Sharing the hunger

At St. Matthew School in Hillsboro, Oregon, lucky students who picked a purple card were served a full meal on a white tablecloth; those who picked a brown card got a small bowl of rice and no table. The object was to teach seventh and eighth graders that food isn’t distributed equally worldwide.

The Hunger Banquet was arranged by school librarian Karen Mejdrich, who taught about human rights this year. She wanted the students to feel — on a gut level — the impact of going without. She hoped it would let her students witness poverty from a position of opulence and feel a need to change the imbalance.

Mejdrich got her script and statistics for the exercise from Oxfam, a nonprofit agency that battles poverty and injustice around the world.

The nine people at the banquet table represented the 15 percent of the world’s population with a per capita yearly income of $9,266 or more. Mejdrich told them: “You consume 70 percent of all the grain grown in the world, most of it in the form of grain-fed meat.”

Oxfam’s solution is to get the lucky rich to share with the unlucky poor. The students did that spontaneously. I wish they’d talked about producing more food: the green revolution, the potential of genetic engineering in the Third World, which economic and political systems lead to abundance, that sort of thing.

In the end, however, there was an increase in the food supply: As a reward for sharing, all the students got lasagna.

About Joanne

Comments

  1. While producing more food is a good goal, there’s been more than enough food to feed the world for a long time. Getting it to the hungry is the difficult job.

    Ideally, the hungry should grow their own, but combinations of lack of land, lack of money for seed, bad environmental conditions, bad political conditions, and the necessity of actually surviving long enough to harvest time prevent that.

    As for solutions, they come in two forms: short term and long term. If the administration had told the students that this separation was continuing indefinitely, I’d hope the students would have explored both. Share the food today while fighting in the long term to reverse the administration policy.

    I doubt that the “deprived” students would have been happy if they’d been told that “you won’t have motivation to fight for a just administration policy if we share our food”.

  2. LibraryGryffon says:

    What is it with school librarians teaching lessons on social issues lately?

  3. It’s never too early to teach children about the superiority of socialism over the obviously unfairness of capitalism. Remember: People don’t help people; states help people.

  4. as a blind date (a very SHORT blind date) told me recently… “socialism just doesn’t work… but capitalism is mean!”

    waiter.. check please! oh, and I’m guessing she wants to go dutch

  5. Roy W. Wright says:

    “You consume 70 percent of all the grain grown in the world, most of it in the form of grain-fed meat.”

    That fact is enough to make me grateful, not ashamed. Americans don’t consume at the expense of others. More often than not, it is the other way around.

  6. Jack Tanner says:

    When the kids with good food tried to share it with the other kids did the class bully steal all the food and give it to his supporters then kill the other poor kids who complained?

  7. This librarian’s exercise was a good example of the fundamental disconnect in the thinking of so many people about economic issues. I think too many of us see the world through the economic lens of our own personal family experiences. When we were kids, we just had to sit at the table, and voila, food appeared at mealtime ready to eat. The big moral issue involved was whether everyone got a fair portion — “her piece of pie is bigger than mine! no fair!” We could afford to think that way because a benevolent source had provided the goods for us to consume without the effort of producing the raw materials (earning money to buy ingredients) or cooking the meal. So our childish economic model of the world is that, obviously, everyone should have the same amount of stuff and if we don’t, then the “distribution” is unfair.

    What’s left out of the librarian’s exercise entirely is any concept of *earning* or *producing* food. It simply appears from nowhere and is plopped on the kids’ plates. This is a worse than useless model of the real world. The proper question is not, “why do some kids have so much on their plates” but “what are some kids doing wrong that they aren’t producing more and better food for their own plates.”

  8. Insufficiently Sensitive says:

    The librarian, as the arbitrary ruler of the clasroom, demonstrated very nicely the principle that when arbitrary distribution is substituted for a supply-and-demand economy, one part of the population is favored at the expense of another. Unlikely she saw the parallel when inventing this ‘lesson’, but she was just repeating Stalin’s tactic of depriving the wrong-thinking Ukrainians of their grain production to reward his favored urban proletariat.

  9. When the kids with good food tried to share it with the other kids did the class bully steal all the food and give it to his supporters then kill the other poor kids who complained?

    Indeed. This “lesson” is not an appropriate analogy for so many reasons.

    For one thing, the rich cannot simply walk across the room to give their plate to the poor. For another, the simple fact of having more does not automatically obligate you to share.

    Sharing may be the compassionate choice in cases where all other factors are equal. But the fact of it is, it isn’t logistically possible most of the time, and the have-nots often don’t deserve it.

    A lot of poor countries are poor because of tyrannical government, lawless societies, and stupid economic decisions.

  10. Roy W. Wright says:

    …the have-nots often don’t deserve it.

    Whoa, there’s some radical thinking.

  11. …and just maybe if these famalies in Third World nations didn’t have 10 kids each they would have enough food to go around. My point is that over population in these countries is the cause of the suffering, not the “evils” of capitalism or the West.

  12. Yikes! Watch the over-population claims! They are not always what they appear to be. Don’t forget, in agrarian- or animal-raising (I cannot think of a more elegant sounding adjective) based economies, having many hands to do the work is an asset, not a liability. It is unfortunate that so much of the “enlightened” West’s aid to developing nations has placed such a strong focus on population control over education (both academics for the children and practical/technical for the adults to improve their yields.)

  13. John from OK says:

    I think a discussion on world hunger misses the real issue here, brought up by LibraryGryffon:

    “What is it with school librarians teaching lessons on social issues lately?”

    Indeed. I thought a library was a place where you borrowed books, so you did not have to buy them all yourself. In this case the school librarian seems to be the designated socialist organizer.

    Reminds me of the lady in Boulder who said you can’t fly the US flag but you can fly ceramic penises; another librarian who fired an employee after she identified two 9/11 highjackers to the FBI; and the “white kids are sinners” lady from last week.

    Finally, will someone check this woman’s tax returns to see how much she donated to hunger relief agencies. Chances are, she feels no need to give money when she does such a good job of raising awareness.

  14. Bill Leonard says:

    About overpoplulation: funny, but typically when a country makes a transition to a more or less modern capitalist economy, a genuine rule of law, reasonably representative government and transparent government activity, the birthrate starts to fall within a generation or two.

    For instance, even traditionally Catholic countries such as France, Italy, and now Spain and Portugal, all have had declining birth rates for quite awhile. In some cases, it’s even less than one for one reproduction.

    The lesson there for, say, Ecuador or Colombia, is not that they need more birth control. Long-term, they need rational, reasonably free, reasonably capitalistic, rule-of-law societies.

  15. is that little Oxfam lesson going around STILL? I seem to remember it being taught as a lesson, but I don’t remember if it was child 1 (1989), child 2 (1991) or 2000. It was in an Episcopal school, at any rate.

  16. Good heavens. I think its time that the schools learn that lessons in compassion have no place in education. In fact, better make certain the students have no real appreciation for the fact that the poor even exist, otherwise they might be in danger of having their unformed minds overwhelmed by misdirected concern.

    And heaven forbid that we make the students aware that racism or bullying exists in any fashion that it meaningful to them. They might actually end up trying to *do* something about it.
    </sarcasm>

    I’m not certain exactly what it says about American society when so many are concerned that capitalism is endangered by understanding of other’s situation, but whatever it says isn’t good.

  17. Steve LaBonne says:

    Tom, teaching contempt for the very economic forces which alone can lift people out of poverty is the precise opposite of “compassion”. Or do you think “the poor you will always have with you” was intended to be a self-fulfilling prophecy?

  18. Funny, but I don’t see the contempt. I see a lesson that helps students recognize two things:

    (1) that the capitalist system produces a wide variety of outcomes that often leaves people in need (hunger within our system)

    (2) many people in the world don’t live in a system where their effort can make life tolerable due to environment, insufficient capital, etc.

    The idea that people need to have these facts concealed from them reeks of the Potemkin village (there are no poor). The existence of the New Deal may well have rested on the fact that FDR was actually exposed to the poverty rather than just read about it (one of Eleanor’s greatest accomplishments in her mind).

    Let people know that their system has produced the wealthiest generation in history, but don’t try and conceal the fact that not everyone ends up a winner, nor does everyone have the opportunity to grow up with the same advantages.

    Yeash. Ignorance may be bliss, but it isn’t moral.

  19. Steve LaBonne says:

    No, Tom, I still disagree with you. The lesson reeks of ignorance and contempt for the facts that 1) the natural condition of human beings is poverty, 2)hundreds of generations of himan effort and ingenuity were required to lift a significant proportion of humans out of poverty, 3) bringing real, capitalist economic development to the parts of the world where the remaining poor are concentrated is the only hope for completing this process; feel-good Oxfam nostrums won’t, and can’t even in principle, begin to make a dent in the problems.

  20. Tom, you’re still stuck in the socialist paradigm – figuring that dividing the pie equally will mean more for the poor, while ignoring that this discourages the people who MADE the pie from making more. The 20th century provides experimental evidence as to how well this works. E.g., Russia and the USA started out with lots of untapped natural resources (rather more for Russia), and a mostly agrarian economy (especially in Russia) but with some industrialized areas. After 70 years of extreme socialism, the Russians were at least as poor as when they started, in spite of building considerable heavy industry that seemed incapable of making anything but second-rate armaments. Americans got so rich that our poor are better off materially than the middle class in most countries.

  21. ccwbass posted this on February 10, 2004 08:22 AM

    “It’s never too early to teach children about the superiority of socialism over the obviously unfairness of capitalism. Remember: People don’t help people; states help people.”?

    Ever hear about the official patriotic signs and slogans in Cuba that read “Communism or Death.” A recent immigrant from Cuba told me, “Communism or Death. It is the same thing.”

    Was ccwbass in his or her post being sarcastic or serious. Sarcastic, I hope because I dare anyone to name a socialist country that is, or was since most socialistic governments no longer exist, adequately feeding its people.

    China, maybe, but then there is the one child rule. So I don’t think “killing little baby girls in order to have a son because the central government cares about us but can’t feed us so we can only have one child” qualifies China as a big success at feeding its people.

    How about North Korea? Cuba? Can anyone name a successful socialist country, successful at feeding its people?

    By the way I have done numerous work for private charities helping in foreign countries and for USAID. The mean, capitalist US government and people have given more non military aid to other countries that any other people in the history of the world.

    How does that square with your thoughts on capitalism and socialism? Ever see a socialist country give non military foreign aid? Of course not. Their wonderful system that ccwbass seems to be praising can not produce enough for their own citizens.

    If you think socialism is so good, please point out a successful socialist country.

    Socialism seems good in theory. Capitalism seems cruel in theory. But look at the results. Most socialist governments are gone. The existing ones are horrible. The capitalist societies, whether you like them or not, have produced the greatest well being for the most people.

  22. Jack Tanner says:

    ‘The idea that people need to have these facts concealed from them reeks of the Potemkin village (there are no poor).’

    Apparently there’s a fantasy world out there where there aren’t any poor people. Fortunately for me the streets where I drive are all filled with chopped out H2’s and Mercedes convertables and all the people on the subway are multimillionairs. All the non English speaking people I bump into are all actually foreign dignitaries and none of them are illegal aliens. All those single moms at the playground are actually retired investors living the luxury life. Where are these poor people I’ve heard about?

  23. …and just maybe if these famalies in Third World nations didn’t have 10 kids each they would have enough food to go around.

    The problem is, there is an incentive for those families to do so. In places where infant/childhood mortality is high, and income is dependent on manual labor, more kids = more money for the family overall.

    Overpopulation is a self-correcting problem. This is why people die in large numbers in places like central Africa, where sanitation and diet are very bad, and the general standard of living is very low.

    The solution to overpopulation in the long run is evidenced by the fact that more advanced nations have lower (or even negative) birth rates.

  24. First, let me make it clear, on the continuum between pure socialism and pure capitalism, I’m way over on the capitalism side (rather more socialist than where the United States resides, but rather more capitalist than most European nations. Call me Canadian :-)).

    But it *is* a continuum. No laissez-faire capitalist system has survived either. It’s obvious that either end of the socialist-capitalist spectrum doesn’t support life. Evidence tends to support that in general, the sweet spot is over on the capitalist side.

    However, I am fully aware that with *any* system, there are tradeoffs. My “sweet spot” is not the best spot for everyone. In every possible form of government, there will be injustices and suffering and a cost to those living outside my system.

    However, I damn well want to know, and want my children to know, what those injustices are.

    If I was a communist, I would want to know what the downsides of communism were, and if I was a laissez-faire capitalist, I’d want to clearly know what my favorite system costs other citizens. To do otherwise is to blind myself of the information to make decisions. Works well for kings, not so well for anyone… Actually, doesn’t work all that well for kings, either :-).

    The most important thing to teach children, in my not so humble opinion, is that there *is* no answer that is right for everyone. You must learn all sides, and make decisions as to what you support in full knowledge of the costs. Support the death penalty *knowing* that innocent people will be executed. Support welfare for single mothers, knowing that it may cause families to break apart that could have stayed together. Know the costs!

  25. Tom, that’s a more nuanced and reasonable response. However, it has nothing to do with this particular school lesson, which is entirely one-sided and unrealistic. The food appears as if by magic, and the “rich” didn’t work for their larger share. It’s the unthinking socialist vision brought to life.

    It would be entirely possible to modify it to be more realistic. Each C = 1 cupcake, B = 3, A = 10. Find some way for the havenots to earn a little bit of the haves share. Let the class talk about other ways of dividing them up, and make it clear that this deal will be repeated, so they’d better think about how to keep the top students interested in getting more A’s… But this isn’t what the organizer of this event wanted – she wanted to put the straight socialist message across, without getting the kids “confused” with productivity differences, etc.

  26. greeneyeshade says:

    markJ, this lifelong democrat is saving your comment for whenever someone else mentions a problem like this. i promise 2 give u credit.

  27. If this was a daily lesson or “the” lesson I’d worry about the one-sided aspect of it. However, I don’t see a lack of lessons or awareness about the superiority of our system or that working hard produces results. (Whether *any* lesson reaches the students is a different questions :-).)

  28. This is a worse than useless model of the real world. The proper question is not, “why do some kids have so much on their plates” but “what are some kids doing wrong that they aren’t producing more and better food for their own plates.”

    I suspect that what the kids were doing wrong was not being born in the United States. I really doubt that the child growing up in sub-Saharan Africa is working any less hard than the child here.

    It is interesting though. I’d say that one of the primary characteristic of Americans (i.e. gross generalization) is the belief that success is directly related to effort. A belief (more true in the USA than anywhere else in the world) that is no doubt responsible for America’s economic success while allowing a sizeable amount of its population to live in relative poverty. (Suprise, another tradeoff.) I suspect that most of the rest of the world believes that effort is a prerequisite, not a guarantee, of success.

  29. What the subsaharan African kids (and the Arabs, Berbers, etc., too) did wrong was to be born into a country where either socialism really took hold a long time ago, or it’s been used by the government as an excuse for thuggocracy. Either way, productivity is discouraged and so production falls far below requirements. Since those governments didn’t build good roads into the interior, either, it’s generally impossible to ship food to everyone.

    What we do ship temporarily saves some lives but causes greater famines later. It makes the thuggocrats richer and more entrenched, depresses local produce prices, and further discourages the local development of food crops.

    All that’s a little heavy and rather too complex for elementary and middle school kids. But what exactly is your justification for teaching an entirely one-sided lesson?

    Finally, most school lessons aren’t so obviously biased, but they often still are biased towards socialism. From kindergarten in 1958 to high school graduation in 1971, most of my teachers were fretting about the poor people in Africa, American ghettos, and Appalachia, but only two or three high school classes discussed how any of them came to be poor, or mentioned that wealth was something people create rather than something that rains from heaven. It’s taken nearly 30 years to entirely free myself from that indoctrination.

  30. What we do ship temporarily saves some lives but causes greater famines later.

    I suppose that’s were you and I must differ. I just can’t hack the “it’s better to let them die” line.

    I certainly agree that food aid can enrich thugs and perhaps depress local food prices, but then releasing oil reserves when prices surged lowered oil prices, and this wasn’t seen as a bad thing if it meant Americans didn’t freeze to death during the winter.

    Just because it’s not a long-term solution does not mean it has no place as a short-term solution. Does it have its costs in terms of long-term growth? Of course. But I think the results (lives saved) are worth the costs.

    Besides, letting kids know that poverty is real now gives them 5 or 6 years to think about whether they *want* to do anything about it, and if so, *how* to do something about it.

  31. Jesus is the first recorded person to preach taking the fruits of one’s labors and giving to the needy. Therefore Jesus was a socialist. Since Jesus was a socialist, the government can not follow his teachings. Since many if not all religions believe in helping the poor, our government is promoting all religions.

    The Constitution is very clear on the separation of church and state, so this must be stopped immediately. Where is the ACLU when you really need them?

  32. See this for another example.

  33. Tom West wrote: No laissez-faire capitalist system has survived either. It’s obvious that either end of the socialist-capitalist spectrum doesn’t support life.

    Interestingly enough, big business agrees with you that the capitalist end of the continuum doesn’t “support life” (theirs).

  34. Leslie G. says:

    ya’ll who don’t like what this lady did are just stupid motha fuckers who need to get a life

Trackbacks

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