On Monday March 3, students entered the Oxfam dinner expecting free food but left with a lot more on their plate. At the door, attendees were sorted proportionally into low, middle and upper-income categories, receiving cards with their “life story” for the event. Assignments ranged from a 10-year-old girl in Pakistan displaced by flood to a father of a family starving due to drought or a middle-class mom living in the United States – it all depended on the luck of the draw.
I was Fred, a Ugandan farmer displaced by government land grabs, unsure of how to find work or basic needs for survival.
Grumbling internally at my rotten luck, I took my seat on the floor, looking with envy at the “middle class” people in chairs and the lucky few “upper class” that were graced with finely set tables and comfortable seats.
This randomness emphasized that people cannot decide what life they are born into, dispelling the common thought that impoverished people are simply lazier than middle and upper-class ones.
My complaints and everyone else’s evaporated after the opening statements of the event.
The event began with the common statement of the Oxfam America Hunger Banquet: “We are here today because more than 2.5 billion people live in poverty. Nearly 870 million people suffer from chronic hunger. A child dies from malnutrition or a preventable disease every nine seconds. That’s 9,500 children a day.”
The room immediately became more sober and thoughtful. After some examples of socioeconomic shifts, students were ready to begin their meals, provided by Campus Auxiliary Services.
Upper-income people – those who earn above $6,300 a year – enjoyed salad, bread and butter, seasoned vegetables, a hefty serving of pasta and lemon water. Middle-income people, who earn $1,128 to $6,300 per year, ate a moderately portioned plate of rice and beans, with women waiting in the back of the line for men to receive their food first. The 50 percent of attendees in the low-income group, who earned less than $1,128 per year, ate about one cup of unseasoned rice.
“Poverty isn’t one separate issue. It is tied to socioeconomic class, race [and] what you were born into as an individual,” senior Jennifer Benson, a cohost of the dinner and resident in Putnam Hall, said.
After the meal, Benson and her cohost sophomore Travis Wheeler asked attendees questions about how they felt about the experience.
“I feel like having the discussion adds that extra level to the event,” Wheeler said. “It allows them to reflect and see our intent and purpose – that it’s more than just the food.”
Although many Geneseo students are considered middle class by U.S. standards, this dinner acted as a reminder that we are extraordinarily privileged compared to the rest of the world. If we did not want to eat our rice, we could put it aside and eat at Fusion Market right after; others do not have that option.
We also discussed how the simple actions we make could harm or help people around the world, such as where we buy our clothes and food. Shopping for fair trade and direct trade items or locally grown food or refusing to buy clothes from companies that use child labor can change the life of another person.
Another important result of the Oxfam dinner is perspective; many students talked about how they sometimes feel as if they are disadvantaged, but the dinner made them appreciate what they really have.
Benson pointed out that most students have the ability to buy a new dress for a weekend, but some families have to walk miles just to obtain water.
The Oxfam dinner’s intent, according to Benson, was “to show the full range of how hunger affects people,” and it fostered this awareness and encouraged lifestyle changes to all who attended.