The Meal of Solidarity: Is It an effective way to teach students about poverty?

For the past 11 years, St. John’s has hosted schoolwide events to address world hunger during Poverty Education Week. In the past they have done the Hunger Banquet, where students are fed either rice, rice and beans, or a full course meal based global economic disparities and poverty rates. For the past two years, St. John’s has done the Meal of Solidarity, where all students eat the same rice and beans to show solidarity with the less fortunate.

The goals of this activity (and Poverty Education Week as a whole) is to educate the student body about the realities of the surrounding world and to get people to acknowledge the privilege they have. Regardless of these goals, there is one lingering question that should be asked: Is the Meal of Solidarity (or Hunger Banquet) an effective way to teach students about poverty? I asked multiple students from different grade levels to anonymously share their honest opinions, in hopes of gaining real insights into what people take away from poverty and how it can be improved.

“You hear a lot of complaining. But at the end of the day when people go home and are not around their friends so they don’t have to pretend to hate everything, they do think “Oh, I understand.” Because you feel tired and so hungry that you can’t focus in class. That’s what people feel every single day of their lives.” Class of 2019, Girl.

“In all honesty, I think it’s a terrible idea because half of the students throw away the rice and beans, which makes more waste than there would be in a regular week. So the whole “let’s bring awareness” idea actually wastes more food than we would have. The concept is really smart, but it’s a waste of time, a waste of food, and it never goes where they want it to go.” Class of 2019, Girl

“I think that everyone’s suffering but not on the same scale. But in comparison to what we get to eat at lunch, eating the rice and beans that are pretty flavorless and still being hungry at the end of the day is pretty effective in showing us how blessed and privileged we are. That paired with all the lessons about poverty in each class does a good job in teaching us.” Class of 2020, Boy.

“I like experiencing what others are experiencing throughout the world. I like having the empathy, you know, at least for one day. I think for some people you need to be hands on and not just told to be empathetic.” Class of 2019, Girl.

“They’re selling breakfast and they’re selling stuff after school, so I don’t think it works. Theoretically, if you’re someone who really buys into it then it can be effective. It can help you understand what it’s like to go through your day on an empty stomach and how challenging that can be. But for a lot of people it’s not taken seriously and it just becomes an activity where we all sit on the floor.” Class of 2021, Boy.

“It’s a little bit silly because they make it seem like poverty is only being able to eat rice and beans. Yes, some people eat rice and beans everyday, but some don’t eat at all. To try to just make people experience that for one day kind of oversimplifies it. I think that maybe they should do more throughout the week during every lunch period to educate people.” Class of 2020, Girl.

Some believe that it works, others see room for improvement. Whether it is because some students do not take the activity seriously or because some are genuinely upset by the lack of food, one clear conclusion can be drawn: it us up to individuals to embrace the experience and learn from it if they choose. There is no single “right way” to teach students about poverty, for you cannot force people to care. However, as St. John’s continues to have Poverty Education Week, I can only hope and believe that the impact will grow.

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