Empty Bowls Feeding Minds

By on November 21, 2013
empty bowls

It takes more than an apple a day to keep the doctor away. As part of UAB’s Hunger and Homelessness Week, the Leadership and Service Council hosted its annual Empty Bowls event on November 13th, 2013.

The event drew over 100 students to the Blazer Hall RLC. Previously known by the oxymoronic name “The Hunger Banquet,” the interactive program began with a brief hunger simulation. After leaving students with the alarming statistic that 2.5 million people in the world live in poverty, Carlene Robinson and Satyam Patel, co-directors of the Leadership and Service Council, handed each student a small bowl of rice and beans, a bread roll, and a bottle of water. They explained that this meal is similar to what the average person in a third world country will eat once a day.

Frank Franklin, MD MPH PhD led the lecture portion of the event. He began his talk facetiously, donning hats that resembled various food items, but then presented a number of alarming facts about poverty and hunger. Franklin put global hunger into perspective by saying that, on a campus of UAB’s size, a quarter of students would die of hunger every day.

Franklin debunked the popular belief that malnourishment equates only to undernourishment. Showing side-by-side pictures of a young boy with an emaciated frame and another young boy with a portly one, he asked, “What do these children have in common?” The answer was surprising: they are both food insecure.

For impoverished people in industrialized countries like the United States, food availability is not the issue. The types of foods that those living below the poverty line can afford to buy are calorically dense and nutrient poor. Combined with psychological stress and the lack of available nutrition information, food insecurity, in Dr. Franklin’s words, is “a vicious cycle.”

The food insecurity issue is no stranger to Alabama. According to the health statistics from 2007-2009, Alabama ranks 11th in the country for food insecurity and 2nd for obesity, diabetes, and hypertension.

“Prior to Hunger and Homelessness week, I personally was unaware of the devastating impact that hunger and food insecurity can have on a person’s overall health. I was also unaware of how common these issues are within the United States! Birmingham, in my opinion, is the focal point of Alabama which is a state that has one of the greatest obesity and diabetes rates in the United States,” said Patel.

Patel urges students to get involved in the various UAB-led initiatives to fight local poverty and hunger, such as volunteering at soup kitchens and housing services. He also encourages students to contact local congressmen and senators to voice their opinions about the policies governing food insecurity.

Empty Bowls’ approach this year differed from its predecessors.

“In previous years, attendees were randomly assigned to different groups of socioeconomic class and then were served food that resembled a typical meal that a person would be eating in those circumstances. Everything from the portion size of the meals to allowing attendees to use chairs and tables differed between the classes. Although this approach was effective, we believed that it was unfair for some people to leave the event hungry while others were full.  We also wanted to hold an event that had a greater focus on the facts,” explained Patel.

Though the event was less interactive that the Hunger Banquet, the turnout of students this year was unprecedented. At the end of the program, students left with Jimmy John’s sandwiches, their very own empty ceramic bowl, and a new perspective.

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