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Courtney Sargent, Deseret News
Abyy Howell-Dinger (right) and Dallin Frank eat rice during the Oxfam Hunger Banquet at the University of Utah on Tuesday.

Students at the University of Utah's Riot for World Hunger learned the plight of the oldest and most persistent of the world's problems as they were divided into three groups representing social classes assigned to eat dinner differently Tuesday night.

Some were given the privilege to sit at a table set for six and be served a three-course meal. A second group, spread across two banquet tables, helped themselves to beans and rice. The third group was told to sit on the floor of the Saltair Room at the U.'s A. Ray Olpin Union Building, and to use their hands to eat whatever rice they could dish out of a community pot.

"That is exactly how life is in this world," said banquet organizer Sherry Li. "You can't get everything you want in life. You can't choose what life you end up with."

The banquet, sponsored by the Lowell Bennion Community Service Center on campus, raises awareness about hunger and poverty around the world, as well as locally, Li said.

"It's an interesting experience in understanding privilege," said senior film student David Alder, who was seated on the floor. "It definitely gives me a glimpse of what it would be like to be in this position."

Nearly 18 percent of Utah's population lives in poverty, searching daily for food, water and shelter, said Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, who spoke to the more than 100 participants at the hunger banquet. He encouraged everyone present to press government officials to find solutions to the problems, as well as to get involved themselves.

"It is inexcusable in our society to have people who don't have meals to eat or homes to sleep in," he said, adding that disparities in the availability of food throughout the world and in Utah cause "incredible inequities" in life experiences.

"You can't even begin to experience the opportunities we take for granted," Becker said.

Sophomore Jessica Wickes was taken from the middle class and forced to eat only rice along with the lower-class group.

"At least I still get something," she said. The experience led Wickes to reflect, and while fighting tears, she said she plans to get involved in volunteer service wherever and whenever she can.

"I've heard stories of people who have nothing in their lives, but it hasn't been real to me until now," she said. "This brings it home."

Although chronic and preventable, hunger continues to be the world's greatest problem and the largest killer of children, said student coordinator Stanley Lloyd, adding that hunger kills a child every 2.9 seconds.

"People have the power, the right and the understanding to make a difference in their own realities," he said. While the elite few of the mostly affluent group of students dined on grilled chicken, baby red potatoes and julienned carrots — a meal not unlike their daily fare — each participant experienced something different, exactly what Li and the banquet organizers had hoped for.

Cans of food collected as an entry fee will be donated to the Utah Food Bank, and a $5 alternative entry cost from each attendee will benefit Oxfam America. The event was part of the U.'s Homecoming week festivities.

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