Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Although many people are unaware of it, hunger is an issue close to home, with a 9.7 percent food insecurity rate corresponding to 88,160 people in Bergen County, according to the 2013 Feeding America’s Map the Meal Gap. Feeding America reports that 50.1 million Americans, including one in five children, live in households struggling with hunger. Internationally, approximately 805 million people, or 1 in 9 of the world’s population, face hunger, according to the World Food Programme’s 2014 Hunger Map.

Ben Porat Yosef’s (BPY) first Hunger Awareness Fair sought to raise empathy regarding hunger while promoting ownership and empowerment among its students. The Hunger Awareness Fair originated from BPY’s Chesed Committee’s desire to create a single chesed theme for the entire school. “We liked the idea of hunger as a very broad issue. Each child can work on it at his or her own grade level,” said Chesed Committee Co-Chair Samantha Katz. This parent-initiated and student-driven project evolved from discussing hunger and developing projects in each grade, coalescing into the Hunger Awareness Fair.

Educational activities presented at the student- and parent-run fair included a YouTube video, skit, chesed-themed arts and crafts, hunger-awareness selfie station, educational booth, posters and freerice.org game. Fundraising efforts encompassed a carnival and book swap as well as sales of jewelry, healthy snacks and baked goods. “The children feel tremendous ownership of these projects. They look so happy learning about hunger, creating their crafts, playing games, decorating brownies, shopping for books, watching their videos and munching on their healthy snacks,” said Katz.

In a two-phase process, a different parent discussed hunger issues and developed project ideas with each classroom from kindergarten through eighth grade, then returned to help execute the students’ ideas. Chesed Committee Co-Chair Ruth Wertentheil solicited the kindergarten and second grade students’ thoughts about personally feeling hunger, followed by a reading of “Stone Soup”, a folktale whereby hungry strangers compel local townspeople to share food with them. She gave four students a bag of pretzels and every fifth student an empty bag, followed by a discussion on the feelings of those kids with empty bags and ways to help them. The children then completed a hunger tree, with the causes of hunger displayed in the roots, effects of hunger on the trunk and methods to help noted on the leaves. Wertentheil observed that the kindergarten children focused on tangential ways to give such as through soup kitchens or food pantries, whereas the second graders focused on hunger awareness and fundraising. In the second phase, the kindergarten students decorated food collections bags, which they distributed and collected from their neighbors for the food drive. Second graders created a YouTube video based on ideas from the hunger tree and hunger facts. “It was completely their own ideas for both classes, what they wanted to do for the fair,” said Wertentheil.

In preparation for the fair, parent Rachel Barber Schwartz expanded on the third graders’ study of maps by introducing “hunger maps,” with a discussion on the vastness of the issue and the difficulty knowing when help is needed, along with the importance of donating to food banks throughout the year. The class created educational posters based on the maps following the discussion.

BPY parent Rifki Charytan read books with kindergarten students focusing on nutrition, followed by a discussion on hunger and the importance of food. The students decided to share soup with other kindergarten classes and purchase reserve snacks for classmates who forget to bring them to school. The students created a skit about a child who left their snack home that was videotaped and displayed at the fair. Teachers also helped guide parents with the hunger discussions and age-appropriate ideas.

The values of the fair are representative of core values of BPY. According to BPY Principal Rav Ronen, “BPY is a community. A community is a place where everyone takes care of each other. So, this is one element of taking care of each other.” BPY’s daily donation of leftover food to the Fair Lawn Gemach for 10 years exemplifies its commitment to the community. “It’s not just about our own life. It’s about the larger community. Tzedeka and chesed is something we do all the time,” said Ronen.

A term introduced was food insecurity, which measures the limited availability to nutritionally adequate food as well as lack of access to food for a healthy lifestyle. Food-insecure individuals may choose between purchasing nutritionally adequate food and covering basic living needs, such as rent and medication. In addition, food insecurity often leads to greater health risks due to undernutrition.

Manning the food drive table, Lori Kronzon, parent of twins in first grade, emphasized the importance of teaching children about hunger on a local, national and global level.

“Childhood is a sheltered time, but kids shouldn’t be detached from society as a whole. Our values are human values. We need to make them connect and understand their neighbors and community. It seems like hunger is in a faraway place, but it is right here in Bergen County and children need to know this. I want them to know that hunger affects people both close to us and far away and can affect people in different parts of their life.”

Representatives from Shearit HaPlate and Leket Israel distributed literature and educated students about their organization’s mission to provide food for those in need, while Aryevut promoted chesed opportunities.

Learning about hunger has not ended with the Hunger Awareness Fair for BPY students. As part of this year-wide effort, they will deliver collected food items from the fair to the Jewish Family Service of Bergen and North Hudson’s food pantry and the Community FoodBank of New Jersey, with visits to local food banks. Proceeds from the fair will benefit Tomchei Shabbos.

BPY Early Childhood Director Jessica Kohn noticed the excitement and engagement of the children as she scanned the room. Reflecting on the fair, she said, “I think the way we live, it’s hard to imagine that there are kids in the world who are hungry. It brought a lot of issues to the forefront that they wouldn’t have thought about otherwise. I think it’s something empowering for them, that they can make a difference in the world.”

BPY students learned that there are needs in the larger community and they can make an impact in different ways, at any age. Selling keychains and jewelry made of erasers, fourth grader Shaya Wasserman said, “I think it’s nice how we’re getting a chance to help people who can’t afford food.”

By Shelley Fisher