"Rice Day"

Most celebrations involve special food—and lots of it. But what if what you’re celebrating is more complicated than a birthday, or an anniversary? What if it’s not just about celebrating, but understanding and empathy? Those looking to celebrate “World Food Day” might find themselves in this predicament. However, by getting creative and doing some brainstorming, 204 students at The New School came up with “Rice Day.”

The idea is simple: eat rice instead of the regular school meal, and donate the difference to WFP.  By doing this, students would gain a small understanding of what it was like to have little, and be able to give a lot back in return. The World Food Programme was the perfect recipient of the proceeds, so the money saved from their school lunches would literally go to buy school lunches for hungry children.

“So many people around the world don’t have enough to eat,” The New School’s Head Teacher Domini MacRory explained, “and it’s hard for kids in developed countries to understand that.”  Rice Day is a way for students to gain that understanding, while helping out at the same time.

But MacRory doesn't claim credit for Rice Day, “It’s the students,” she says, “so much of what happens here is determined by the students, and this is their project. They are behind it 100 percent.”

Since World Food Day fell on a Saturday this year, it was decided that Rice Day would occur the Friday before. I arrived a few minutes early, to find pots of rice being carried into the lunchroom, and MacRory reiterating, “Only rice is to be put out. Nothing else.” Looking around the lunch area, I noticed it had been appropriately decorated, with WFP signs, hunger maps, and hand-made posters reading “How does it feel?”

“The students are really into this,” MacRory explained, “even the little ones aren’t complaining.” In a few minutes, her words were confirmed by a line of children, eagerly holding their plates out for rice. “We usually eat lots,” a small boy explained as he stood in line, “meats, and fruit and pasta. Today we’ll only eat rice, but the thing is a lot of kids around the world won’t even eat that.”

Most of the students weren’t upset at all at the less-than-exciting meal on their plates.  Some smartly noted that they would be eating again as soon as school let out, but others said they felt more connected, knowing that they weren’t “just giving money,” they were trying to understand too.

“It makes me think about what I waste,” a girl with pink glasses said, “I waste a lot—and a lot of it is really good—I just don’t want it that day.” She sat for a moment, eating another bite of rice, “I shouldn’t do that. We need to spend less on expensive food so we can give more to spread the food out—around the world, you know?”

As students sat down, many took out packed lunches. This is where I expected to see the strategic avoidance of the school’s initiative. However, as packs unzipped and thermoses opened I saw rice—sticky rice, black rice, basmati rice—everyone was on board for Rice Day. 

“It’s a good way to help,” a girl said, scraping rice from her Tupperware. “It maybe doesn’t do much but if one meal for me can mean four meals somewhere else, then I guess that’s something.”

Even parents found a way to participate. They had been notified of the initiative, and rather than complaining that the school was depriving their children of a good meal, many donated extra cash to the cause. MacRory pointed out a box that had been placed in the main office, where she said parents had been coming by throughout the week to drop of donations. “We’re going to count it at the end of the week,” she said “but there have been quite a few, so we’re excited.”

The older students at the New School took Rice Day one step further, shedding light on the unequal distribution of food around the world. 

As the upperclassmen filed in, they each drew a popsicle stick, twelve of which were marked with a blue dot. Students who drew a plain stick were served rice, while the lucky twelve were offered a four-course meal in a special part of the dining room. This “lottery system,” one girl explained, “makes us realize how random it is. We could just as easily have been born in another part of the world, where there was less food.”

Luck quickly turned to guilt for some of the twelve, as they watched their peers file by with plates of rice. The smell of roast turkey permeated the air, and many students with only rice sat outside – if only to avoid the aroma. 

“This is how it is,” one teacher noted, “so few eat so much, while so many eat so little.”

The students, whose school meals usually consist of meat, vegetables, and a truckload (literally) of fresh fruit, were particularly hungry that day. “We’ve just finished with sports,” a breathless boy said, “I’m starved.” His friend was quick to correct him, “You’re not starved. You had breakfast, and I’m sure you’ll eat dinner.”

The boy looked at his rice, “He’s right. We don’t really know what it means to be hungry. We’ll probably never really know.”

Hopefully none of them will, but they aren’t letting that distance them from the problem of global hunger. Many students spoke of their desire to help, and a few were planning fundraisers for the coming months. “We can help, we just have to want to,” a girl said, holding a petition for another WFP fundraiser. 

She’s right, and she’s proving it. The students at The New School aren’t the only ones out there fighting hunger, but they’re an incredible example of what it can look like when we choose to make a change. Soon we’ll find out just how many school meals came of The New School’s Rice Day, but until then, think of what you can do to make a difference.