Oxfam dinner makes distant issues tangible for first-world students

Most of us here in Geneseo sit down to a nutritious meal at dinnertime every evening, while people across the world struggle to put even rice on the table. It’s easy to forget about the issue of hunger when we don’t see it happening in our backyards, but what if everyone in the world was forced to eat dinner together in the same room?

That is exactly what this year’s Oxfam America Hunger Banquet did in order to raise awareness about the issue of hunger. The event, which took place in the MacVittie College Union Hunt Room on Monday March 2, presented a stirring portrayal of global food scarcity. Upon entering the room where the banquet would be held, the metaphor began almost immediately. People were sorted into three groups: high-income, middle-income and low-income. I was fortunate enough to become “Julie, a 33-year-old mother of three who lives comfortably in Australia.” This sorting process was meant to symbolize how we are born into our lives completely at random.

I took my seat at the two tables in the front of the room––fully set and already dressed with three different drink options, rolls and butter. As I did this, I couldn’t help but feel a little guilty as the majority of the room was seated in circles of chairs or around a tablecloth on the floor.

The event began and attendees were read an opening statement from Oxfam, the global organization that originally coined the idea of the “hunger banquet.” Participants learned that rather than being an issue of not having enough food to feed the planet, hunger is rooted in the uneven distribution of power throughout the world.

The high-income group represented 20 percent of the world’s population––and also roughly 20 percent of the room. Everyone in that group made at least $6,300 a year. We had access to some of the best healthcare in the world, there was no question as to if our children would attend school, we owned cars and televisions and we maintained an overall sense of job security.

Seated in the middle of the room in circles of chairs, the middle-income group, represented 30 percent of the world’s population. They made somewhere from $1,328 to $6,380 a year. They were mostly laborers working in factories or sweatshops in the city while sending money back home to their families.

Seated on the floor, the low-income group represented an astonishing 50 percent of the world and made below $1,328 dollars a year. They had trouble finding food, water and shelter, and were often homeless or lived in flimsy structures. Most children never attended school, and most adults were tenant farmers or worked on plantations.

In total, 80 percent of the room was not “seated at the table,” a metaphor meant to represent security and power.

As the dinner portion of the night commenced, we were served a nutritious meal of pasta, salad, vegetables and fresh rolls. The middle-income group ate rice and beans while the low-income group ate solely rice.

After dinner and a moment of silence for reflection, a group discussion commenced. It was now apparent that the effects of the disparity levels between income groups in our real world were clear to everyone in the room.

People expressed ideas to make change; to advocate and to educate others. “It’s the metaphor that makes this so successful,” event coordinator junior Travis Wheeler said. “It takes a really awful topic and makes it fun while still maintaining the seriousness.”