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Reporter’s Notebook

Teaching lessons on global income disparity

Aid group’s event segregates diners to impart a sense of global income disparity, and its lessons are deeply discomforting

Some diners had a dinner of rice and water at an Oxfam America Hunger Banquet on the Harvard campus in Cambridge on Saturday.
Some diners had a dinner of rice and water at an Oxfam America Hunger Banquet on the Harvard campus in Cambridge on Saturday.Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff/Boston Globe

My poor husband — all 6 feet, 185 pounds of him, ravenous after a seven-mile afternoon run — sat forlornly with a small bowl of rice and beans in his lap. He couldn’t place his meager meal on a table because he wasn’t seated at one; he had only a chair.

But, oh, how I was relishing my gnocchi with asparagus and artichokes in light pesto cream sauce!

From my vantage point at a beautifully set banquet table, I looked down — literally and figuratively — on the rest of the room, including the large group of people sitting on the floor and eating nothing but rice.

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If this scene sounds familiar, you have probably attended a “Hunger Banquet,” the “experiential” dinners created by the global aid organization Oxfam to teach a sensory lesson about worldwide poverty and inequitable food distribution. The consciousness-raising concept was born during the severe African famine of the 1970s, and since then more than 850,000 people nationwide have participated, usually at churches or schools.

But I had never experienced one. So when I learned that Oxfam would be hosting a large-scale Boston-area Hunger Banquet for the first time in nearly 20 years, I could not help but wonder if it is still an effective educational approach, especially in a world far more advanced than it was when the first banquet was held in 1975. So I reserved a pair of tickets to the free event (Oxfam covered the dinner’s $11,000 tab, hoping for contributions in exchange), which is how my husband and I ended up having very different culinary experiences Saturday night.

Dinner guests are assigned their seats based on worldwide poverty statistics. The 20 percent of the room in the “high income” group, where I landed by chance, was served a sumptuous meal. Another third of the room, including my husband, was classified “middle income” and received self-service beans and rice. The rice-only eaters on the floor represented the “low income” half of the planet that often lacks essentials such as food.

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The symbolic injustice did not stop there. In the middle and low tiers, men ate before women. And throughout the evening, “natural disasters” occurred — no simulated earthquakes, just descriptions of misfortunes like drought and job loss — that downgraded some guests to lesser seats.

The message was clear: Our position in life and access to resources are often determined by chance, and our economic well-being can decline for reasons beyond our control. But is play-acting poverty too simplistic a way to make this point, and possibly a bit farcical, like turning real suffering into a fun little game?

“Allegorical’’ is how Oxfam America’s Boston-based president, Ray Offenheiser, who attended this weekend’s dinner on the Harvard campus, describes the banquets.

“We try to take very complex problems and simplify them through an event like this,” he said. “We’re not trying to get really sophisticated about all the cultural nuance.”

During dinner, numerous people in the high- and middle-income groups shared their food with others less lucky, and in a room-wide discussion later, some said they had felt guilty for feasting while the majority of the crowd ate so little. Several of the nearly 300 attendees told me the event raised their awareness of scarcity and abundance and made them think more deeply about economic disparity. Some reflected regretfully on all the food they routinely throw away.

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“In a developed country like America, it’s easy to cocoon yourself and avoid being exposed to some of the more horrible things that happen to people who are poor,” said 28-year-old Ravi Dinakar of Arlington, who attended the dinner with his girlfriend. “The exercise may have been a little gimmicky, but it does drive home the point.”

Oxfam’s educational mission, it seemed, had been accomplished. Then something happened that left me with a lasting sense of unease.

A middle-age woman, plainly dressed but not unkempt, approached my table and asked for some bread. “I’m a real-life homeless person,” she said, unprompted. She took two rolls, then returned for a third, as well as an untouched plate of gnocchi. I assumed this was part of the allegory, a test of our compassion and generosity.

But as I watched her eat, alone, in a “middle income” seat, I was startled by what I saw. A backpack. Two large plastic Dunkin’ Donuts bags stuffed with clothes. Several items of clothing draped over her chair. My God, I thought. She really may be homeless.

I tried to talk with her — I wanted the perspective of someone apparently familiar with hunger — but she declined, even asking me to go away. I don’t think she was a plant; a catering employee said later that homeless people often wander into free Harvard events to look for leftover food.

The ultimate lesson of the banquet? In truth, I’m not sure. Caring people came together around a humanitarian problem, but most of them returned to full pantries in comfortable homes. Donations to Oxfam will be made, volunteer services offered. But as the event ended, many guests fanned out to nearby restaurants — their real dinner plans — while the woman with the plastic bags layered on a sweater, flannel shirt, fleece vest, and winter coat, and trundled off into the chilly night.

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Sacha Pfeiffer can be reached at pfeiffer@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @SachaPfeiffer.