WALLA WALLA -- The masses came to eat, but few left with full stomachs.
About 200 people of all ages turned out Thursday night to take part in a Hunger Banquet at Berney Elementary, hosted by students and parents of the district's Homelink Program.
Homelink serves families who seek to home-school their children in partnership with Walla Walla Public Schools. The program has about 176 students in kindergarten through eighth grade and is housed at Berney.
Becky Betts, a Hunger Banquet coordinator and the evening's emcee, said Homelink's Parent Teacher Organization began talking about a community service project a while back, and the idea for a Hunger Banquet was one she was familiar with.
Betts said she participated in a Hunger Banquet about 12 years ago and had always thought of a way to introduce one to her own children.
"It's not something you can reproduce on your kitchen table," she said.
Berney's cafeteria was the site of the banquet, where families were assigned an income group randomly before eating. Once inside, guests were directed to one of three areas.
Homelink advisory teacher Pam Clayton pointed out a cordoned-off area with tables decorated with soft lights. While guests found seats in the area, students working as servers for the evening approached the tables to pour juice.
"This is the upper class, so they get all of the ambiance," Clayton said.
Middle-class guests got seats, but no tables. And the largest group of the night sat on floor mats with no chairs or tables -- or even utensils to eat their meal.
As emcee, Betts explained to the participants that they each represented the global breakdown of the haves and have-nots. How 15 percent of the world's population is considered upper class, making $12,000 or more annually.
"You have access to basically everything you need, and the security to enjoy it," she said.
Those in the middle class, who represent 35 percent of the world population, live knowing that although there is some security, it can fade suddenly and force them into poverty.
The lowest earners were told they represent people who live on about $2.70 a day.
"You represent the majority of the world's population," Betts said.
As the food emerged from the kitchen, the inequalities grew more stark. While the upper-income guests were served salad, spaghetti, bread and dessert, middle-class guests had to line up for a plate of rice and beans. The lowest income group was given a small helping of white rice and water, and were told to use their hands to eat.
Local restaurants and grocery stores donated food for the banquet, and other donations helped cover the cost of supplies and other expenses. Betts said this allowed the full proceeds to go directly to charity.
The purpose of the Hunger Banquet was to draw attention to the issues of global hunger and poverty, while presenting it in a vivid, interactive way.
By assigning guests their social status randomly, organizers illustrated how sheer chance, like birth, determines whether someone sails or struggles through life.
"It's a metaphor for the inequalities," Betts said. "And with blessings come great responsibilities."
Angie Gibson and her family were given red cards, which secured them seats on the ground, and the small helpings of rice.
Each card came with a description of their circumstances, modeled on actual experiences of people living in poverty around the globe. Gibson described how according to the cards, her family relied on migrant work from her husband, and had been able to harvest crops for some time. But drought and other circumstances made it unclear where their food would come from.
"It's a little dismal," she said.
Amy Davis-Gruner, a home-schooling parent, said she and her family fasted recently, giving up meals for one day and donating the money they would have spent on food to a food bank. Even so, the Hunger Banquet was a unique experience, she said, in part for the anxiety it sparked on how the night would go and whether they would get much to eat.
"When you know you're not going to eat, the only thing you can think about is food. And when you're going to eat again," she said.
Sitting room on the floor mats quickly grew scarce. People huddled near each other, forming clusters in the room's most populated area. A family that had been assigned middle-class seating at the start was singled out as having been adversely affected, and told to move to the floor.
Joseph Gonzalez, his wife Karene and two children gave up seats and the promise of rice and beans to eat the smaller rice serving. Although the slight meals were happily eaten, Gonzalez said the experience did have an impact.
"It showed me how easily you can go from middle class to poverty level, in one sitting," he said. "It was humbling."
Betts said all of the money raised, as well as canned good donations, would go to Blue Mountain Action Council, Helpline and Providence St. Mary Medical Center's backpacks for homeless teens program. A small portion would also go to Oxfam, an international aid agency that offered the model for the Hunger Banquet.
Guests also saw slideshows, videos and heard testimonials of people living in extreme poverty around the world and in the United States. Homelink Director Dan Willms spoke about the local need for not just food, but fresh, healthy food.
By night's end, the Hunger Banquet had raised at least $1,500 to support local food banks. That included a check for $300 that was donated by a guest at the conclusion of the meal and presentation -- a testament to the night's impact.
We don't always get to walk in someone else's shoes," Betts said. "This might be the closest we get."