Opinion guest column

Where is the humor in hunger?

When an April Fool’s joke goes too far

On April Fool’s Day, an email from the Class of 2018 Class Council mocked the results of the recent report on campus food security. The email read:  “The recently published food insecurity report identified a dietary need in a risk group common to MIT: summer interns at large technology corporations... these students, who do not wake up early enough to make 10 a.m. breakfast, are getting by on just two free meals a day — lunch and dinner.

As such, Senior Class Council, in conjunction with the UA, will be funding a travel grant fund for this risk group by redirecting the funds from the Senior Ball food budget. ... this money will allow us to implement a similar program in Silicon Valley so any student can get to their favorite Sheryl Sandberg-approved $$$$ restaurant…”

According to the mentioned report by the Food Insecurity Solutions Working Group, up to 13% of MIT undergraduates struggle with food insecurity in addition to the stress of coursework and research common to the MIT experience. The 2018 Class Council’s email displayed a substantial disregard for these students. This lack of empathy is especially concerning because it was broadcasted over a class-wide email from the group of people that have been tasked with representing the interests of their peers. Even though I do not suffer from hunger, I was shocked by the council’s lack of regard for the gravity of food insecurity and the fact that the council was comfortable publicly mocking the issue of campus hunger over a class-wide email. In the same way that sexist and racist jokes are not funny, the ongoing campus hunger issue is a serious matter that is never appropriate to joke about. There are many topics that could have been appropriate for an April Fools prank, but the council chose instead to mock their peers who can’t eat. Why not joke about our lovely spring weather, seniors who have to take final exams, or confusion over filing taxes instead? The 2018 Class Council showed a fundamental lack of understanding of the challenges that their peers face, especially in light of recent rises in tuition, housing, and dining plan costs.

Further, the 2018 Class Council’s email encourages dangerous myths about poor people that are common in US culture. The email implies that students struggling with food insecurity are  too unmotivated to wake up, that they deliberately attempt to game the system to get expensive food for free, and that they are lying about their experience of food insecurity when they actually receive abundant free meals. The myths portrayed in the email parallel those that permeate broader American culture: poor people are often depicted as lazily sitting back to collect government checks, making poor choices or being too picky with opportunities, and lying about their lived experiences to gain food stamps for luxury.

The insensitive nature of the joke is amplified by the fact that this is a very expensive time of year for seniors: families must pay to travel to graduation and book hotels, and students must pay additional costs to attend popular events, with Senior Ball tickets originally advertised at $50 each and Senior Week events costing up to $120. Budgeting for senior expenses is stressful enough for low-income students without ill humor at their expense. The 2018 Class Council’s email further alienates low-income students during what should be a time of celebration for our class. Bad jokes like this are part of a structure of power that make low-income students feel unwelcome or burdensome, when in reality, they are our PSet buddies, our hallmates, and our dear friends who should be supported through difficulties like hunger.

The myths in broader culture and the ones alluded to in the email are false and pave over the difficulties that many low income students face on campus. The invocation of these stereotypes by the 2018 Class Council are harmful to 35% of undergraduates who qualify for full tuition waivers by family income level and other low-income students who worked diligently to thrive in a difficult environment despite coming from disadvantaged backgrounds. The stereotypes perpetrated by the email ignore the fact that people can do all things “right” — working multiple jobs during the semester, cooking efficiently, and budgeting carefully — and still require assistance to sustain oneself on campus. The 2018 Class Council’s email belittles the struggle of low-income students, contributing to the sense of shame students may feel when asking for assistance at a wealthy institution.The email actively sets back the efforts of administrators and student leaders who work to destigmatize campus hunger and to encourage students to participate in programs like SwipeShare.

The students in need are not trying to eat lavishly, but rather go to sleep without hunger or concern over finding the money to pay for the next meal in the wake of Boston’s high cost of living, MIT’s rising tuition, the lack of nearby affordable groceries, and the numerous other financial issues students may face, such as needing to remit money earned to family elsewhere. These large social issues cannot be solved simply by asking students to wake up earlier or to land cushy tech jobs. Low-income MIT students — and frankly poor people everywhere — who require financial assistance to survive should not be stigmatized as lazy or freeloaders as the email suggests. Rather, their issues deserve the intentional thought and empathy from the MIT community to help solve the issue of food insecurity.

In recent years, MIT administrators and student organizations like CASE have worked to support students work through food insecurity and other adjustment issues that accompany the experience of being low-income at an elite higher learning institution. The 2018 Class Council’s insensitive email served as a timely reminder that many members of the MIT community must still work to change problematic attitudes and build empathy, such that they can support the MIT community in its entirety. I hope that the 2018 Class Council and other MIT student leaders will challenge themselves to confront stereotypes and think more seriously about using someone else’s suffering as the target of jokes in the future.