Hunger banquet

About a month ago at my kids’ public school here in Toronto, some parent volunteers and enthusiastic teachers put on a Hunger Banquet with the Grade 5s and 6s. The kids had been working with their teachers for about two weeks discussing issues of hunger and poverty around the world and this was the culminating event. It was an incredible afternoon that challenged the students to see the world in a new way and to ask themselves what they can do to make a difference in their community, both locally and globally.

We used Oxfam Canada’s comprehensive fundraising/ organizing package as a guide (and made it a modest fundraiser for Oxfam, asking students to bring in a $2 donation).

Here’s how it worked: around noon, the students filed into the gym, the same place they usually eat their packed lunches. At the door, they reached into a box and pulled out what looked like a lottery ticket (see above). On the opposite side there was a short bio—they would take on a new identity for the day.

The tickets—and the children—were divided into three groups that reflect how the world is divided by income. Fifteen percent were high income; 25 percent were middle income; 60 percent were low income.

The high income meal: chicken, rice, beans, fresh vegetables, custard tart for dessert

The high income group were seated at a nicely set table (flowers, serving dishes, table cloth, etc.) and treated to a delicious meal served by parent volunteers.

The middle income group sat at the other end of the gym at a plain table and had to line up to be served their rice, beans and juice.

The low income meal: rice and water

The low income group sat on the floor and were ushered into line by guards. They ate rice and drank water sitting on the floor.

Before the students ate, Nick, our MC from The Stop Community Food Centre talked about hunger and poverty around the world and right here in Toronto. He explained to the kids that poverty is not just about income. “Poverty is a lack of food and shelter. Poverty is being sick and not being able to see a doctor. Poverty is not having access to school and not knowing how to read. Poverty is not having a job, fearing for the future, living one day at a time. Poverty is powerlessness, lack of representation and freedom.”

The kids were rapt as he spoke, especially when he talked to them about the fact that hunger is not something only experienced by people on the other side of the world but also in their communities—by their neighbours.

For 10 and 11 year olds, experiencing such injustice first-hand (even if only for an hour) was enormously powerful. We thought there might be some goofiness (because it made them uncomfortable) but they took it seriously and were extremely thoughtful. At the end of the meal, they were asked to reflect on the meal and answer three questions on cue cards they’d been given.

A boy from the high income group answered the question “How do you feel about the experience?” with the word “uneasy,” saying it made him uncomfortable eating so well while his classmates sat on the floor and made do with only rice. Asked to name one question rolling around in his head, a boy from the middle income group asked: “Will I be hungry tomorrow?”

For the first time in many of these children’s lives, the reality of poverty and hunger was more than a photo in the newspaper or an image on the TV screen. I don’t think it’s overstating it to say that for some of them the Hunger Banquet was transformative.

More this week about how the children and teachers explored what the experience meant to them and how they moved from empathy to begin understanding what they can do to take action.

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