-income diners.
“It’s not about too little food and too many people. It’s about power and it not being distributed in an equal manner,” Almonte said.
Following a rather uneasy meal, participants had a chance to share their thoughts and feelings.
“High-income people felt very uncomfortable,” said Almonte. “People talked about how they wanted seconds, but they didn’t get seconds because they felt awkward about it.”
The simulation struck a chord with students, who identified the plight of poverty with the local landscape of Chicago. Almonte said that a friend of hers returned home that night and researched ways to get involved in the Southside and its poverty.
The banquet’s proceeds will go to the World Food Programme for drought relief in Somalia. APO brothers also saw the banquet’s leftovers as an opportunity to impact their immediate environment directly. Leftover pans of pasta were taken and distributed to the homeless around Hyde Park and in downtown Chicago that evening.