NYPIRG banquet raises issues of hunger

The advocacy organization used an interactive workshop to inform students about the pervasiveness of hunger, especially in the Syracuse area.

If asked, most people would not be able to identify where Syracuse University's NYPIRG office is. But students involved with the New York Public Interest Research Group have been championing community awareness on a variety of topics and have brought attention to a major issue in the city's neighborhoods.

Last Thursday, SU/ESF NYPIRG hosted their Hunger Banquet, the first of three major events this semester for the Hunger & Homelessness campaign. On the floor directly above Faegan's Pub, the organization invited students to be educated on the campaign through food, stimulating discussion and guest speakers.

As opposed to a standard information session, NYPIRG chose a more interactive route to inform the approximately 50 attendees, said arts and sciences freshman and NYPIRG intern Matt Olsen.

“We broke people up into the upper class, middle class and lower class,” he said. “They were all given an index card with a color on it, and each rotation (of discussion) that they went through meant that something in their life was changing.” Olsen added that the simulated life events – job loss, promotions, spousal death – moved participants between rooms designated for each class. Wherever the participant ended dictated when they would be allowed to eat.

Later this semester, NYPIRG will be collecting cans for a food drive and encouraging students to volunteer at food kitchens and pantries, Olsen said. This, however, was expected to be the biggest event.

Although Olsen always considered himself a concerned citizen, NYPIRG was the organization that compelled him the most to involve himself with community service. Starting this semester, he chose a leadership position in the Hunger & Homelessness campaign, helping organize the event and writing a letter to the editor in The Daily Orange.

“I didn't realize that there were so many people living in poverty around Syracuse,” he said. “I always thought that because the university was so prestigious that the surrounding areas would be too, but that's completely the opposite. It's more reason for us to reach out to the community.”

The most recognizable of the evening's five speakers was Elijah Harris, a local street musician, nicknamed 'the professor's professor' by SU students. Huddled around Harris on the office's second-hand couches and recovered chairs, students listened to him recount his experience with homelessness, the SNAP program (formerly known as food stamps) and life in Syracuse.

“The first thing they think when they see a guy playing guitar, they think that he's doing really bad, but there were times when I would be doing much, much worse than what people would actually see,” he said.

Harris is just one of the many Vietnam-era veterans receiving or seeking benefits, he said. During his hardest times, he would “sleep anywhere [he] could” and would sometimes succumb to shoplifting and theft in order to eat.

The night was united by a common theme, that no matter the situation and preconceived notions of what hunger looks like, it afflicts people from across the social spectrum.

Tracey Clark, coordinator of the Nutrition Outreach & Education Program for the Food Bank of Central New York, said that her organization conducted a “hunger survey” within the 11 counties serviced. They found that people of all educational backgrounds were being affected, and an increasing number of elderly and children relied on food pantries.

“People think, ‘it's just that man on the street corner that's holding up a sign and asking for money,’” she said. “Yes, they need emergency food, but that is not true to the changing face of hunger. It is families who have fallen on hard times. There are so many reasons people rely on the emergency food network.”

Despite this, the evening inspired many to become more involved, giving hope for those in need of aid.

“Hunger can strike just about anybody, and there may come a time where you may be down on your luck, you may need somebody to help you,” Harris said. “Just keep the faith.”

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