Or Shalom students get a full serving of Hunger 101

"Don't you want to help the homeless?" snapped one angry Or Shalom Jewish Community eighth-grader who had just been turned away at a mock food stamp office.

"How is that possible? How can we have only $2.30 to spend on food?" bemoaned another, standing near a mock grocery store. "I am a single mother!"

The scenes took place Monday evening in an Or Shalom classroom during "Hunger 101," a hands-on learning experience run by the San Francisco Food Bank.

Ten eighth-graders from an after-school class at the San Francisco Jewish Renewal congregation each took on the identity of a low-income city resident trying to make ends meet.

It wasn't easy.

Each student had a different set of dynamics to deal with: job, income, children, rent and other expenses.

"The goal is to get enough food for your family for one day," the students were told by Autumn Arnold, the education and advocacy coordinator for the Food Bank.

After completing a worksheet of household expenses, the students discovered how much money was left to spend on food.

In most cases, it wasn't enough to feed their families.

"We had a lot of money, and we even got $8 from food stamps," student Jessica Wiggins said. "But that could really only feed one person."

With a mock food stamp office in one corner and a mock soup kitchen in the other, there were other ways to get food besides the grocery store.

But the available resources didn't exactly fall like manna from heaven.

"It was really hard filling out those stupid food stamp forms," said student Sarah Stroe of the 19-page application.

Other students found that even though their family wasn't getting enough food, their income was too high to qualify for benefits.

"We don't fit into any of the categories, so we can't get money or food stamps," student Madeline-Kolbe Saltzman pointed out.

The teens ran into other problems, as well: not having time for a lunch-hour trip to the soup kitchen from their place of work, parents with hungry kids they couldn't feed, major bureaucratic headaches and long lines at the food stamp office.

At the conclusion of the one-hour program, the teens talked about what they can do to help alleviate hunger in San Francisco, where Arnold said one in 10 adults and one in five children are hungry.

She defined hunger as either "food insecurity," which means not having reliable access to food, or as actual "pains of hunger." She also said the issue goes way beyond the city's homeless population.

"There are 90,000 hungry people in San Francisco," she said. "It's a largely invisible problem."

For the eighth-grade students of teachers Zehava Dahan and Enulla Shamir, the problem became a lot more visible this week.

"It was a wonderful program. The kids were really involved," said Dahan, the synagogue's education director. "They were surprised that there were all those obstacles."

The Or Shalom eighth-grade class, which is held every other week, focuses on Jewish ethics and values, which was one reason why Dahan was thrilled about the outcome of Monday's program.

"I think they all 'got it.' It was a perfect tie-in to the hunger walk we're going on this Sunday. They'll really look at it in a different way and understand more why they're doing it."

Many of the students and their families are participating in the "Crop Walk," which helps generate funds for local food banks, pantries, community gardens and other local food programs.

Arnold said the San Francisco Food Bank accounts for 30,000 meals per day, although it doesn't actually serve them. It provides food for other organizations, which in turn try to get it to the people who need it, either in the form of hot meals or bags of groceries.

Some of the agencies that use the Food Bank include several Jewish organizations: the Techiah Foundation, the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children's Services, the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco and Congregation Sherith Israel of San Francisco.

The Food Bank has presented "Hunger 101" to approximately 50 groups of teens or adults since its inception in March. For more information, call (415) 282-1900.

The Food Bank's education and advocacy program, which runs "Hunger 101," is funded in part by Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger.

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.