By David Tobenkin
Some universities have long incorporated hunger awareness activism into their activities.
One is Berea College in Berea, Kentucky, a 1,500-student liberal arts college that targets students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds and requires them to work 10 to 15 hours per week in exchange for economic support.
"We do a wide variety of advocacy and direct service around the issues of hunger, including a couple of service learning courses," says Heather Schill, coordinator of student-led community service at Berea. "Most of our hunger-related issues deal with the local area here, as there are hunger issues in the community. One of the things we do each fall is coordinate a community-wide food drive that helps to raise food and awareness for our community food bank. This is a program started 17 years ago by students and has a very wide base of volunteers. Our students will get paper bags donated, drop them off door to door on people's porches, and go back a week later and pick up donated food. They then take the food to the food bank and stock the shelves. In past years, we've typically raised 8,000 pounds of food. As we're in a small rural area of 10,000 persons, that amount is enough to cover what the food bank needs until spring." Roughly 150 students participated in last year's program, Schill says.
Berea students are also involved in local and global hunger awareness activities related to the National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week, which occurs the week before Thanksgiving Day week, Schill says. One activity conducted during the week is an Oxfam Hunger Banquet, where students come expecting a meal but instead are identified with a certain country in the world and receive the type of meal its population would typically receive. "The majority of people [40 attended in 2008] get a meal of rice, some get beans and rice, which is a little better than Third World, and six to eight get a full meal," says Schill. "While this is going on, people are reading a scenario which shares information about hunger on a global level." "Other things we do during Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week include a shanty town built by our student chapter of Habitat for Humanity in front of the student union building. Students focus on homelessness, hunger, and poverty by living in it for a week." Another hunger-related event, Schill says, is a Food for Thought Cafe, an event sponsored by Berea College's Food Service "that is a like a soup kitchen where they learn about different issues surrounding hunger and homelessness."
In the spring of each year, students and community members participate in a program called Empty Bowls that has been conducted for the past seven to eight years. The students partner with a local food bank and Department of Ceramics apprentices. The apprentices make bowls and student volunteers sell tickets and make soup. "Customers pay $10.00 for an attractive ceramic bowl made by the ceramics students that they fill with soup and enjoy music contributed by local performers," says Schill. "The proceeds go to the local food bank."
For some, the program spurs a lifelong interest in hunger issues. David Coffman is a 2006 Berea graduate who spent the following year as a Bill Emerson Hunger Fellow, a program sponsored by the Washington, D.C.-based Congressional Hunger Center in which fellows work half the year in a local food-related charity and then spend the remaining half with a national hunger and anti-poverty policy group in Washington, D.C. Coffman spent six months at a food bank in New Orleans and six months working on hunger policy issues at the National Coalition for the Homeless.
He now works as community health education coordinator for Second Harvest Food Bank of Greater New Orleans and Acadiana: "Hunger is not a stranger to me and my family—my parents relied on the WIC [the U. S. government's Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children] USDA commodities food bank and my mother still has some of the grits she received from the USDA," says Coffman. "We never had to go without a meal, but we went without a balanced meal or meat. When you attend Berea, you are surrounded by folks in the same boat as you, who have been given the opportunity to go to college that they might not otherwise have had, which conditions you to view the world through the eyes of someone who grew up without all the resources in the world and to make sure other kids growing up have the same opportunities you had. I received a hunger fellowship and came to the conclusion that hunger is one of the worst, most obvious and painful aspects of poverty. Working at the food bank is a good way to address the problem."
DAVID TOBENKIN is a freelance writer in Bethesda, Maryland. This "Web Extra!" accompanies his article in the March/April 2010 issue of International Educator .