By Dave Gulliver
Sierra Laico and Sofia Lombardi are first-years at New College. But last week’s Oxfam Hunger Banquet let them briefly live the experiences of Reshma, a 10-year-old girl from Pakistan, and Lai, a fisherman from Cambodia.
Laico and Lombardi attended the event, designed to demonstrate the effects of poverty and food insecurity around the world. Oxfam is a coalition of 19 charities working to alleviate global poverty.
The second annual dinner, on Nov. 21 at Ringling College of Art and Design’s Goldstein Library, drew 62 people, and many New College students attended and worked at the event. The event was organized by the two campuses’ VISTA coordinators, New College’s Sarah Lapton and Ringling’s Kelsey Van Horn.
“Most of our students have been through some type of food insecurity or have close relations to someone who has. I wanted our students to be more educated on what their classmates might be going through,” Lapton said.
“Food insecurity happens to way too many people in the United States and around the world and is in correlation to poverty. Both are things that can change, but it starts with awareness,” she said.
As attendees arrived, they drew a card with a brief biography of a person that Oxfam has encountered in its work – Laico’s Pakistani girl, forced by floods to flee to the city, and Lombardi’s fisherman, who may lose his livelihood because the government plans to dam the river he works.
Dani McCalla, director of student activities and campus engagement at New College, drew the bio of an affluent white man from Australia who lives off investments and fly-fishes in his spare time.
The card and biography also determine each guest’s seating assignment. McCalla, in the high-income group, was one of 16 guests seated on the library’s patio, at tables for four that were set with glasses, two plates, stylish utensils and a lovely centerpiece. They were served salad and plates of pasta with sauce.
Kaeli Williams, a New College fourth-year working the dinner, told the group that “high-income” guests represented the 20 percent of the global population making more than $7,205 a year. “You have access to everything you need, and the security to enjoy it,” she told them.
The middle-income group, 24 guests, sat at plain rectangular folding tables, with paper plates and plastic forks. They lined up cafeteria-style for a serving of beans and rice.
“Equality does not exist here,” said New College second-year Daria Paulis, also working the dinner. She told the guests that even in the wealthy United States, nearly 40 percent of people live at or below the poverty line.
At one point, an organizer introduced one middle-income guest as a successful farmer from Senegal, but who lost land to the government and livestock to polluted water, and directed the guest down to the low-income group.
Laico and Lombardi, in the low-income group, were directed to tarps and blankets out on the lawn beneath the patio. In the middle of the tarps was a single large pot of white rice. They were given no dishes or utensils – instead, the low-income group had to swap a personal item (temporarily) for a paper plate and spoon.
Lombardi traded two bracelets so she could find a way to eat, taking a few spoonfuls of rice so as to save more for others in the impoverished group. She was thankful that dinner emphasized that food insecurity was everywhere, even locally, and that it made clear the boundaries of wealth and poverty.
“I was really surprised that to be high-income, you can make less than $8,000 a year,” she said. “It’s insane what we take for granted.”
Compared to her classmate, Lombardi did relatively well in her trade. Laico had to give up her handbag for her plate and fork, after the servers refused her offer of a box of mints.
“To see how many people live in poverty, that so many people live like this, while people like us have so much,” said Laico, her voice trailing off. “I don’t even know why we complain about anything.”
McCalla, too, said it made her think what she takes for granted. “It tugged on the heartstrings to physically see the disparity of how these ‘riches’ are shared,” she said. “All this shows that the discussion and work we are doing is important now more than ever.”
— Dave Gulliver is interim associate director of the Office of Communications and Marketing at New College of Florida.