A Hunger to Help

Students plan annual Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week to spotlight pressing problems locally and beyond.

Hunger Homelessness
November 14, 2012

When GW sophomore Ashley Trick went into Whole Foods recently, she skipped past the expensive premade lunches and fresh salads and made a beeline for the pasta aisle. Then she grabbed some rice and cereal. Ms. Trick and more than 150 GW students like her had committed to living on a $30 food budget for an entire week—the same dollar amount allotted to recipients of food stamps. That meant she was allowed about $1.40 per meal. Cheap, filling choices were in, and pricey fresh foods were out.

“We found that it’s tough to balance what’s affordable with what’s healthy,” Ms. Trick explained.  “Sure, it’s OK to eat just pasta and rice for a week, but that can only take you so far. We’d be really undernourished if we did this long term.”

The Food Stamp Challenge is just one part of GW’s annual Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week. The week aims to direct attention at a topic that members of the GW community might normally overlook—literally.

On GW’s urban campus, it’s not uncommon for students to walk past people sitting on the ground, holding cardboard signs requesting money for food. And one of the main goals of the week, said senior Maggie Sexton, an event organizer, is to humanize the problem of poverty in America. One in every seven people in the United States has experienced poverty.

“I want people to remember that people deal with homelessness and hunger every day,” Ms. Sexton said. “They go to bed hungry and wake up hungry. And the people who are struggling with it are not necessarily some distant ‘other’—they are people like us. They could be us.”

Ms. Sexton worked with a team to put together an educational panel discussion for Tuesday evening. The panel included DC Central Kitchen Founder Robert Egger, as well as a group of speakers from the National Coalition for the Homeless who had experienced homelessness.

In addition to the educational panel and the Food Stamp Challenge, the week’s activities include a canned food drive benefiting the Capital Area Food Bank; a poetry slam, scheduled for Wednesday evening; and a Hunger Banquet set for Thursday night.

The Hunger Banquet is an exercise that will help participants viscerally understand socioeconomic divisions and their effects, said sophomore Daniela DiGuido, who will host the event.

The 200 expected participants will each be randomly assigned a socioeconomic class via a card at the event entrance. And, in line with actual statistics, there will be many more lower- and middle-class diners than upper-class diners. The meals and seating arrangements will vary drastically by class, Ms. DiGuido explained—lower-class diners will receive a cup of soup after waiting in a soup line, while upper-class diners will be treated to a full meal and dessert served by waiters. After dinner, all attendees will take part in reflection activities and discuss the emotions they experienced during the meal.

“I hope this event really helps students who have not been exposed to nutritional inequality understand what it is like, even if just temporarily, to live in someone else's shoes,” Ms. DiGuido said. “Although these events tend to only temporarily impact attendees, there are always a select few whose perceptions will be changed completely, and who may decide to get involved in a service opportunity for the first time.”

Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week is planned jointly by the Center for Civic Engagement and Public Service and students in the Human Services program course Human Services and Community: Empowerment for Social Change. The class is taught by Senior Associate Provost and Dean of Student Affairs Peter Konwerski, an adjunct professor in the Human Services program.

“As we head toward the end of the semester and see the change in season from fall to winter, Hunger Week always helps me gain a bit more perspective about how fortunate we are as a community,” said Dr. Konwerski. “Hunger Week allows our students to put the social policy and community organizing theories they are learning in class into practice as they implement the week.”

“Just like the season change, that happens right before our eyes as students demonstrate just how much they care about others as the week of hunger-oriented programming reflects that concern for others, particularly the hungry and homeless among us here in Washington,” he added.

Ms. Trick, an organizer of the Food Stamp Challenge, said the exercise forced her and fellow participants to become cognizant of how they take food security for granted.

“When you use a GWorld card, [funds] can seem almost limitless,” she said. Challenge participants, including a committee member who had grown up in a family that used food stamps, shared their experiences with budgeting, planning and cooking meals and discussed how their perceptions of food insecurity changed during the course of the challenge. Many students also enlisted sponsors to donate money to the Capital Area Food Bank for each day they stayed on budget.

Ms. DiGuido said she hopes the week’s events cause her peers to think twice about the privileges they take for granted on a daily basis—a warm bed, a constant supply of food and access to a high-quality education.

“All I can hope for is that after students attend [these events], they can go home and decide to not get that Sweetgreen salad for dinner, but instead give the money they would have spent to one of the many individuals around Foggy Bottom who is desperate for food.”