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Hunger gets a seat at Berkeley's table

Dinner highlights student-led campaign to drive home the issue of global food inequities

| 13 November 2009

To bring home the issue of world hunger, the dining commons in Berkeley's Unit 3 residence hall held a most unusual dinner Thursday night.

About 15 students were seated at tables, and waiters brought them pasta and salad. A bigger group of students served themselves rice and beans from a buffet. And the biggest bunch sat on the floor to share a meager meal of just rice and water.

Students dine on the floor at the Unit 3 Hunger BanquetStudents dine on rice and water at Thursday'sHunger Banquet at the Unit 3 dining commons. (Kevin Gong photo)
"We placed them at different income levels that were representative of the world, and we fed them meals according to their status. We hoped we'd give them a taste of what inequality would feel like," said Bianca Nepales, resident assistant in Unit 3's Beverly Cleary Hall and a main organizer of the Hunger Banquet.

The dinner, which follows an Oxfam International model used on many college campuses, was part of a weeklong Hunger Awareness Week, put on by Unit 3 — Nepales and two fellow resident assistants — in collaboration with the campus chapter of Amnesty International. The week winds up with a hands-on sustainability lesson/community garden project Saturday afternoon.

This is the first year that Berkeley students have extended their hunger-awareness campaign to a full week, and Thursday night's banquet was the centerpiece. It drew about 100 students to Café 3, with the idea of making connections between their eating habits and world hunger.

"In our generation, the images of hunger we see have become very accepted — almost as if that's just how it is," said Nepales, a third-year student majoring in public health, with a minor in global poverty and practice. "There's not so much focus on what we can do."

Among the issues she hoped to highlight: the food waste that goes on in campus cafés and dining commons, and the fact that students' food decisions have an impact on other people in the world, including farmers. The dinner was free, the food provided by Cal Dining, but students were encouraged to make donations to Oxfam, a nonprofit that offers disaster and poverty aid. Guest speaker was a representative from People's Grocery, which works to improve food security in Oakland — a human reminder that hunger happens very close to home.

"Even the best of us can be fazed by the numbers — the millions and billions in poverty," said Nepales. "We wanted to give residents the opportunity to take action, to see that simple small steps can have an impact in the world, that even a few dollars can make a difference if a lot of people get involved."

The diners were assigned randomly to their groups and weren't told what to expect. To Nepales' surprise, a majority of the 50 people assigned to the low-income group got up and left when only rice and water appeared before them.

"We really applauded the people who stayed, because hunger isn't the kind of thing you can walk away from when you're in a position of food insecurity," she said.