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Helping Out With Hunger

by Felicia Brower

Helping Out Hunger LAIt is not often that the CEO of a major company makes an effort to see what it is like to walk a mile in the shoes of someone less fortunate. Ron Shaich, founder and CEO of Panera Bread and president of the Panera Bread Foundation, recently participated in a seven-day SNAP Challenge. The challenge consisted of living on a food and beverage budget of $4.50 a day – the average amount of benefits available to recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

Formerly known as food stamps, SNAP provides financial assistance to millions of low-income individuals and families. SNAP benefits can be used to buy food such as breads and cereals, fruits, vegetables, meats, fish, poultry, dairy products, and plants that produce edible food for the household.

According to a 2010 survey conducted by the United States Department of Agriculture,

  • 49 percent of all participant households have children (17 or younger),
  • 55 percent are single-parent households,
  • 15 percent of all participant households have elderly (age 60 or over) members
  • 20 percent of all participant households have non-elderly disabled members.

The people reliant on SNAP depend on these benefits to supplement food purchases and, ultimately, ensure their survival. When Shaich first embarked on the SNAP Challenge, he thought he understood the scope of the hunger problem. Throughout his life, he has met thousands of people who struggle to feed themselves and their families and has worked closely with nonprofit organizations trying to find new ways to end hunger. He quickly learned, however, that it is nearly impossible to understand fully what it is like to be hungry by simply observing someone else’s unfortunate circumstances.

During the challenge, he had to focus on food in a way that he had never imagined. He was always aware of how much food remained in the fridge and how much money he had left to spend. Millions of Americans face this dilemma every day and live in fear that eating until they are full one day will mean being unable to eat the next.

Central Ohio is unfortunately not exempt from the hunger problem. A 2010 study conducted by Mid-Ohio Foodbank produced alarming statistic showing that hunger is a major issue in Central Ohio:

  • 35 percent of those served by Mid-Ohio Foodbank agencies are children under 18 years of age
  • 76 percent of adult participants under age 65 are currently unemployed

The Mid-Ohio Foodbank supplies food to more than 550 food pantries, soup kitchens, shelters, after school programs and senior housing sites in 20 counties in central and eastern Ohio. To help people understand how widespread poverty and hunger really are, they occasionally hold “Poverty Simulations,” a smaller, local version of the SNAP challenge that provides attendees with a crash course in how poverty affects daily lives. This program helps people understand what life is like with a shortage of money and no shortage of responsibilities.

The Poverty Simulation (oashf.org/docs/programs/povertysimulation.pdf) is a unique, interactive experience for large groups aiming to sensitize participants to the life faced by a person in poverty. Most importantly, they hope it will encourage people to give their time and donations to help make a difference.

Dustin Speakman, a facilitator of The Poverty Simulation, believes that the simulations open the eyes of participants. “Having come from generational Appalachia poverty, I was very skeptical going into this. I thought there was no way that the horrors of poverty could be recreated in an hour, but I was wrong. The simulation, if facilitated properly and if participants really take on their role, is extremely powerful”. Speakman and other facilitators hope that participants are inspired to take action in their communities to help make life just a little bit better for those less fortunate.

Participants of the simulation come from a variety of groups, including schools and universities, state agencies, national service members, leadership groups, churches and community action agencies. Every person comes into the simulation with different assumptions about what it means to be poor and learns how frustrating and difficult it can be simply to stay afloat. Gale Gray, Outreach Coordinator for the Columbus Community Relations Commission, conducts simulations and points out, “People generally don’t take a look at economic standing when discussing diversity and equality.”

Jen Odenweller, the Executive Director for the United Way of Knox County, experienced the simulation. “Living in simulated poverty opens eyes, creates dialogue and softens hearts to the harsh realities that so many of our community members face every single day,” says Odenweller.

Judge Teresa Ballinger, of the Municipal Court in Marion, participated in a large scale simulation involving 170 people and two simultaneous sessions. “It was a big eye opener for many of the community leaders and social services personnel,” notes Ballinger. “The participants walk away from the experience with a new perspective and better understanding of those struggling in poverty.”

Volunteering and donating goods are excellent ways to help those in need in the community. During the holiday season it is especially important to give back to those who have less.

For more information on how to get involved with the Mid-Ohio Foodbank, visit MidOhioFoodbank.org.

Felicia Brower is a freelance writer based in Columbus. Connect at Felicia-Brower.com or email fmbrower@gmail.com.

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