Connecting with the real issues


Jacob Greenia

BAB group, led by Hunter Mallette and Rebecca Bingham

Imagine a restaurant that splits its diners by their socioeconomic status at the door. Imagine that this restaurant serves baked ziti, salad and lemonade to its wealthiest customers and rice and beans to its poorest ones.

Now, imagine that this segregated restaurant is a metaphor for the inability of some to access adequate food and water supplies throughout Vermont, the United States and the rest of the world.

The Oxfam Hunger Banquet, hosted by Badger Alternative Breaks (BAB) and SERVE on Thurs., Nov. 1, in the Stearns Performance Space illustrated such inequities in food and water resources. The suggested donation was a non-perishable food item or five dollars.

The event was sponsored by advocacy organization Hunger Free Vermont and based on the volunteer-powered NGO (non-governmental organization) Oxfam America.

BAB group leader Hunter Mallette and internship program coordinator Ellen Hill traded the microphone in front of an audience of JSC students and Johnson community members to talk about the various ways hunger and poverty is affecting millions of lives and how it can be solved.

“A lot of what our group is talking about is ‘Where does poverty come from?’” said Mallette. “And how does that conversation start?’ That comes from socioeconomics, food, the wage gap . . . all of those things play a role in that.”

Before their meal, guests drew tickets out of a hat describing their social class, their name and even their country of origin and life story. The classes were high, middle and lower class to match the quality and portion size of their dinners.

Guests were served the baked ziti and salad if they were high class; rice, beans and white bread if they were middle class; or simply rice and beans with tap water if they represented the low class.

According to JSC’s coordinator of community service Sarah Golden, who helped set up the banquet, the purpose of this mock separation is to create awareness about the different faces of poverty.

“We’re not delineating people by their actual social and economic status, because that by itself would not go well and would make people feel isolated and defensive,” said Golden. “The goal is just having people of all different sorts of backgrounds coming in and telling them, ‘This is how much money you make, and this is where you’re from. Are you coming from generational or situational poverty?’ This is just to educate people of all the different ways that a person can experience poverty and what that actually looks like.”

Situational poverty is defined as an individual falling below the poverty line due to sudden crises. Conversely, generational poverty extends along generations of families.

Guests who drew the low-income ticket were seated on the floor, while wealthier guests sat more comfortably at tables or benches and were served their food.

Hill, who has embarked on 26 Break Away trips in her life, spoke to her guests of the significant hurdles that face those living in poverty during the dinner.

“You may think hunger is about too many people and too little food,” Hill said. “That is not the case. Our rich and bountiful planet produces enough food to feed every woman, man and child on this Earth. Hunger is about power. Its roots lie in inequities and access to resources. The results are illiteracy, poverty, war and the inabilities for families to grow or to buy food.”

The banquet featured a role-playing twist as the tickets encompassed tense examples of situational and generational poverty which sent some low-class guests to high-class tables and mid-class guests to the floor.

Mikayla Turner, who has attended a hunger banquet before, acknowledges the advantages that she, along with many middle class or high class citizens, enjoy. She also recognizes that solving hunger and poverty begins with creating awareness of the issues both nationally and internationally.

“I know I grew up in a place where this wasn’t very prevalent — I grew up in more of a middle-class family,” said Turner. “You always hear these things, but it tends to just go over your head, and this is the kind of event that continues to bring you back to that place of awareness. I know at times I go through my daily life and don’t really think about it, but being a part of BAB and having this as our pre-service is really connecting us back to the issue more.

“It’s not like you’re just sitting there and somebody is talking at you, you’re a part of what’s going on at this dinner,” she added. “You’re a part of the bigger picture.”

According to one of the statistics Mallette read to her guests, 45.3 million out of almost 320 million Americans currently live in poverty. Meanwhile, she said one in five American children live below the poverty line.

For BAB group leader Rebecca Bigham, the banquet hits close to home as she has seen the effects of poverty where she is from.

“Poverty runs in the Northeast Kingdom, where I’m from,” she said. “And being part of this event is just a way for me to give back to the community. It’s a great way to help out.

“Poverty is a real issue and a when a lot of people think of poverty, it’s international,” Bingham continued. “Yeah, that’s a big piece of it, but there’s also poverty here in the United States. Sometimes it’s not always right-in-your-face poverty, sometimes it’s somebody who’s a single parent struggling to pay the bills.”

Johnson Town Administrator Brian Story, who drew a low-income ticket at the banquet, recognizes the income inequalities as a driver of poverty and hunger in the world.

“It’s amazing that the differences of income in what makes up 20 percent of the world — about six-thousand dollars per year — that absolutely speaks to the idea of this being a manmade problem,” said Story. “That in our country, we have the resources that we can make $50,000, $100,000, that’s middle income in America but so far above the rest of the world. This is a manmade problem and it’s heartening in its own way that if it’s man-made, that means we can fix it.”

To help alleviate issues of poverty and hunger in America, Mallette, Bingham and their group will be heading out to Waco, Texas, to complete their service based on the same subject of hunger and poverty.

According to Hill, hunger and poverty in the world isn’t just worth acknowledging and patching up. It can be eliminated, as Story said, by using resources that are available to help those less fortunate.

“The way we see it, poverty is solvable,” said Hill to her guests. “It’s a problem rooted in injustice. We can eliminate injustice and we can eliminate poverty. We’re not saying it’ll be quick or easy, but it can be done.

“Oxfam doesn’t impose solutions; we see people’s power to change their own lives,” she continued. “We believe that people have the right and the understanding to create solutions for their own communities and to control their own futures.”