Food program puts kids face-to-face with the needy, not just at the holidays


Regina Peterson, 83, greets students delivering food to needy senior citizens in Howard County. “Oh, this is wonderful!” she said. (Evy Mages/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
Petula Dvorak
Columnist November 21, 2011

This week, the great abundance begins.

Soup kitchens are abuzz with earnest volunteers ready to help, and donation bins are overflowing with boxes and cans.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

How else are we supposed to deal with any guilt over our season of gluttony, other than by roping the needy into our bacchanal?

But once the last turkey tetrazzini is eaten and the dead pine trees are chipped into mulch, the giving urge often fades away. Julie Rosenthal, the mom who runs a small nonprofit called Food on the 15th, has seen it before.

“There is extra food in the bags today,” she tells her little army of helpers — 10- and 11-year-olds about to deliver food to needy senior citizens in Howard County. “Tell them NOT to give it away. They’re going to need it in January and February, when donations are slim.”

Some of the kids are a bit nervous. This is going to be way more intense than simply ferrying a can of cranberry sauce to class or decorating a pilgrim centerpiece for the local soup kitchen.

These Howard County kids — who are growing up in the third-wealthiest county in the nation — are about to come face-to-face with hunger.

In this case hunger is a stooped and smiling woman who has decorated the door to her small apartment in Ellicott City with silk flowers and happy signs.

“Oh, this is wonderful! The children are so beautiful!” trills Regina Peterson, 83, who grips her walker as she greets the children bearing bags of food, and really doesn’t want the kids to leave.

Down the hall, the kids encounter a less amicable senior who complains about the overabundance of tuna in the gift bags, wants something else and slams the door shut.

“Some people love the attention, some don’t,” shrugs Natalie Nichols, who is 10 and in fifth grade at Clarksville Elementary School. “That’s okay.”

Food on the 15th always makes it deliveries around the 15th of the month, when the Social Security checks begin to run out and tough choices between medication and food get made. It’s a year-round operation, not a feel-good, holiday-only effort.

The project, which has delivered 9,500 bags of groceries to hundreds of low-income seniors over the past six years, does more than teach kids about giving and sharing and the socioeconomic inequities among that 99 percent of us. It is designed to introduce children of affluence to people who are struggling.

“They’re all the same, people just like us, like our families,” says Lily Fredman, 10, after knocking on a bunch of doors. “Some have families visiting, some were watching football.”

Bingo! That’s the lesson Rosenthal wanted to teach six years ago, as she was facing the ultimate parenting challenge: how not to raise entitled brats.

“I thought my kids were way too focused on themselves. There was dance and drama and all that, but it was all about them,” says Rosenthal, an Asian Studies program management specialist at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. She needed something that would make her kids understand how privileged they were compared with others around them.

So in 2007, she organized parents, teachers and children at Pointers Run Elementary School to bag and deliver groceries to low income seniors at Morningside Park Apartments in Jessup. The experience was eye-opening for her daughter, Jenny Mandl.

“Honestly, when I was little, I thought money just came out of the walls,” Jenny, now 15, tells me. “I’d been to New York and seen homeless people. But that was all I understood about stuff like poverty.”

The key to this approach is for the kids to do more than fill a bin with canned peas and boxes of cereal. By handing the food to people in need, they get a more intimate look at what people who struggle might look like (see: Lily’s observation), and they get that infectious sense of satisfaction that comes with giving.

Each year the program got bigger and involved more schools. There are now nine schools involved, along with some churches and Scout groups. From the start, the focus has been on seniors. Almost 16 percent of those 65 and older are poor, once their medical expenses are taken into consideration, according to a U.S. Census report released this month.

“I know seniors who were struggling with food and medical payments, so they started taking their really important medicine every other day,” Rosenthal says.

Grace Adams, 72, says she hasn’t been that desperate yet. A former live-in nanny, she gets her medications for free. But the bag of food that comes on the 15th “lets me sometimes save my money to spend on something special for myself. Like lotion,” she tells me.

Babatu Sekou, 66 and a combat veteran, says his steel company pension was cut it half recently and his military benefits barely pay his bills. He’s delighted to get the food each month.

In the lobby, I see him slump a little after the departure of the giggling kids, with their carts and squeaky voices and metal mouth smiles. It was quiet when they were gone. Just the squeak of a walker passing by us.

“That’s the part I really love,” Sekou says. “All the kids coming in here.”

E-mail me at dvorakp@washpost.com.

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