by Nora Dwyer

Most Muscatine High School students were studying for finals and prepping for graduation parties during the last week of the year. However, a group of about 30 students, teachers, and staff took an evening to imagine what it would be like if they lived in another part of the world, how they would get their food and take care of their families.

The Hunger Banquet was organized by graduating senior Camilla McNeely, along with other students she recruited after attending sessions sponsored by the World Food Prize. McNeely attended the Iowa Youth Institute last spring in Ames. She then submitted a paper outlining issues related to food insecurity in Cambodia and was selected as one of 200 U.S. students to attend the Global Institute of the World Food Prize in Des Moines in October.

During those conferences, she was exposed to international development professionals and specialists who focus on food security issues. McNeely wanted to bring awareness of both global and local food issues to other MHS students.

Oxfam International provides materials for the event. According to the organization’s website, “Participants draw tickets at random that assign each to a high-, middle-, or low-income tier—based on the latest statistics about poverty around the world. Each income level has a different experience. The 20 percent in the high-income tier are served a sumptuous meal; the 30 percent in the middle-income group eat a simple meal, like rice and beans; and the 50 percent in the low-income tier help themselves to small portions of rice and water.”

The MHS event followed the same format and that’s when students, teachers, and others who attended started to appreciate the exercise.

One student commented, “I am fortunate compared to the person I was supposed to be on my card. This young woman failed one test in school and it completely changed her whole life, because of the education system in that country. I realize that I have much more opportunity and support here.”

Another added, “It’s surprising to realize this is the reality for so many people in the world.”

“When I got my small bowl of rice, I felt less deserving. I felt lower than everyone else, which is sad, because we are all just people,” said a student.

Some participants played out their roles as realistically as possible with the program taking place in the MHS cafeteria. Andrea Wilford, social students teacher, who was at the high-income table, reflected on sharing the meal and seeing how those in the lower tiers attempted to add to what they received.

Participants in the hunger banquet who were placed in the lowest income category were served rice and water while sitting on the floor to mirror the hardships faced by the lowest 50% of the world’s population

“It was easy to share with people we knew, since we knew they were other students here, but what about the homeless people we see on the street? How do we see them differently now that we’ve an experience like this?” she said.

Some participants also had to adapt to their situation when they were informed that due to a crop failure or some other situation, they were moved to a lower income tier. “To have everything taken away from you through no fault of their own was pretty harsh,” added one student who experienced the change.

What McNeely and other participants in the Youth Institute begin to realize is that much of the global food shortages are caused by war and corruption and that citizens of those countries have no control.

Statistics about global food issues from the World Food Prize state:

*1 in 9 people do not consume enough food to lead a healthy and active lifestyle.
*By 2050, there will be at least 9 billion people on the planet in need of food and water.
*In the next 40 years, humans will need to produce more food than they did in the previous 10,000 put together.
*1/8 of girls and 1/9 of boys do not pursue or are unable to pursue secondary education.
*Globally,1 out of 3 schools lack access to safe water and adequate sanitation.

McNeely said she discovered that Cambodian officials have focused on growing rice, which changed the balance of production and resulted in severe malnutrition because of the decrease in food diversity.

Her suggested solution in her paper was to encourage local producers to develop co-ops, similar to programs developed by the Helen Keller international Organization, that establish a lead farmer who then teaches other farmers more efficient production methods.

“This would allow local farmers to learn about sustainable practices, a variety of crops to produce, and maybe connect them to a university,” she said. Farmers in Cambodia produce crops on very small acreages and must watch out for land mines which remain from various wars and conflicts.

Rachel Hansen, MHS social studies teacher and event emcee, said the event was designed to encourage discussion and interaction. During the evening, several students shared their own experiences of hunger and poverty.

Charla Schafer, executive director of Muscatine Center of Strategic Action, wasn’t surprised by what the students shared.

High school students attended a breakout session with Dr. Donna Beegle, a poverty expert, earlier this year. When Schaefer asked the student group if any of them had seen their moms or grandmothers go hungry recently, nearly half of the students said they had.

She added that the biggest impact on hunger and access to food is affordable housing.

“When families are spending a third or more of their income on housing, it leaves very little left for food,” Schafer said. She adds that many families are trying to do the best they can, but need support to get through an unexpected financial emergency or to get reliable transportation.

“If you have a flat tire, which you don’t have the money to fix, that means you can’t get to your job to pay for your rent,” Schafer said. “It might only be $13, but if you don’t have any wiggle room, that can cause serious problems.”

MCSA provides emergency and temporary shelter, basic health care, educational and support services for those in need in Muscatine County. Schafer said events like the Hunger Banquet can bring awareness to issues locally and around the world.

“One of the biggest things we can do is to stop judging those in poverty and realize they are either born into poverty or have gotten a bad break. Try to be a good neighbor and help where you can,” she encouraged the students.

Schafer also urged those attending to volunteer at the summer lunch program, administered by the United Way of Muscatine, serving meals to students at four locations this summer. Volunteer training is currently underway and meals will begin to be served in early June.

Ms. Hansen wrapped up the event with the following quote from Nelson Mandela:

“Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice. Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is manmade and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings. Sometimes it falls on a generation to be great. YOU can be that great generation. Let your greatness blossom.”

The World Food Prize Iowa Youth Institute (IYI) is a transformative experience for students held at Iowa State University each April. During this day-long event, students are able to immerse themselves in the world of food security while presenting their ideas and findings to professionals. It is an international organization created to honor the work of Nobel Prize winner Dr. Norman Borlaug.

Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his work in global agriculture and envisioned a prize that would honor those who have made significant and measurable contributions to improving the world’s food supply. Beyond recognizing these people for their personal accomplishments, Borlaug saw The Prize as a means of establishing role models who would inspire others. His vision was realized when The World Food Prize was created in 1986 with sponsorship by General Foods Corporation.