In the function room of Suffolk University Law School, just before the Thanksgiving holiday, more than a dozen sixth graders from the nearby Eliot and Advent Schools sat in cushioned chairs at round tables adorned with white linens, enjoying the meal served to them of hot pasta, salad, and juice.
Meanwhile, on the floor below, some of their classmates who had just a simple lunch of rice and water crawled up to their chairs and begged for food.
“Security!” one of the seated students called.
Across the room, seated in hard chairs at a long, bare table, still more of their classmates consumed a slightly more filling meal of rice and beans, watching and commenting on the scene unfolding before them.
While the students were playing around, their responses highlighted real class disparity and resource inequity issues facing the majority of the world’s population—and that was exactly the point.
It was all part of the Oxfam Hunger Banquet, an interactive meal and exercise organized by Suffolk ‘s Organization for Uplifting Lives Through Service (S.O.U.L.S.) as part of the group’s annual Hunger and Homelessness Month.
S.O.U.L.S. has hosted the banquet for the past decade, says director Carolina Garcia, with local schoolchildren invited to participate beginning four years ago.
“It’s a great opportunity to, in an hour and a half, get a sense of hunger and inequalities around the world,” she explains. “You can tell the story to people and show it to them in a video, but it’s not as powerful as when they experience it themselves. “
About two dozen Suffolk students volunteered at the event—seating kids, serving them food, and facilitating small-group dialogues about their experience and reactions.
“It gives younger people an opportunity to interact with college students,” says associate director of diversity services Craig Cullinane, who facilitated the event for the third straight year. “They get to see what its like on a college campus and it gives them a vision for themselves in terms of participating later in their lives in the college experience.”
Experiencing Hunger Firsthand
Eighty-five schoolchildren gained entrance by donating a non-perishable food item and were then assigned a color-coded ticket that places them in one of three brackets.
- One, representing the 15 percent of the world’s population earning more than $12,000 per year, sat at the round tables with white linen.
- The second group, representing the 35 percent making between $987 and $11,999 annually, sat at the long, bare tables with no place settings.
- The last group, representing the 50 percent of the world’s population early less than $987, sat on the floor with nothing.
Cullinane led the kids in a discussion of the resources we need to live—suggestions included food, family, water, air and shelter (initially misheard as “chocolate,” resulting in a few giggles).
“Everyone on Earth has the same needs, but not everyone on Earth gets the same stuff,” Cullinane observed, noting that it’s not that these resources are in short supply, but rather that access to them is limited to a privileged few.
Approximately 2.5 billion people live in poverty, Cullinane told the students, which some later admitted surprised them. When Cullinane noted that annual earnings of $987 added up to just $2.70 per day—about the price of a Starbucks coffee—many students gasped.
“This is happening in the world right now,” Cullinane emphasized.
After he told the group that a child like themselves dies from hunger or other preventable diseases every ten seconds, Cullinane let that duration pass in silence. “That’s it,” he told the assembled students. “In that amount of time, a child dies.”
Following the discussion, lunch was served. While the “15 percent” had a hot lunch served to them, the “35 percent” had to wait in line for a meal of rice and beans—with the girls forced to the back of the line. Lastly, the “50 percent” stood in line, girls last, for just rice.
“Can we just rob the rich?” one of the “50 percent” students asked, while another declared, “This rice tastes like poverty.”
One student, Eliot School fifth grader Alisa Regassa, said the experience changed her perspective.
“I will think, every time someone says ‘I’m poor’ or says they don’t have even one dollar for Starbucks, that some people don’t even know what a Starbucks is. They have to make and grow the coffee.”
She also said being forced to the back of the line simply because she was a girl “was like being slapped in the face.”
'There's Always Something You Can Do To Help'
Cullinane, who has facilitated the hunger banquet for the past three years, says that these kinds of experiential activities get people thinking about their lives at a deeper level.
“There’s a great opportunity to expand and grow in consciousness and reflect meaningfully on the world we share as human beings,” he says. “That’s the work I love. It’s fun to do. It’s fun to bring them through that process.”
S.O.U.L.S. volunteer and freshman Pavel Peytchev, who lived in India for 13 years and has logged thousands of hours of community service since middle school, said the event was a great learning opportunity for the schoolchildren in attendance.
“As much as we can help, the more we can do to learn, the more we should do,” he said. “I hope they see life is not quite so wonderful as we make it out sometimes, and there’s always something you can do to help.”
As the event wound down, the students broke into smaller groups to discuss their reactions to the experience. According to Garcia, the Suffolk students were impressed by how thoughtful the sixth graders were in their discussion of the concepts at hand.
“They always say, ‘I wish someone would have introduced these topics to me when I was younger,’” she says. “It’s great that we’re having these conversations with the sixth graders now and planting the seed to understand and be aware of social justice issues.”
Suffolk senior and Campus Partnership Scholar Erin Bessette moderated one of the smaller discussion groups.
"It was eye-opening and refreshing to hear from young students how they feel about poverty," she says. "It was also a little shocking to hear that some of them had a very different view than the one I grew up believing."
The kids noted that the difference in conditions between the “15 percent” and “35 percent” group was sharper than that between the 35 and 50 percent groups. They were also surprised that the poorest group was the largest.
“It’s so unfair, and other people have no care in the world,” one student exclaimed.
The kids also said that the rice and water meal was “horrible,” and observed how the “15 percent” table could afford to be wasteful with their meal while others couldn’t—why don’t they donate their extra juices, one student asked.
“Why can’t everyone just be equal?” another asked. “How hard can it be for the rich to just be generous?”
A classmate sagely responded, “Don’t just say that they should—try to do it, because you are part of that class in real life.”