Arrayed around Café Med at the 24th Annual Hunger and Homelessness Auction on November 17 were a series of photographs taken by Kimberly Hart. Hart is a lifelong New Haven resident, a co-chair of the Food Access Working Group of New Haven, a photographer in Witnesses to Hunger, and the single mother of a teenage son. One of her photographs showed lines outside food pantries in the city. Another from a few years ago showed dinner on a table in her home—two packs of Ramen noodles, half a loaf of bread, and jars of peanut butter and jelly.
Hart’s story of living on peanut butter and jelly was a jarring juxtaposition to the auction itself, where students who were dressed to the nines dined on a lavish Oriental buffet. Indeed, this contradiction between the opulence of the event and the needs of its beneficiaries sparked a vigorous debate during the summer of 2016 over the auction’s direction and tenor. Students are still addressing the implications of that debate.
As in past years, the auction in November raised thousands of dollars for organizations in the city that address issues of hunger and homelessness. This year, students announced in February, the auction raised about $20,000, but, with proceeds from last year’s Second Year Show and other funding sources, had a total of $28,400 to disperse. The funds went to New Haven Farms, Loaves and Fishes, Clifford Beers Clinic, FISH of Greater New Haven, and Emergency Management Services.
Since its early days in the 1990s as an afternoon event in Harkness auditorium, the auction has morphed into the full-blown evening gala in Cafe Med. Some of the changes have discomfited students who feel that it has lost its focus on the community, and that the emphasis on spending money for items on the auction block leaves those with limited means out of the fun.
“Two goals for this year's auction were to bring back the focus on the community and to make the event more inclusive,” said second-year student Jennifer Chen. Chen was a member of the organizing committee that included classmates Sarah Abdallah, Keval Desai, Andrew Koo, and Alex Wilson. “At the start of the auction we showed a documentary created by two of our classmates about the community groups that received funds from last year's Hunger and Homelessness Auction. To make the event more inclusive, we brainstormed alternative methods of fundraising that would allow more students to participate in the bidding. One idea was doing a raffle instead of a live auction, so rather than one student placing the final winning bid, many students could buy raffle tickets for a desired item.”
When students had a chance last fall to vote on the direction of the auction, they narrowly chose the status quo. Faced with three options—the current live auction, a raffle, and a hybrid raffle/auction, the vote was just about even. The raffle garnered 88 votes, the hybrid 87, and the current live auction, 89 votes. A runoff between the auction and the raffle was also close, with the auction garnering 133 votes to the raffle’s 131.
“It was important for the school to realize that there are different views,” said Desai, a second-year student. “It’s a pretty broad split, and it helps to have students be aware of that.”
With the status quo in place, the organizers sought other ways to address student concerns.
“The grants committee has normally been students deciding what organization is going to get the grants,” said Desai, noting that students new to Yale and New Haven may not be well versed in needs of the community.
For the auction in November, students consulted with Hart; Billy Bromage, M.S.W., lecturer in psychiatry at the School of Medicine and a member of the city’s Food Assistance Working Group; and Danae Mundy of the Salvation Army.
“They were able to really identify where the needs where, what program had been successful, and the impact and presence of each of the organizations,” Desai said. “The main thought behind the grants was giving to programs with a history of meeting important needs that were also working to expand. For example, New Haven farms is a very successful program and they were looking to expand to a new neighborhood.”
Some students also sought more transparency as to how funds were allocated.
“People came to this event, donated, and there was never any announcement about what organizations were funded and what happened with the money,” said Abdallah, a second-year student.
About three weeks after the auction, on December 8, students organized a second event, the YSM Service Learning Symposium. The symposium had three goals: to help students learn more about the social factors affecting health in New Haven; showcase current student involvement in the community; and foster new connections between students and local service organizations. Students presented posters on such topics as violence intervention programs, crime in New Haven, the Yale Center for Asylum Medicine, the Connecticut Food Bank, and the Neighborhood Health Project, which does blood screenings.
The event concluded with an informal talk with Federico Vaca, M.D., M.P.H., professor of emergency medicine, and Brita Roy, M.D., M.P.H., assistant professor of medicine, about how students can integrate advocacy and activism into their medical careers.
The auction and the activities surrounding it, said Koo, Desai and Abdallah, were successful in bringing together student groups, faculty, and community groups that have been working on these issues.
“I'm really happy with how the auction turned out,” Koo said. “It was awesome to see everyone pull together to make this a successful event.”
A survey of students also revealed a positive response to the learning symposium.
“Learning about food insecurity in this moment reminds me that I have so much privilege to get free food at an event like this, at a school like this in a room like this with classy jazz music playing on the speakers,” wrote one student. “It helps remind me that so many people not in this room, some of whom will be our patients, do not have the same privilege, and that there are structural reasons in our society for why this keeps happening.”