Hunger Banquet and the Gates Fdn vs. food activists

Middle-incomers got spaghetti, poor got rice and rich got lemon-parsley tilapia

About 30 UW students held a “Hunger Banquet” Thursday evening at the Hillel Community Center, the event aimed at educating young people about social justice, global poverty and, on this occasion, food insecurity and the daily reality of hunger for hundreds of millions of people around the world.

Kristin Grote, who works on food and agricultural programs at the Gates Foundation, and Heather Day, director of the Community Alliance for Global Justice, spoke at the event about efforts aimed at reducing global hunger.

“Why is this happening and what should we do about it?” asked Alix Goldstein, a UW student and coordinator of the event. There are different views about both the cause of the problem and what’s needed to solve it, Goldstein said, but before they dug into the issue she began serving up the courses.

The students were separated into high-income, middle-income and low-income groups. The high-income group was served lemon-parsley tilapia as a main course, the middle-income group got spaghetti and bread while the group representing the poor was given only rice. When dessert came, the others got cookies but the poor just got more rice.

While they ate, Day and Grote gave their presentations.

Kristin Grote, Gates Foundation

Grote, who spoke after Day, described the Gates Foundation’s approach to improving agricultural productivity in Africa. African farmers, she noted, are growing crops not just for food but as their primary livelihood and most live on less than $1 a day.

Many of their problems can be addressed by technological improvements, Grote said, such as improved seed varieties that better withstand drought, inexpensive water retention and irrigation systems or just better information that allows them more ability to compete in the markets.

“It’s a complex problem requiring a variety of solutions, a comprehensive approach,” Grote said.

Heather Day, Community Alliance for Global Justice

Day said her organization welcomes the Gates Foundation interest in trying to help smallholder farmers in Africa. But she said the philanthropy’s approach, with its emphasis on science and technology, is really most favorable to the large agricultural corporations like Monsanto and Cargill.

There is already enough food for everyone in the world, she said, but it is being treated more as a commodity than as a fundamental human need. It is not being distributed equitably and fairly.

“We focus on the social justice aspect of food,” said Day. “Hunger is a problem of poverty.”

I suspect most of the students at the Hillel hunger banquet gained both an appreciation for the political and social complexity of the global food crisis from this event. I also suspect most of them, who just got rice, went out later for a Dick’s burger.

Prior to the event, I spoke with several students working on a variety of social justice issues.

Emilia Sternberg, 21, was stumping for UW United Students Against Sweatshops. She is an an international studies major who hopes to one day work in the International Criminal Court focusing on victims’ reparations.

“The goal should be about helping the victims of crimes, not just prosecuting the criminals,” said Sternberg.

Morgan Currier, a UW student and an intern at Hillel, organized the social justice fair and helped organize the banquet.

“The idea is to give people a better sense of what it’s like and also gain some understanding of the problem of inequitable food distribution around the world,” said Currier, who is 20 and studying law and social justice.

Wow. With young people like this I feel a lot better about the world.


About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.