Pitt Pantry simulates hunger

Darius Bittle-Dockery munched on rice for dinner, but he wasn’t nursing Sushi Fuku chirashi.

He sat cross-legged on the floor, rationing out miniscule portions from a communal bowl.

Bittle-Dockery, a second-year Pitt grad student pursuing a dual master’s degree in public health and Ph.D. in anthropology, ate the stringy, unsatisfactory meal on the floor as he enviously watched other attendees of Pitt Pantry’s Hunger Banquet chow down on lasagna at set tables.

The Pitt Pantry hosted its first Oxfam America Hunger Banquet, an interactive event to illustrate issues of poverty, hunger and food availability disparities in society. More than 40 students and community members attended the event Thursday at 6:30 p.m. in the William Pitt Union Ballroom, which Pitt’s chapter of Nourish International, Student Government Board’s Wellness Committee and Real Food Challenge co-hosted.

Organizers distributed profile cards to Bittle-Dockery and the other attendees that had randomly assigned names, situations and socioeconomic statuses, all of which determined their seating place, meals and food availability for the night. The cards’ contents demonstrated what dinnertime looks like for families of varying socioeconomic statuses and backgrounds.

The on-campus, student-focused food pantry designed the event to raise awareness about hunger and food insecurity issues at local, national and global levels.

Bittle-Dockery, who dined as a lower-class subsistence farmer named Ivan, said his experience at the event pushed him beyond his comfort levels.

“One of the things that I keep being reminded of was how uncomfortable it was to sit on the floor, and how difficult it was to eat off of a plate with no table,” Bittle-Dockery said. “Hunger is a particular issue, but it’s linked to a lot of other things that have a serious impact on people’s quality of life [and] their general experiences.”

While Bittle-Dockery sat on the floor, other attendees sat at nicely set tables feasting on lasagna, salad and orange juice. Another group ate rice and beans with plastic forks.

The event organizers assigned the ratios of each socioeconomic class based on the current ratios in Guatemala, where Nourish — a national student movement dedicated to making an impact on people living in extreme poverty — has partnered with Maya Traditions Foundation, an organization that connects female artisans to markets where they can sell their work.

Arthi Narayanan, a Pitt Pantry volunteer and junior neuroscience and sociology major, said the simulation teaches not about only hunger, but also food insecurity — the feeling of never knowing where the next meal will come from.

”We think it’s really important to teach people about conditions of food insecurity,” Narayanan said. “A lot of people just really aren’t aware of the huge differences between how much food is available in the upper and middle classes versus the lower class.”

In addition to the provided meal, attendees listened to short presentations from several organizations involved in hunger relief, including Nourish.

Just Harvest, a Pittsburgh-based organization addressing poverty and hunger issues through public policy, presented on hunger and food insecurity, along with the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank. The groups urged students to think more deeply about their community members and to volunteer whenever possible.

Throughout the simulation, Narayanan and the other organizers read through scenarios specific to individual attendees’ assigned identities.

“Nicolas” and “Santiago” lost their jobs after protesting bad conditions. As a result, their socioeconomic status changed from middle class to low-income. “Salvador” took land from “Ivan,” worsening his struggle to afford food.

Bittle-Dockery said he attended the event because he’s spent a considerable amount of time working with underserved communities and wanted to see how the hunger simulation would be organized.

”Looking at how everyone experiences a relationship with food, just making people aware of those different types of relationships can go a long way,” Bittle-Dockery said. “I think events like this have a good chance of actually leaving an impact on people.”

Holly Giovengo, a University pantry coordinator and lead organizer for the banquet, said she and the other organizers designed the event to show participants what it’s like to go hungry and to garner a reaction.

”It causes a very visceral reaction,” Giovengo, a 2015 Pitt alumna, said. “It throws hunger in your face, because if you’re in the lower class, you are literally going to be hungry.”

Though the organizers based the simulation on Guatemala, Giovengo said hunger awareness should focus on local, national and global issues — something Giovengo said enhances the local perspective.

“It’s important to step outside of your society, your country, because we do have a global society now, with the Internet and things like that. It’s just important to be aware of all of the levels,” Giovengo said.

Giovengo said attendees left the event with an awareness of hunger and related issues, as well as feeling a call to action in their daily lives.

“When you’re walking on the street, do not just walk by someone who is hungry. You can give them food,” Giovengo said. “It’s not going to kill you, and it means a lot to them.”