By ALYSE THOMPSON
Herald-Whig Staff Writer
HANNIBAL, Mo. -- About 40 guests shared a meal Sunday afternoon at the Shirley Bomar Community Center, but their individual experiences were far from identical.
Some dined on steak, baked potatoes and cheesecake, while others took selections from a buffet offering a pasta dish, rolls and cupcakes. Others, however, filed through a line at the "soup kitchen," heading back to their seats with crackers and a bowl of vegetable soup.
Hosted by the North East Community Action Corporation, the banquet -- a banquet more for some than others -- was the agency's first event highlighting poverty and hunger in Northeast Missouri communities. It was designed to point out the struggles many people face to feed themselves or their families.
"It does exist. It may surprise some, but hunger does exist here," said Neil Darnell, NECAC Pike County services coordinator.
Data compiled by Feeding America in 2012 shows that between 11 and 17 percent of the population in NECAC's 12-county service area is "food insecure," meaning individuals do not always have access to enough food or "nutritionally adequate" food as deemed by the USDA.
More specifically, 12.4 percent of Ralls County's population is food insecure, while 15.1 percent Marion County's population fits under the same classification.
Joe Coelho and Stacey Nicholas, both of Canton, were two guests randomly selected to be in the low-income group, and their meal wasn't exactly pleasant.
"It's pretty tough," Coelho said after finishing his soup. "We didn't even have a table to eat on."
Nicholas, a Douglas Community Services staff member and event speaker, said she tried not to look at those in the other groups while they enjoyed their steak and pasta. However, she said, for some in the room, this was just one inadequate meal that could be made up for later. Many in poverty don't have that option.
"This is only three hours of uncomfortable for us," Nicholas said.
They weren't the only ones experiencing some discomfort. Delores Mercer, of Bowling Green, had wait staff serve her a multicourse meal as a member of the high-income group, but she was also uncomfortable because she was dining better than others sitting feet away from her.
"It made you realize there were a lot more people in the room who are less fortunate," she said. "I think the simulation is a good eye-opener for people."
Hannibal resident Georgia Carter resident landed in the middle class, and she said she enjoyed the meal. Though she's seen those with varying incomes as a tenant in senior housing, she said she hadn't thought of hunger in these terms.
"I never looked at it this way," she said.
Darnell said there are ways to help. He said food pantries in the area are accepting donations, and he suggested keeping an eye out for groups hosting food drives.
"We're all human beings, and we all have the right to live, and like air, food is a necessity to live," Darnell said.
For more information on hunger in Northeast Missouri or NECAC, the agency can be reached at 573-324-6633.