Hunger Banquet at Walla Walla school puts faces to numbers

At an upcoming dinner, what's on the table depends on the diners' temporary lots in life, which are drawn by chance.

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If the world was populated by 100 people, one-third would be nourished, one-third would be undernourished and one-third would be starving, explained Becky Betts.

It's a hard idea to wrap your heart around, said Betts, the organizer of Homelink's Hunger Banquet, which takes place Thursday, 6 p.m., at Berney Elementary School.

Distilled down to America, those numbers mean one in 10 in this country are hungry or at risk for hunger. "That means someone on your block or in your kid' class is not getting enough to eat," she said. "Twenty percent of the children in our lives live below the poverty line."

Those statistics have eaten at Betts for a decade and now is the time to do something about it, she believes.

Partnering with Oxfam America -- an international relief and development organization striving for lasting solutions to poverty, hunger and injustice -- Betts proposed the Hunger Banquet concept to other parents at Walla Walla Public School District's Homelink Parent Teacher Organization as a service project for the holiday season.

They bit and Betts jumped on the task of gathering support and donations.

To be fair, she had a head start. Ten years ago she attended a Hunger Banquet elsewhere with a friend. It is Oxfam America's signature event to raise awareness, she said.

Each diner draws a ticket upon entering the event and that piece of paper informs you of your lot in life, Betts explained, randomly assigning each person to either a high-, middle- or low-income tier.

The ratio is based on the number of people worldwide who live in poverty. Fifteen percent of participants will eat spaghetti, salad, bread and dessert. While sitting at tables, she noted.

Thirty-five percent will eat a simple meal of rice and beans and the low-income tier -- 50 percent of those eating -- will be dished out small portions of rice and water and eat sitting on the floor.

All guests will be invited to share their thoughts about what demographic they represented after the meal.

Kathy Covey, director of community services from Blue Mountain Action Council, will deliver a "state of the hungry union" address, Betts said. "My huge challenge is to somehow take this banquet and the global picture and present it in a way of what is happening locally."

There is a real need in the Walla Walla area, she added. "There are more homeless students this year. More people are hungry."

A large number of local restaurant owners and merchants raised hands to help with endeavor. John Lastokie of Graze Catering was a first responder, Betts said. His business will be contributing Caesar salad for the higher-income ticket holders.

"We though it was a great cause," Lastokie said. "We're happy to donate our time and services."

It fits in with what Graze already does, he added. "If we have food leftover from an event that we can handle properly and cool promptly, we are always willing to donate it to the Christian Aid Center."

Better that than have hungry people "Dumpster diving," the caterer noted, adding while that may be unseemly to contemplate, it does happen in Walla Walla.

There will also be a raffle of sorts after the banquet. Diners can buy tickets for a goat, books, seeds and trees, all of which are virtual at the dinner but representative of items that will be purchased with raffle ticket money for struggling countries.

Tickets for the Hunger Banquet are $5 plus a canned food item per person, or $20 per family plus a canned food item. Tickets are available at the door.

For more information call 527-3010.

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322. Check out her blog at blogs.ublabs.org/fromthestorageroom.

Requests up at local food bank

At the Blue Mountain Action Council Food Bank, requests for food assistance are up 32 percent since January, said director Gail McGhee.

She and her staff are seeing more two-working-parents families who have never needed help in feeding themselves and their children, McGhee said Monday. "A lot of them are embarrassed. And we are seeing elderly folks who have had to swallow their pride and, for the first time, go to food banks."

Fortunately, shelves at the Pine Street facility "look very good," she said. The local food drives are down, but not by a lot. People are still very generous."

McGhee expects the need for families to seek help in stocking their cupboards to continue and grow in Walla Walla, she said.

"If we last until March with what we've got, we'll be pretty lucky."

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