Guests are served food for thought at Hunger Banquet
“In the next few weeks, there is going to be a lot going on,” said Jamie Gold, assistant professor in the MVC Non-Profit Leadership Alliance. “Graduation parties, prom and picnics to kick off summer. We’re going to be grilling brats and burgers and dogs. We’ll be making potato salad and pasta salad. We’re going to fill that cooler up with soda and assorted beverages. We’ll go for seconds ... and eat until we’re uncomfortable. It’s times like those that it’s tough to consider that one in five children in ... Marshall experiences food insecurity.”
Gold went on to explain food insecurity as a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active and healthy life, setting the scene for the dining experience guests were about to find themselves in Thursday, April 26, during the 2018 Hunger Banquet, hosted by Marshall High School’s SAFE program and Missouri Valley College National Leadership Alliance.
Fifty guests entered the high school doors Thursday evening, where they were greeted at a table. There, guests drew a card, which determined where they would be seated for the night. Each card had a back story on it, explaining the guest’s lifestyle. For some, they were ushered to a fine dining area, complete with cloth napkins, candlelight, glass china and an evening of luxury. For others, they were escorted to an area that reflected that of a middle class citizen. They were shown to a table donning a plastic table cloth, plastic cups and paper plates – a table that a lot of people in the area could easily relate to.
For the rest of the diners, however, they were told to sit in an area of empty tables, sporting only a pitcher of water and Kool-Aid, along with paper cups and plastic forks.
“Each of you tonight, as you walked in, drew a card out of a basket,” Gold explained. “Each of you has a different scenario. I’m going to enlighten you on one another’s situations.”
MHS Coach Jason Varner stood up and read his card out loud. He read the scenario of the guests sitting at the lower class tables.
“You live in a rented two-bedroom apartment with your single mom and three siblings,” he said. “Your mom works full time and is gone a lot. You’re responsible for finding something to eat for yourself and your siblings in the evenings before she gets home. Your mom has SNAP benefits (food stamps) and they usually run out by the end of the month, especially if your mom buys fresh fruit, vegetables or meat. You sometimes struggle to find enough to eat for everyone in your family, and feel hungry. Tonight you are excited because your mom picked up some things at the food pantry.”
Guests who chose the same card as Varner dined on a meal that consisted of a few peaches, a loaf of bread and butter, a small, once frozen, pot pie and a small snack cake.
Lindsey Parton, an MPS district social worker, was next to read her red card out loud. She read a scenario from the middle class tables.
“You live in a three-bedroom home with your mom and dad and sister,” she said. “Your family owns the home. Your parents both work full time. Your mom is a cook in a nursing home and your dad is an auto mechanic at a local repair shop. Your family makes too much money to receive any food assistance, but money sometimes is tight, especially around the holidays and when there are extra expenses, like medical, car or home repairs. Your parents usually cook something in the evenings. It’s a real treat when you get to go out to a restaurant, or have something special at home like steak. Tonight you are having one of the family’s go-to meals.”
Diners who chose the same card as Parton shared a large pan full of pasta, a small salad, garlic bread and a cupcake.
As the final card was read out loud, audience members were given a small glimpse of what luck could have handed them.
“You live in a five-bedroom, four-bath home just outside of town, with your mom, dad and two siblings. Your family owns the home and the acreage it sits on. Your dad is a marketing manager for a large corporation. Your mom is a financial advisor and runs her own business from home. Your family just tried a new Japanese restaurant in the city over the weekend. Sushi is your favorite. Your mom likes to experiment with cooking, so she often buys fresh fruit and vegetables to incorporate into her recipes. You love it when she makes lobster bisque. Tonight, she is trying a new recipe. She usually does pretty good, but if you don't like it, you can just eat something else later. There is always plenty of food.”
The seven guests who drew this particular card were treated to a lavish salad, cheese stuffed chicken breasts wrapped in bacon, mashed potatoes, green beans, rolls and a strawberry cheesecake eclair.
Gold asked diners to think about how they ended up where they were seated.
“This is our community,” she said. “How did you get where you are? How did you end up seated at the table you are seated at? Was it how hard you worked? How smart you are? How good looking you are? No. It was luck of the draw. You didn't pick, it picked you.”
In 2016, 23.3 percent of the residents in Marshall had an income level below the poverty level, according to Gold. Of those who live in poverty, the largest demographic is males ages 6 to 11.
“The second largest demographic of that number is females 18-24,” Gold said. “Followed by males under the age of 5.”
Gold asked guests to close their eyes and picture a 6-year-old boy saying, “This is the face of poverty in Marshall.”
Before dinner was served, a few surprises landed three unsuspecting diners at different tables than they were originally seated.
A guest at the middle-class tables located a fortune cookie on her table, symbolizing that she had won the lottery. She was moved to the upper-class tables. A woman at an upper-class table found a bandage, which signified that she had fallen ill and was overcome with medical bills, leaving her below the poverty level. Finally, a woman seated at the middle-class tables found a small car on her table, which meant she had recently suffered car trouble, and as Gold explained, because most middle class citizens don't have a savings larger than $3,000 at any given time, the woman was forced to use all of her money, and was moved below the poverty level.
Guests dined on their meals and heard several statistics regarding the amount of individuals who are at risk of hunger insecurity and were considered under the poverty level.
“Sometimes we all could use a little help from our friends,” Gold said after watching several diners split their meals to share with guests at different tables. “It does indeed take a village. ... I hope that this has given you some food for thought. Knowing about a problem is the first step. So the question that we pose to you tonight is, ‘What will you do?’ Now that you know. We’d like to share with you some of the actions that we thought we could take to make a difference, regarding food insecurity in our hometown.”
Parton said the SAFE program has started to build, and will continue to build, Little Free Pantries, which will be placed around Marshall.
“It’s a safe and dry place for food,” Parton said. “(It’s) for individuals to place canned goods and other necessities that can be accessed easily and without judgement. These pantries can be accessed anytime ... and are open for use by anyone. No strings attached. A person simply accesses the pantry and takes what they need or adds what they can.”
In the summer of 2018, Parton said the plan is to place four Little Free Pantries in Marshall. One will be at the Burrell Behavioral Health yard, on the corner of Jackson and Jefferson streets; one on the MVC campus; one at the Covenant Presbyterian Church on the corner of Yerby Street and Lincoln Avenue; and one at the Nazarene Church on the corner of Miami and Arrow streets.
In an effort to combat food insecurity in Marshall, the MVC Non-Profit Leadership Alliance and MPS SAFE program joined efforts to create Little Free Pantries in the community. With the help of the Saline County Career Center Building Trades class, Branch Out and two Eagle Scouts, the pantries are currently being built and erected.