Local youth sharing her blessings with ‘Hunger Banquet’

Ellie Stephenson (right) is all smiles as she sees that the number of registrations for the Hunger Banquet she is hosting has increased; her mother, Mandy Stephenson, reacts to the good news. Ellie Stephenson hopes to have at least 50 people attend the unusual, interactive banquet set for July 15, which will focus on world hunger.
Ellie Stephenson (right) is all smiles as she sees that the number of registrations for the Hunger Banquet she is hosting has increased; her mother, Mandy Stephenson, reacts to the good news. Ellie Stephenson hopes to have at least 50 people attend the unusual, interactive banquet set for July 15, which will focus on world hunger. Photo by Rebecca Sandlin.

Originally published July 9, 2018.

Ellie Stephenson is a bright, articulate 10-year-old who will be in fifth grade when school starts back up at Lincoln Elementary School. She also recently learned a powerful lesson about being grateful for what she has, an epiphany she wants to share with the world.

With a little help from her parents and some friends, she will do just that when she throws a “Hunger Banquet” for the community on Sunday, July 15, at 5 p.m. at Evangelical United Methodist Church. It’s an experience that participants are not likely to soon forget.

“First I was studying poverty, and what it means and all that stuff,” she says. “ Then my mom found this thing called a ‘Hunger Banquet,’ and there are like three separate groups – there’s the rich, the middle class and then the poor.”

At the banquet, the “rich” people eat a full, satisfying meal, dining on china plates, using silverware utensils and drinking from glass vessels. The “middle class” eats red beans and rice, eating on paper plates with disposable tableware. The “poor” group also gets red beans and rice, but they receive no utensils and must eat sitting on the floor while the other two groups sit in chairs at dining tables.

The program is a part of Oxfam America, a global organization working to end the injustice of poverty. The banquet has met with success in other locations, helping people to understand poverty in the world and encourage them to be grateful for the things they oftentimes take for granted.

“We thought it was important for Ellie to understand how blessed she is, where she lives, and has the things that she has, and so I put together a little Power Point, essentially for her to go through and learn just about how people live in other parts of the world,” says Mandy Stephenson, Ellie’s mother. “We wanted her to share what she’s learned. This was one of the options that she had.”

Her parents offered her two other options to put what she learned into practice, by volunteering at Love In The Name of Christ, making a YouTube video or buying school supplies with her own money. Ellie opted to have a banquet.

“I chose this one because I thought it would be kind of cool. And then when we talked to my pastor at her house, she said, ‘You know you picked the hardest one!’ and I said, ‘I did?’ because I thought it would be kind of simple, but apparently it’s not.”

Ellie found herself writing down ideas for the banquet in several notebooks, often during church. Undaunted by the logistics of planning a meal for – she hopes – about 50 people, she recruited her parents, other members of Evangelical United Methodist Church and even some special sponsors.

“My grandma and grandpa!” she says. “And I’m very proud of that.”

The cost of the Hunger Banquet is only a free will donation. The funds raised will be given to Love INC and the New Life Meal Ministry. But the hungry patrons will not know what their meal will be until they arrive.

It’s based on the luck of the draw. Those who attend the Hunger Banquet will draw a card from a receptacle. Ten percent of diners will draw a “rich” card; they will be seated to enjoy a lasagna dinner, which includes garlic bread, salad, fruit salad and brownies for dessert. They will also have their choice of water, lemonade or tea.

Twenty percent of those attending will draw a “middle class” card; they will receive red beans and rice, with water to drink. Ellie’s mom is cooking the beans and rice.

The remaining 70 percent will draw a “poor” card, signaling those living in poverty. They will also eat red beans and rice, but will get “dirty water” to drink (actually it’s tea), and will have to eat using their fingers as utensils.
The idea is to create an interactive experience that portrays the reality of hunger around the world.

“There are 795 million people that don’t have enough food to live an active, healthy lifestyle,” Ellie says. “I want them to come and know how many people are living like that, and I want them to sympathize with them, because it’s not fair that they don’t have basic things that we have.”

During the meal, Ellie herself will give a presentation to those in attendance.

“I’m going to ask them some questions, like, ‘Does this make you uncomfortable?’” she says. She will also share some statistics about world poverty and hunger, and ask them to dig deep and donate to help hungry people, at least here in her hometown.

Still, Ellie wonders if her guests understand that most of them will not get to eat the big lasagna dinner – much like most other people in the world.

“That was one of the things she was most concerned about doing this, was that people would feel sad that they don’t get that meal, or sad that somebody else doesn’t get the meal that they got that night,” says Matt Stephenson. “We tell her that that’s the point – we need to have them feel ‘uncomfortable’ so that they learn something.”

At the Stephenson house, complaints about “first world problems” – with a nod to musician Weird Al Yankovic’s song of the same name – are no longer tolerated without a fine. Ellie holds up a brightly-painted canning jar that says “First World Problems.”

“People being like, ‘I hate it when my phone charger doesn’t reach my bed; I hate it when I say no pickles for my sandwich but they give me pickles anyway,’” she explains. “Whenever someone complains like that – Mom was the first one! – you put in a nickel.”

So far, she has collected 51 cents in the complaint jar. When the jar gets full, the family plans to donate the contents to Love INC and the meal ministry. She hopes other people will follow suit.

“I want them to try and go and help,” she says.

Ellie’s future plans include going on missions trips and working with animals. Already she has given back to her community by helping out by painting the animal shelter for Mission Huntington, providing cookies to shut-ins, singing songs at nursing homes and passing out Christmas cards to the residents.

The Hunger Banquet is open to the public and all ages, but reservations are strongly encouraged so Ellie’s mom will know how much food to prepare. To make a reservation visit tiny.cc/eumhb online or call Evangelical United Methodist Church at 356-6975. The church is located at 1000 Flaxmill Rd., Huntington.

Additional information on the Hunger Banquet program can be found on the Web at www.oxfamamerica.org.