Feast and famine:
Norwich’s Hunger Banquet offers both © Nov. 21, 2007 Norwich University Office of Communications

Photo of students sharing rice and beans.

photo by Joshua Larkin Students delegated to the lower-class share rice, beans and laughs at the Hunger Banquet.

A steady stream of roasted veggies, soups, grilled cheeses, roasted chicken breasts, baby red potatoes, salad, rolls and tiramisu flowed from the Milano Ballroom’s kitchen last week. It was most definitely a veritable feast. For some.

For others attending Norwich’s semi-annual Hunger Banquet, the event consisted of two hours of grumbling stomachs, faux-dirty water and unseasoned beans and rice. Sponsored by the Office of Volunteer Programs, the Nov. 13 banquet attempted to simulate the vast chasm of disparity that exists around the globe between the upper classes, the lowest classes, and everybody in between. The point was hammered home to the 50 or so attendees as many sat on the ballroom floor eating rice and beans with their hands while watching second-class citizens dine on frugal fare and upper-class folk feast on sumptuous delights.

“I wanted to come to get a better idea of what the majority of the population in the world goes through each day,” said sophomore Allison Flemming. “I knew it was a lot of the population, but I had no idea that it was that much, it’s staggering.”

Flemming was responding to world poverty statistics announced that evening that put approximately 50-percent of the world’s population living beneath the poverty level. Nicole DiDomenico, director of the Office of Volunteer Programs, told the crowd that that 50 percent lived out their lives in third-world countries often earning less than $755 annually. Thirty five percent of people span the gap from poverty to wealth, where the final 15 percent of the world’s population resides, DiDomenico said. And that comparatively small number of wealthy, she said, stakes claim to an exorbitant amount of the world’s nutritional resources.

“As a group [they] consume 70 percent of the grain grown in the world, much of it in the form of grain-fed beef,” she said.

Alongside DiDomenico at the front of the room were representatives from various Vermont organizations that work on hunger and poverty issues around the state, including the Vermont Foodbank, the Northfield Boys and Girls Club and the town’s Methodist church.

The banquet itself was organized in such a way as to reflect the world’s inequitable distribution of wealth. Attendees who drew third-class tickets from a hat upon entering were seated on the floor, where they ate unseasoned rice and black beans washed down with water tinted to look as if it were dirty.

If your organization is having an event catered and you have an extra tray of macaroni and cheese, give it to the food shelf. That’s the stuff that’s making a huge impact in the community, when local people find ways to donate their extra food.

~ Judy Stermer
Vermont Foodbank

Those fortunate enough to land second class seating ate family style at long tables, with ample amounts of tomato soup, grilled cheese sandwiches and roasted vegetables to fill their bellies. At the far end of the ballroom, nine individuals designated as upper-class citizens sat around two tables studded with glasses of sparkling cider as a steady procession of servers laid soups, salads, entrees and desserts before them.

After attendees had finished their meals, an informal question and answer session took place between the classes and the guests. Questions ran the gamut, ranging from inquiries about how to help people who don’t want help to how each organization is fighting poverty and hunger both locally and on a broader scale.

The local effort, however, piqued many attendees interest that evening. Time and again members of the upper and middle-class sectors spoke of the guilt they felt just watching the group on the floor eat. Many commented on poverty and hunger being a Vermont problem as well as a global issue. And despite the event being a simulation, the guilt spurred one upper-class diner to offer her tiramisu to a member of the lower-class while folks at a middle-class table generously passed off a plate of grilled cheese sandwiches to those sitting at their feet.

Along these lines, many attendees expressed interest in learning what they could do locally to support the effort. And ultimately, that is what the hunger banquet was about: Increasing awareness about the severity of the situation and prompting people to act, even if that means simply dropping off goods at the food bank.

“On a smaller scale, if you have a garden that is overproducing, donate that food to the food shelf,” Judy Stermer of the Vermont Foodbank told the group. “Or, if your organization is having an event catered and you have an extra tray of macaroni and cheese, give it to the food shelf. That’s the stuff that’s making a huge impact in the community, when local people find ways to donate their extra food.”