Lessons From a `Hunger Lunch'. FIRST PERSON: WORLD FOOD

I HADN'T eaten breakfast that morning, and by noon, I was ready for a nice multi-course meal worthy of any major Washington convention. Instead, I got rice, tea, and water.

``Welcome to the world as it really is,'' announced Hunger Lunch organizer Susan Goodwillie to the assembled diners at the International Development Conference here last week. I savored a sip of water as those seated at white linen tablecloths dug into their Salad Theodoras.

Diners were divided into three groups - wealthy, middle-income, and poor - whose sizes reflected the reality of the world food situation. I had drawn a seat with the 50 percent in Group 3 (read: third world), thus the meager provisions. We sat, jammed elbow to elbow, at long brown institutional-style tables and ate off aluminum plates with plastic spoons. Some wondered aloud if the water was safe.

Group 2, which accounted for 27 percent, got soup, melon, chicken and rice, and coffee or tea. The privileged 23 percent in Group 1 started with crab meat cocktail and salad, then on to Chicken Cordon Bleu With Chanterelle Mushroom Sauce, Confetti Rice, French rolls with butter, Strawberry Mousse With Waffles, and coffee, tea, or decaf.

I polished off my little pile of rice in about 10 seconds, taking care not to miss a grain. Now what? My stomach continued to rumble.

Do I take my plate and beg at a first-world table, where they certainly can't finish all that food? Do I enlist some fellow third-worlders and stage a commando raid on those rich exploiters, whom (I realized, getting into my role) we third-worlders provide with raw materials and a market for exports?

Being a proud sort, I chose to avoid the Group 1 fat cats altogether and exercise the Oliver Twist option: Take my plate up to the steaming vat of rice and ask for more. It worked. I downed the second pile of rice.

Then, on the first-world side of the room, guilt seeped in.

``I don't think we're supposed to do this, but here,'' said a young woman, who deposited a crab meat cocktail and a full plate of chicken and rice on our table, then vanished back to her white linen world.

We weren't ashamed. We ate it.

Soon the leftovers were coming with regularity. And deals were being struck. One heaping first-world plate was offered up in exchange ``for a vote tomorrow in the United Nations.'' Another Group 3 beggar got a handout from someone who ``wanted me to take control of my life and empower myself,'' he reported. One first-worlder, in the spirit of the exercise, was heard to ask: ``How are my self-interests served by giving you this food?''

In the end, no one went hungry - which was probably a good thing for the luncheon organizers, given that each diner had paid a $15 fee regardless of his or her menu. (The rice-and-tea combo cost 25 cents per serving, the caterers said.)

And, more important, the experience gave the gathered development enthusiasts a chance to consider, in a more visceral way, a usually intellectual concern.

To be honest, I was ready to pooh-pooh the whole exercise. As a college student, I always dismissed ``fasts for world hunger'' as contrived. Even if I went hungry for one day, I knew where my next meal was coming from. Maybe I've been wrong. Sitting there with a rumbling stomach while the guy at the next table digs into a five-course repast makes you think.

Susan Goodwillie, organizer of the first Hunger Lunch in 1981, provided a good-news, bad-news footnote: The good news, she said, is that Group 1 has expanded from 13 percent of the world in 1981 to 23 percent today.

The bad news: Group 3 remains roughly half the world, mired in malnourishment and poverty.

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