Students learn poverty issues through food


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Students drew cards when they walked into the Hillcrest dining room Thursday night, determining their income level for the night and where they would sit for dinner.

People ate in three areas —the floor for the lower-income group, a plastic table for middle income, and a white tablecloth-covered table complete with candle light and a flower for the wealthy. They were served one of three meals: rice, rice and beans, or pasta Alfredo, depending on their assigned income level.

“I felt inferior seeing other people eat better food,” said Danielle Rahja, who attended the event and was assigned the low-income food.

The Hunger Banquet was hosted by the University of Iowa’s Associated Residence Halls in conjunction with the residence halls’ Poverty Awareness Week. The event focused on education and awareness of the unequal distribution of wealth around the globe, said Katie Wollan of Associated Residence Halls.

Mary Campbell, a UI sociology assistant professor and board member of the Iowa City Crisis Center, was the event’s guest speaker.

“What I want students to take away from this event is to realize that need is often invisible,” she said. “Poverty is as much of a local issue as it is a global one.”

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Iowa City’s poverty level is skewed because of the large student population, said Kevin Leicht, a UI sociology professor and the director of the Institute of Inequality Studies.

“It is undoubtedly true that members of the student population affect what poverty measures look like on a local level,” he said.

Most college students are considered single households, Campbell said, and poverty income levels are based on household size. One person living in a house alone with an income fewer than $15,950 is considered at poverty level, said Steve Long, a community-development coordinator for Iowa City.

Iowa City is considered an entitlement city — a city with 50,000 or more people — which makes the city eligible for a block grant from Housing and Urban Development, Long said. The grant helps fund different programs for people living below 80 percent of the median income level.

A city’s poverty levels, as determined by statistics from the U.S. census, is one of the factors federal departments look at when distributing money.

Though the student population may have some positive influences on poverty, it also can cause problems.

Large student populations can drive up the price of low-cost housing for members of the lower-income community, Leicht said. Because many students may be superficially poor — some receive money outside of job income from sources like parents or loans — it creates an artificial demand for rental property, Leicht said. This leads to price inflation in the area’s rental properties.

“It makes it hard for the low-income population to find decent rental housing because they are competing with students,” Leicht said.

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