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Awareness Activity: Teach Kids About Hunger Through a Hunger Dinner

This was one of the most emotional experiences that I have ever had in teaching my boys about helping others, about the needs of others, and about what it is like to have need.  Several times during the evening of our Hunger Dinner, I found myself in tears, touched in ways that I had never imagined.  I know that my boys gained from this experience.  At the same time, I know that I gained more than I expected and most likely more than they did.
We live in an area where we don’t see hunger on a daily basis.  We have been blessed as a family to not have to miss meals because of the lack of resources to buy food.
Helping others is something that we do each day.  My young boys (6 and 4 years old) are not unfamiliar with donating food, taking meals they made to people that need food, or talking about how to help others.  They know how to do that.  What they are unfamiliar with is boldly experiencing the inequality in resources . . . the situations where *they* go without when surrounded by others that have plenty.
Sure, being hungry is not fun . . . but what does hunger really feel like?  Sure, we can help someone . . . but what does it feel like to receive that help?  What does it feel like to help others when you know what pain they are experiencing?
When we read and discussed Uncle Willie and the Soup Kitchen a couple of weeks ago, we brainstormed ways that we wanted to help fight hunger.  One of the ideas we discussed was to have a Hunger Dinner, my own version of a Hunger Banquet.  (I first read about it last Spring in the book Kid’s Guide to Hunger and Homelessness.   Oxfarm American Hunger Banquet has resources that you can download as well to learn more about a Hunger Banquet and access materials to host one.)
The Hunger Banquet is basically an experience to divide your dinner party up in the way that the world eats.  Some have a fancy meal, some eat a rice meal at the table, and some eat a rice meal on the floor.  The number of people in each group are represented by the percentages of people in those same situations around the world.
I suggested that we have a Hunger Dinner where 3 of our 4 family members would have a “rice meal” and one family member would get a “fancy meal.”  Who got what meal would be decided by drawing a slip of paper . . . I explained this all to my boys.  They immediately pointed out that only one person would get a fancy dinner, which I confirmed.   And, after a few more questions, they decided to try it.
“You might not get a fancy meal,” I tried to clarify.
“I know.”
“What if you really want a fancy meal and you get rice?” I pushed a bit further.
“I like rice, and I’ll just eat more food later if I get hungry.”

The hunger was a topic of much discussion over the next couple days leading up to our own Hunger Dinner.

      • Do kids only eat rice sometimes?
      • What if they are really hungry?
      • Why is it again that they can’t find food?
      • Don’t their parents know how to get food from a store?
      • So, for how many days would they feel hungry?

The evening for our Hunger Dinner arrived with great anticipation.

The boys decided that the “fancy meal” for one would be at their favorite local hamburger joint.  I made the rice meals for three of us.

We made the box and the slips of paper.  We rolled up the slips of paper with “rice meal” and “fancy meal” written on them.  I pretty much figured that there would be disappointment from the youngest child if he didn’t get “fancy” and that we would work out how we were feeling as we were eating our food.

When Dad FINALLY arrived home . . . the boys were in high anticipation about what would happen.  Even though Dad came home at the regular time, the boys were sure he was WAY LATE.

We all sat down in the living room and talked about why we were doing this. The boys were antsy.  So, we jumped right in.

Dad went first.
He got fancy.
The rest of us knew immediately what we would be getting.
And then my oldest, the easy going child, looked like this.
And then, this.

He was in tears.  And, my Mommy Heart was breaking!  What had we done?  Was this lesson worth his disappointment, his sadness, his anger?  Was this the WORST experience we had EVER agreed to do in teaching our kids about the needs of others?

He was sobbing.My easy-going, loving son was sobbing, almost uncontrollably.And my heart was breaking.

Then, another surprise.

This one from Little Brother.

If you look at the picture above, you’ll see Little Brother on the right.  Little Brother wasn’t upset that he was going to have a non-fancy meal.  He was concerned about his big brother.

Little Brother wanted to start helping to make it better for Big Brother.
He offered his rice meal to Big Brother.
He gave Big Brother hugs.
He got mad at me, the Mommy.
He demanded fairness.
He demanded that his brother have what he wanted, better food.
In all situations where there is need, we discuss how to help.  Dad stepped in, of his own volition, and offered to help.  Offered to share part of his fancy meal.  That changed the dynamics in the room.  I was no longer Enemy #1.
In a moment of parental telepathy, Dad and I agreed that we needed to finish the Hunger Dinner.  We needed to eat our rice meals (and not easily skip over to the fancy meal, all holding hands in relief).  We needed to finish our experience and express gratitude for the food that we do have, even if it isn’t fancy.
Little Brother more readily had his rice portion.  Big Brother was extremely reluctant.
We talked about how we should be grateful for the food that we have, no matter how fancy it might be.
We discussed that it could be any one of us that is the person that goes hungry.  We talked about the things that could happen to us that would result in us going hungry, not having enough money to buy food.  And, the boys listened.  Big Brother gave in a bit and ate his rice with less resistance, sort of.

At this point, I was not sure about this whole Hunger Dinner . . . the idea to experience it in this way.  Truly, we were not experiencing hunger.  None of us had gone without a meal or snack.  Each of us knew we had food in the pantry and fridge.

After we finished our rice meals, Dad took us to the local hamburger joint and shared his fancy meal with us.  No more tears, no more angry demands that I make things fair.

I talked with Big Brother about what he was feeling.  I think that he was surprised to feel so angry about not pulling the “fancy meal” paper out of the box for himself.  He knew that could happen, and, yet, he felt mad and sad at actually experiencing the situation.  One thing to intellectualize an experience, another thing to actually live through the experience.

“I didn’t like that.”

“That was harder than I thought.”

“It wasn’t fair.”

“If we ever have to do that again, it needs to be more fair.”  When I asked him about the kids that are hungry NOW, how do we make it fair for them?  He sat quietly and then said,“We do everything we can.”

In a private moment, my husband and I talked together and shared how hard that was for us to experience.  I knew that I would be sharing this for the Moms Fighting Hunger Blog Hop.  How would I write it all up and still make sense?  And, then my husband said:

Can you imagine being parents where there is no handy “fancy meal” to share? 

Can you imagine the anguish for parents that cannot provide for their children? How that must feel. 

How did your parents feel when they struggled with money when you were growing up?

Immediately, I felt as if I had run smack into a wall, forcing all the breath from my being.  And, I cried.  I cried with how desperate and powerless that would feel and the guilt that would come from feeling that I wasn’t able to provide a basic necessity for my kids.

I cried, feeling ashamed, because, for most of the evening, I felt like I had asked my boys to do something too hard.  In fact, I was asking them to learn a hard lesson, to imagine what it is like to be another, to develop empathy.  I was ashamed because *I* was uncomfortable in watching them in a very short-term state of discomfort.  They had the courage to be willing to try it.  Where was my courage in giving them space to be uncomfortable?  I don’t know that I am articulating myself very well.  In all, I left the Hunger Dinner experience with wider eyes and a softer heart.

A week later:

I informally interviewed the boys about the Hunger Dinner.

Big Brother:  That was not fun.  We need to make things more fair for everyone.

Little Brother:  That was fun!

Me:  Why was it fun?

Little Brother:  I got to eat some fries.

(clearly, each boy has his own perspective)

Me:  What do you want to do now after our Hunger Dinner?

Little Brother:  (quietly) Serve people.  Help them.

We all can do something to help fight hunger in our community, in our nation, and globally.  The boys and I will continue to work with our local food pantry and learn more about hunger and how to help.  I will remember this lesson in empathy.

Here are helpful links:

Hunger Action Month

No Kid Hungry

Dine Out Week