It was a poignant reminder of the plight many people in north central Indiana face, as they live paycheck to paycheck, oftentimes having to decide which bills to pay or not pay, in order to put food on the table.
As Indiana University Kokomo celebrates Homecoming, student planners did not want to forget about this week's hunger and homelessness awareness week, offering the Hunger Banquet to focus on the issue.
"You can't tell who is struggling," Harrison, a junior from Kokomo, said. "It's important for people to understand this can happen to anyone, anywhere. It's not just the poor people, it's middle class people too."
As participants arrived, each one was randomly assigned a social class. Those assigned to upper class sat at a round table, set with china, silverware, and cloth napkins, and ate a substantial, hot meal. Middle class participants sat at a square table, covered in red paper, and ate half a cold deli sandwich. Those assigned to the lower class sat in rows of folding chairs, receiving a slice of bread and a cup of water.
Abbie Smith president of the United Way of Howard County, demonstrated how hard it can be to make ends meet, giving students placemats with various family expenses, and a budget of 15 Smarties candies. Each person budgeted one, two or three candies for items including health insurance, housing, utilities, transportation, and meals for their family of four.
"These are choices people make every day, people who are working," she said. "These are people who are one tough decision away from a financial crisis."
Smith then asked who had not budgeted for health insurance for their family. Those who did not had to take away two candies to pay for medical care for a sick child, and reallocate their remaining candies. Then, all participants had to remove four candies, representing one family member losing his or her job, and then try to cover all expenses again.
This is the dilemma faced by approximately one quarter of Howard County residents, who are considered to be asset limited, income constrained, and employed, she said.
Harrison's experience in the lower class made her appreciate the efforts her mother made to keep food on the table.
"Growing up, we were probably borderline lower class," she said. "Sitting in that seat took me back to times we went to food banks. Knowing how my mother did it makes it more real for me."
She hoped everyone understood that while statistics are important, "you have to understand that there are real people behind those numbers, living this experience in their real lives. We need to have empathy for them, and do what we can to help."
Kazi Jami, a Master of Business Administration (M.B.A.) student who grew up in Bangladesh, hoped the exercise inspired students to give to those in need.
"The way the tables were organized showed us how discrimination is going on in our society," he said. "We can buy some food and donate it somewhere to help people."
Raisa Hale, a junior from Kokomo, found the experience to be eye opening. She was assigned to middle class.
"This was reality," she said. "We can give the information and statistics all day, but the Hunger Banquet gave us the experience. It wasn't just talk."
She thinks people don't realize how hard it is to work yourself out of poverty, and how quickly you can slip back down.
"It's important to know there are people who are hungry, and it's not just poor people," she said. "Many working people don't have much of a safety net, and they live in fear. If you're on the edge, all it takes is one incident to knock you back down."
Indiana University Kokomo serves north central Indiana.