An invitation to a banquet usually conjures up images of heaps of sumptuous food, a decadent dessert and a cup of gourmet coffee, all proffered by a hovering staff of solicitous servers. But a jarringly different scene greeted participants at the first hunger banquet at Harkness Lounge last November.

“We’re hoping to give people a little taste of what it might feel like to not have total food security,” said Jena M. Giltnane, a second-year medical student who helped organize the event as part of the School of Medicine’s weeklong hunger awareness project. The banquet was part of the 10th annual Hunger and Homelessness Auction, which in past years has raised as much as $30,000 for local charities. The proceeds of this year’s auction will benefit New Haven Home Recovery, fish, the Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen, Youth Continuum and Life Haven. In addition to silent and live auctions, activities this year included a flag football game, a canned-food drive and panel discussions on health, hunger and homelessness.

The hunger banquet, modeled on a program sponsored by Oxfam International to raise awareness about global hunger, tangibly illustrates the disparities in food access that exist among New Haven residents. Approximately 60 diners drew tickets from a box and, based on the numbers on their tickets, received one of three meal assignments. The first group lined up for a typical meal served at a soup kitchen: watery barley vegetable soup and a slice of Wonder bread. The second group got the kind of meal you might have if you had to buy it at the corner convenience store: processed macaroni and cheese and a packaged brownie. The third group had three entree choices: sirloin tips, grilled tuna or a vegetarian grinder, served by waiters and waitresses.

“I think I’m going to be hungry when I finish this,” said Allison F. Carey, a first-year medical student seated at the soup kitchen table. “I couldn’t imagine doing everything I need to do tonight, if this was all I had to go on,” added Mary Beth Turell, another first-year student.

“Actually, this rivals what I lived on when I was a poor college student. It got pretty bad sometimes,” said classmate Bobby Ndu, eyeing a forkful of macaroni. “Where’s the meat, that’s what I want to know.”

Students at the three-entree table were dealing with a different kind of discomfort. “I’m feeling kind of guilty,” said second-year medical student Bart C. Kenny, glancing at all the half-eaten entrees at his table. “The conditions of the haves and the have-nots are not usually so vividly juxtaposed. We thought about donating some of our food to the other tables.”

That dawning awareness is just the kind of reaction organizers were hoping for: a heightened sensitivity to the hardships faced by area residents who struggle to get enough nutritious food for themselves and their families (called “food insecurity” by those who work to alleviate hunger). According to Giltnane, close to 80 percent of children attending New Haven public schools receive free or subsidized school lunches, and nearly 9 percent of city households are food-insecure.

Keynote speaker Nancy Carrington, executive director of the Connecticut Food Bank, told the audience that unlike global hunger, which often manifests itself in malnutrition and starvation, the problem in the United States is more hidden. Food pantries, soup kitchens and subsidized school meals have greatly reduced the threat of starvation, but food security—the economic and physical ability to get nutritious food—remains a serious problem.

“Eating should not be a privilege; it should be a right,” she said.