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Let them eat cake? Maybe, maybe not

By: Megan DeLaire

Professional accounting student Domingo Mespolet carves some tender chicken. The odds were in Mespolet’s favour when he drew a rich meal ticket.

Whether they ate well or not had nothing to do with participants’ merits and no one had the option of paying for a better meal. Each diner’s experience depended entirely on the luck of the draw.

The global economy has forged two contrasting fates: some are born into extreme poverty while others are born into excessive wealth. This was a message the organizers of Rich Meal Poor Meal were trying to send.
People attending the evening event did not know which experience would be theirs until they were randomly assigned to a table.

Rich Meal Poor Meal, a collaboration between Student Affairs and Orientation and Residence Life, was multi-purposed. A unique experience, its ticket sales raised funds for the college’s upcoming Dominican Experience, a service learning trip to the Dominican Republic. However the long term impact of Rich Meal Poor Meal had more to do with perspective and empathy.

“Our biggest thing tonight is to introduce to the students that there are economic and social challenges globally but also here locally in Ottawa,” said Sophia Bouris, event coordinator with the SAO.

The event was also intended to raise awareness about the Dominican Experience and the effort students have put forth in preparing for it, she said.

“The take-away is the whole Dominican experience,” said Bouris. “These students have taken the initiative to learn about a different culture and economic status, so they’re going to live and breathe the Dominican culture when they get there.”

Upon entering the room, participants were given a piece of paper printed with either a “1” or a “2.” They only had to look around the room and observe the table settings to get an idea of the night to come.

Tables with labelled “2” were set with paper plates and cups and plastic cutlery: these were the poor tables. Reflecting the lopsided nature of wealth, even fewer tables were labelled with a “1.” These rich tables were set with porcelain plates and tea cups, wine glasses and silverware.

Once seated at their tables—and not always next to the people they came with—diners listened to presentations by the organizers of both Rich Meal Poor Meal and the Dominican Experience.

“I want you to think about, on a global perspective, what does this mean: ‘Rich Meal Poor Meal’,” said Danielle Puchnatyj, Residence Life coordinator. “On a community perspective, who is hungry in our local community? Who’s hungry in our residence community or our college community and where can you go to make a difference? And that’s kind of what the discussion is going to be about tonight.”

Diners seated at rich tables were served the first of their three course meals: dinner rolls and salad, with water, tea, ginger ale and cola to drink. Meanwhile, those at poor tables watched and waited.

The second course was served to the rich: chicken with a savory cream sauce and roast potatoes while the poor still watched and waited.

“I feel horrible. I guess guilt would be the best word to describe it,” said Domingo Mespolet, a professional accounting student seated at a rich table. “I feel kind of bad. I don’t even want to look over there because I don’t think they’ve even been served yet.”

Eventually poor diners were called up table by table to receive their servings of a Dominican staple dish. Food court staff rolled out a metal trough filled with white rice, beans and morsels of shredded beef. This meal, along with a dinner roll and some water, was the only course for the poor.

“Sitting here makes you realize that we do take things for granted,” said Jasmine Cleofas from her seat at a poor table. “Seeing other people in front of you who are higher privileged makes you jealous, mad, all those conflicting emotions.”

As the poor scooped up their rice and beans, the rich were served thick wedges of red velvet cake, the final course of their meals. The poor did not know whether their meal included a dessert. Once finished their rice they talked together. And watched. And waited.

No dessert was served to the poor. Instead, Joe Danis, associate vice president of Operations Campus Living Centres, brought the night to a close by speaking to participants about the value of the Dominican Experience and the night’s dining event.

“I think it’s such a great event because food is so central to everything that we do, in all of our cultures,” said Danis. “And having an event like this where there’s basically the haves and the have-nots in the room, it’s a really good lesson to learn.”

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