Banquet sheds light on hunger issues

MIDDLEBURY — One in seven people worldwide do not receive enough calories to support a normal, active lifestyle. For many, the few available calories come in the form of a paltry handful of rice for each meal.
The Middlebury Area Clergy Association aimed to put worldwide and local hunger issues into perspective, and to raise money for area food banks, with a hunger banquet on April 10. At the banquet, which was held at the Middlebury United Methodist Church, eight guests sat down to a chicken dinner, complete with bread, salad and servers, while 12 guests ate a meal of rice and beans, which they served themselves from two full Crockpots near their table.
The rest of the attendees — the remaining 60 percent — stood on a line that snaked around the room for their portion — a half cup of rice on a napkin and a small cup full of water. They sat down to enjoy the offering on a blanket on the floor.
“What we hope to do is to help you remember this: Everyone on earth has the same basic needs,” said Rev. Emily Melcher, interim minister at the Champlain Valley Unitarian Universalist Society, to the attendees. “It is only our circumstances — where we live and the culture we are born into — that are different.”
The Middlebury Area Clergy Association routinely makes efforts to raise awareness for local food shelves — especially during the late winter and spring months, following the holiday season, when these organizations tend to be understocked.
In many years, area clergy members encourage congregants to donate their weight in food, but Melcher, said that the association this year decided to change tacks and put on a hunger banquet.
“This year, we thought it would be great to do something different, and we were aware that cash donations to the food banks go much further than donations of food, since the food banks can purchase in bulk at reduced cost,” wrote Melcher in an email.
Melcher, Rev. Dan Wright of Weybridge Congregational Church, and Rev. Jill Robinson of the Middlebury United Methodist Church were the event’s organizers, and members of CVUUS cooked the meal. Attendees came from congregations across the county, including students from Middlebury College Hillel.
At the event’s outset, Melcher acknowledged that the hunger banquet did not begin to acknowledge the complex inequities that exist in the world.
“In the space of one evening, we cannot recreate the many, complex ways poverty manifests itself,” she said. “We will not have time to go into all the problems associated with lack of access to healthcare, education and employment opportunities, and the realities of the day-to-day struggle for survival.”
And she reminded the group that neither the people who would get chicken nor the people who would be eating rice on the floor were intended to represent one country or region — poverty and inequality exists around the world.
Melcher informed the high-income group, which represented 15 percent of the world’s population, that each person represented a per capita income of $9,076 or more. Together, she said, the high-income group consumes 70 percent of all of the grain grown in the world – most of it in the form of grain-fed meat.
The middle-income group, she said, makes up 25 percent of the world’s population, with a per-capita income of between $1,000 and $9,000 per year.
“You are the folks who live on the edge,” she said. “For many, it would take losing only one harvest or drought or a serious illness to throw you into poverty.”
Meanwhile, the low-income group, 60 percent of the world’s population, represented those with an average income of about $2.50 per day. Many of those, she said, do not get enough calories to meet their basic needs, and most lack adequate health care.
Before the meal, Melcher told six people from the low-income group that they had been hired at a factory on the border of Mexico, and that they could move to the middle-income group. Meanwhile, six from the middle-income group had been laid off when their factory shut down.
And one more person from the middle-income group moved to the low-income group because his Kenyan coffee plantation had laid off workers when the price of coffee dropped.
“This is just a small slice of life as it happens each day around the globe,” said Melcher before the meal began.
Following the meal, people weighed in on what their meals had been like.
“This was a very tasty dish,” said Kathleen Smith of the Middlebury United Methodist Church, who was in the middle-income group. “But if this was the only thing that you could eat, day after day after day, the food would lose its shine.
“I’m really hungry,” said Rik Poduschnick, who was in the low-income group.
May, Poduschnick’s wife, was in the high-income group. She said her son wanted some of her food, but that she couldn’t give him any.
“I think sometimes this table would like to share, but they don’t know how to share what they have,” she said.
She added that she had asked for the rice and beans instead.
“It’s only at this table that you have the luxury to choose to be a vegetarian,” she said. “For others, it’s not a choice.”
A member of the Middlebury College Hillel group pointed out that he was struck by the way the upward mobility for the six people who moved to the middle-income group was accompanied by downward mobility for another six — something that he said people rarely think about.
Following the meal, MACA collected a free will donation, which Dan Wright said came to $700.32. The donations will be split between the food shelves at Helping Overcome Poverty’s Effects and at Addison Community Action.
Beatrice Parwatikar, of St. Mary’s Church, said that reaching beyond national borders to help address hunger issues is important, but that it’s just as important to be involved locally.
“Sometimes these issues are left to people who have more time on their hands,” said May Poduschnick. “But it’s really everybody’s responsibility — from young to old to in between.”
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected].

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