Of cutlery, food and power

Confession: I stole a fork from an upper-income kid. I have no excuse. I should have been content with my lot. I’d drawn a “low-income” card at the Oxfam Hunger Banquet—"a metaphor for how food is inequitably distributed in the world.”

Unlucky me, I’d drawn a card that landed me on the floor with the majority of students and teachers gathered at Rainshadow Charter High, near downtown Reno. I’d be eating a half-cup of white rice. With my fingers. Fun.

My son, 16, a Rainshadow junior, sat at the front of the room, enjoying lasagna, spaghetti and bread. At a table. With a tablecloth. And silverware. No problem. It’s just a metaphor, right?

Students from High Desert Montessori School and Smith Valley High joined Rainshadow for the day. Students pulled cards from a can to learn their stories, names, income levels.

I was Roberto, 40, who fled to the United States to escape political oppression in Colombia. I lived at a homeless shelter.

Montessori student Eric Eckert, 12, drew the lot of a Haitian refuge. Eckert said he’d fasted for the day—in expectation of the event. He didn’t feel terribly hungry, he said, just tired.

“I think it’s important that people in this country think about this stuff,” Eckert said. “There are a lot of people in situations like this.”

Teacher Mina Avery admired Eckert’s dedication but expressed concern.

“Eric really wanted to know what it was like to be hungry,” Avery said. She’d brought emergency granola bars for the trip back.

The event was optional for High Desert Montessori students. Some hadn’t wanted to participate.

“They were afraid to be hungry—even for one day,” Avery said.

The idea was to demonstrate physically the global breakdown of food resources, according to emcee Travis Rice, a UNR grad student. Those at the table represented the 15 percent of the world’s well-fed population. Sitting in chairs and eating rice and beans were 25 percent of students, the middle class. The rest of us—60 percent—were sentenced to half-cups of rice.

“850 million people live in chronic hunger,” Rice told students. “That’s almost three times the number of people who live in the United States.”

Rice described his trip to an AIDS orphanage in Malawi, Africa. People lived in homes of mud bricks. Children died from preventable problems like starvation, dysentery and infections treatable by antibiotics.

“Around the world, a child dies from hunger or a preventable disease every 2.9 seconds,” Rice said. “The majority of the planet doesn’t live like we live here.”

Then the students lined up for lunch. Even the middle-class kids picked at black beans and rice as plates of warm lasagna were delivered to the front table.

“It sucks to be low-income,” said Randy St. Marie, 19, “when they get to have all that nice food up there.”

The peasants could revolt, I said. “There are more of us.”

“We could throw them out of their seats and take their seats,” he said.

But we did nothing. I walked up to my pasta-consuming son, thinking it strange that that my son’s friend had also drawn a high-income card. What were the odds?

“Did you cheat?”

No answer.

“How can you sit here and eat with those hungry Montessori kids watching,” I asked, “when you cheated?”

“I’m enjoying this,” he said. “Yeah, it’s immoral. You have to cheat to get to the top.”

“That’s exactly how the world works,” his friend chimed in.

“Is this what I’ve taught you?” I asked.

“This is what society has taught me.”

I considered this as I thought about eating rice with my fingers.

That’s when I stole his fork.