With a spoonful of rice in a small paper cup, about a dozen Lower Columbia College students, staff and faculty gathered cross-legged on the floor of the student center conference room Wednesday for lunch.
Some members of the group stole envious glances across the room, where waiters served a full-course meal to those sitting at a table adorned with a fabric cloth.
Putting it frankly, one participant said, “This sucks.”
The lunch-goers had signed up for a free meal at a “hunger awareness banquet,” unknowing that the luncheon they were attending was intended to simulate the American class system and poverty. Each of the 42 participants was randomly assigned a character in a low-, middle- or high-income financial class. Then each group was served a meal representative of their income.
Attendees assigned low-income characters, such as a single mother of three whose family was out of food stamps for the month, got a cup of Mexican rice to eat. High-income characters, like a father who helped pay his daughter’s way into Yale University, were served as many tacos, burritos, quesadillas, rice and beans as they could eat.
“If you wanted any extra, all you had to do was ask,” said Krista Sund, an LCC student seated at the high-income table. “They just waited on us like it was a high-end restaurant.”
Following the Mexican-food theme of the lunch, those in the middle class got a plate of rice and beans.
The activity was intended to draw attention to food insecurity on campus and remind students and staff where they could get help, said Dani Trimble, director of LCC’s workforce and career services department.
A person is considered food insecure if he or she has a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy lifestyle, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Food insecurity often is linked to poverty, hunger and housing shortages.
In 2016, about 14.8 percent of the Cowlitz County population, or 15,200, were food insecure, according to Feeding America, the nation’s largest hunger relief program. And a recent study showed 48 percent of college students nationally have experienced food insecurity, Trimble said.
“Food insecurity is a big barrier for students to be able to focus in class, and we are recognizing that students have a lot of need,” Trimble said.
Trimble, student program director Paz Clearwater and the LCC student government started a food pantry on campus to help meet those needs. Since opening in January 2018, the pantry has served more than 200 students, Trimble said.
“We are able to address a need we weren’t capturing anywhere else,” she said. “We didn’t ask those questions (about food insecurity) before.”
However, the pantry may not show the “full need and full demand” for food at LCC, Trimble said. Her colleague, Steven Boyer, noted that almost 30 percent of college students who are eligible for state food assistance programs, like food stamps, don’t know they can use those programs. Boyer is LCC’s coordinator for those programs.
The banquet, now in its second year, helps raise awareness not only for the problem of food insecurity, but also reminds the LCC community about the resources available on campus, Trimble said.
After finishing their meals, the groups discussed their characters, which were “reminiscent” of real-life experiences of former LCC students, Boyer said.
Sund, the LCC student at the high-income table, drew the card for a well-off business owner who was sending his daughter to Yale. Sund said she occasionally uses food stamps to purchase food for her family, and she’d want the wealthier character’s lifestyle instead.
But Sund and her character shared similarities in that they wanted the best possible college experiences for their children, she said.
“It’s about knowing that everyone has their own story. ... It’s learning to respect people no matter what class they come from,” Sund said of the activity.
In the low-income group, the characters were relatable for some students and thought-provoking for others.
“The thing that strikes me most about this is that someone can only eat once time a day,” said an LCC faculty member whose character card said her only meal came from a local homeless shelter. She said it was hard for her to imagine living like that.
Boyer drove her point home.
“When we get the tickle of hunger, most of us can just walk to the fridge. We don’t even think about the people who can’t do that,” he said.