AP Literature Service Learning 2020/21

The Hunger Banquet: Imagining inequality beyond our campus

by Ivan L, Katherine D, Alex G and Everett T

AP Lit students

“Are you seriously only giving me rice?” exclaimed Jeremy Y., a Concordia senior, as his eyes opened in disbelief. He was a part of a group of 30 Concordia students participating in a hunger banquet hosted by our AP Lit group on January 18, 2021, during the daily flex and lunch time. 

Throughout the past three months, our group has been researching the economic relationships that exist between China and the US with a number of African countries. This has led us to consider inequity on a broader scale, and how much our peers understand about the allocation of resources in our world. To illustrate the unfair situation, we decided to host a hunger banquet according to the suggestions provided by Oxfam, a major non-governmental organization that focusses on alleviating poverty.

As participants entered, each was randomly assigned to a section of the room. The numerical proportions corresponded to the world situation: 15 per cent in the high-income group, 25 per cent in middle income group, 60 per cent in low income group. Those in the high income category ate sweet red bean paste buns, chicken skewers, and tortilla chips at tables set with drinks and muffins. Middle income lunches included rice and chicken skewers and people could sit in simple rows of chairs. Low income participants sat on the floor and were only given one bowl of rice to share between two people. As everyone finally settled down and came face to face with the unfairness of it all, the presentation began.  

“We are here today because 1.3 billion people live in poverty,” we shared. “850 million of these people suffer from chronic hunger.” Several other facts followed before we explained details that would define each income group.

“For those in the high-income group on the far right,” Alex began, “you have access to everything you need and the security to enjoy it.” To the five students at the well-set table, these words were no surprise.

We then proceeded to the middle class. “You are the folks who live on the edge,” Ivan began, “For many, it would take losing only one harvest to drought or a serious illness to throw you into poverty.” 

Finally, we addressed the 60% of participants representing low income individuals. “Every day is a struggle to meet your family’s basic needs,” Everett’s somber voice intoned, “Finding food, water, and shelter can consume your entire day.”

This message fell on deaf or, should we say hungry, ears. Some of the participants were scheming an escape from our simulation. 

When they began eating again, this time some individuals from the middle and high income groups began sharing their food. Others, perhaps fueled by anger or frustration, decided they needed to “steal food.” While emotions were high, we launched into a series of discussion questions: “Is everyone enjoying their meal? How does everyone feel? Is it fair how this was decided? Why?”

Some were in a reflective mood. “It was really surprising in the sense of how detached we are from it [the simulation],” says Concordia senior Calvin O., “We are all part of the rich 0.1% of the population and this really reminded us of how privileged we are.” Sophomore Natasha S., who was assigned to the upper class, expressed similar views. “Because we are in this bubble in Jinqiao, we don’t really get to know people in the middle or lower class,” she shares, “Oftentimes, Concordia students joke about how 'oh you're so rich,' but we're all really rich and I just think it’s important for us to know we are a really really small chunk of the population.” 

Indeed, the activity makes you realize how arbitrary life can be; it is just the luck of the draw that we have been born into a privileged, wealthy situation. We recognize that this event in no way simulates the multifaceted nature of poverty and systemic inequality. Instead, our goal was to address the issue of indifference in our society. 

However, the success of our endeavors is questionable. On their way out, many participants casually expressed their intentions of getting food afterwards, without much thought or hesitation. Perhaps this indifference is something that all Concordia students must grapple with. Our experiences and upbringing have protected us and shielded us from much of the real world, and it seems we need something extra to prod most of us to really want to know about the experiences of others. 

Our past semester in AP Lit has taught us that it is only by seeing and understanding that we are pushed to act. Moving forwards, we will continue to seek new ways of reaching out to the Concordia community to gradually break down our walls of indifference. 

As the four of us cleaned up at the end of the event, we saw that there was a lot of leftover food. It was surprising but, at the same time, not really. At a wealthy private school, even a hunger banquet has leftovers.