Community teens learn first-hand about the costs of hunger and how their assistance helps
By Deb Silverthorn
A number of Dallas’ Jewish teens have been bagging groceries and it isn’t a weekend job. Students from the Jewish Youth Tzedakah Foundation and Yavneh Academy are among many who have donated food and goods, as well as their time, to Jewish Family Service.
In December, Jewish Youth Tzedakah Foundation board members, along with students from Yavneh Academy’s junior class, participated in workshops at JFS to understand the extent of the need behind their generosity.
“One of the most important ways our community can learn, even at your age, is through experience,” Michael Fleisher, JFS’ executive director, told his young guests, noting the Food Pantry last year received a Model Agency Award by the North Texas Food Pantry. “The reality is, in all likelihood, many of us know someone in need of our Food Pantry or other services.”
Project coordinator and JFS volunteer Dia Epstein expressed her appreciation for the teens’ participation. “While what brings people here is serious, it’s important for this experience for you, the caring that you have brought with you, to be filled with a joyful concern,” she said.
During the past year, the Academy of Torah in Dallas (ATID), Akiba Academy, Anne Frank Elementary School, Brownie and Girl Scout troops, the Harrington Elementary School, JCC Preschool, Jewish Youth Tzedakah Foundation, Junior Campfire Girls, Levine Academy and Yavneh Academy are among those who have dropped off bags and boxes of food and goods.
“The success of our food drive this year really excited me. We held a competition to see which grade would bring the most and that really inspired the students. The junior class won but everyone got involved. I’ve never seen Yavneh collect this much before,” said Jori Epstein, a senior at Yavneh. “We’re so fortunate to come home to stocked pantries and meals on the table; its crucial we remember to help others who don’t share in our good fortune.”
JFS’ Food Pantry serves more than 2,800 clients who live in 20 ZIP codes and who come from a variety of backgrounds. All services are confidential and JFS is a “choice” pantry, where clients are able to decide, for example, which vegetable of those available they want, rather than being handed a prepackaged bag. “It’s hard for anyone to admit they need help and we try very hard to make sure everyone’s dignity remains intact,” said Eileen Franklin, a longtime JFS volunteer.
To drive the point home about difficulties faced by families struggling in poverty, and to show how important the youth was to the program, the workshops included a hands-on experience, during which students created families for themselves. Some of those families came with a grandparent or cousin living in the home, some dealt with issues of job loss, health crises, teenage pregnancy and other issues of financial despair.
The families then went “shopping” in the JFS Food Pantry, and during the process, learned that fruit, milk, cheese items are among the first to leave the shelves. Typical allowances, for a family of four, include eggs, fruits and vegetables, cans of soup, canned meats, cereal, peanut butter, rice, and beans. Most students couldn’t picture their own families managing on the allotments provided. Participating in this exercise was a true eye-opener for the youth.
“It’s fulfilling to see exactly where the money we raised goes, and to learn more about how many people it really helps,” said Youth Tzedakah Foundation board member, Benjamin Ray. “I can’t imagine the kind of hunger the people who use these services have to live with.” Ray pointed out that he is from a family that has embraced philanthropy, but until participating in the workshops, “I didn’t really know what that meant, other than to follow their lead.”
In an exercise on the “outside,” participants were taught what it was like to keep within a strict budget. Each “family” was allotted $40 (each Tzedakah Foundation student brought $10 with which to shop). The students scoured the shelves at a nearby Walmart, focusing on the price per ounce, determining if a microwave product was worth additional cost, comparing fresh against frozen produce and more.
Purchases made by Ray and his “family” — Josh Cohen, Erica Kahn and Hannah Schiffman — included two boxes of Hamburger Helper, two jars of peanut butter, wheat bread, macaroni and cheese, scalloped potatoes, chili, beans, spaghetti noodles and sauce and chicken rice soups.
“This is not easy to do and I’m not sure how healthy we can shop and make it stretch,” Kahn said. “Fresh items don’t really last that long and a lot of it is more expensive than the prepared foods. The money goes quickly.”
“We all understand food and hunger, but most often, if they are coming to our pantry, there are usually other challenges; job needs, family illness, violence, substance abuse — we serve all of these issues, and many more,” Fleisher said. “The truth is while these kids have ‘made up’ families during these workshops, many of the families they’ve created are fair descriptions of those who come to us in reality.”
As each group completed their shopping, the most important “buy,” at no cost, was a sense of the reality many families face in feeding their loved ones, and a lesson of compassion for those with tighter budgets. That purchase doesn’t come in paper or plastic. Just soul.
For information about donating, volunteering, or the services JFS provides, call 972-437-9950 or visit jfsdallas.org.