Banker Jachelle Bell wasn't budging. No collateral, no loan.
All Nicole Diven wanted was to borrow a few bucks to buy some milk and bread, maybe a bag of beans and a box of rice, a little fruit for dessert.
Bell felt for Diven's plight, but this was business.
"What can you put up for the loan?" Bell asked.
"How about my ring?"
"That's not valuable," Bell said, looking at the bauble. "What do you have that's valuable?"
Diven walked away, crestfallen and embarrassed. She'd been turned down for food stamps and denied a $20 emergency handout because she'd been unable to complete the application.
And it all happened in Rebecca Churchman's seventh-grade class at Robert Goddard Middle School in Lanham-Seabrook. At first blush, it seemed implausible that students in this classroom could want for such basics: They sported expensive sneakers, designer jackets and backpacks that cost upwards of $40.
Yet according to school statistics, 41 percent of students who attend Goddard are eligible for free and reduced-price meals because their families' incomes fall within federal poverty guidelines. That nearly mirrors the Prince George's County public schools' overall poverty rate of 39 percent, which has more than tripled since 1985.
While the exchange between Churchman's two students was strictly role playing, the scenario was carefully scripted to teach youngsters empathy for those who suffer from hunger and instill in them a sense of civic responsibility for those less fortunate.
Hunger 101 was introduced this year as a part of a mandatory family and consumer science course in five county middle schools. In the class, students learn the side effects of malnutrition: lightheadedness, grumpiness, stomachache, weakness and inability to concentrate.
"Now, just imagine if you had all those symptoms going on at one time," Churchman said. "Do you think you would be able to perform to your best ability in class?"
"No!" chorused the students.
The nine-week course includes role playing, classroom discussions, lectures and writing assignments. Some students may eventually be able to receive credit toward the state requirement to perform 75 hours of community service before graduation. More schools are expected to begin offering the class next year.
"The idea is to teach children who may not have ever gone hungry what life is like for those who struggle regularly to try to get enough food," said Churchman, who teaches the course to seventh- and eighth-graders twice a week as part of her family and consumer sciences class.
The class is a new addition to a host of programs offered in Prince George's public schools. At some, in addition to subsidized breakfasts and lunches, after-school meals are offered to students who meet federal poverty standards. And plans are underway to open food pantries in six schools with large numbers of students eligible for free or reduced-price meals.
The pantries will be stocked with food donated by Prince George's students in a drive from Monday to Nov. 5, officials said, and from food banks in the District and Baltimore. Pantries also are planned in Baltimore schools.
"The idea with putting the food pantries in the schools is that some children get breakfast and lunch at school, but they may not be getting anything to eat until the next morning after that," said Lynn Brantley, executive director of the Capital Area Community Food Bank in Washington. Brantley said the food will be distributed once or twice a month to parents of students who volunteer in the school-based pantries.
Back in Churchman's Hunger 101 class, the teacher led students through an exercise designed to raise their awareness of the hardships of poverty while using mathematics and problem-solving skills.
Churchman first assigned students to play the roles of banker, social worker, store owners and needy people. Then she gave children a list of monthly expenses and a budget and had them decide how to spend it.
Jennifer Mountjoy, 13, Ingrid Guzman, 12, and Latoshia Dupree, 13, had to figure out how to feed their families with less than $3 after paying bills.
As she perused the offerings at the "store," Jennifer opted to purchase beans, vegetables and fruit, for $2.50. "I'll save 50 cents in case of an emergency," she said.
"What'd you get? What'd you get?" Ingrid asked, inspecting Jennifer's take. "I got beans and rice for $2. It ain't so bad. At least I'm eating real food."
"But what are you going to do tomorrow?" Churchman asked. "That food will last only today. What about tomorrow?"
"I'll get some more money," Latoshia said.
"From where?" Churchman asked. "You can't get a loan. You can't get food stamps. Remember that. What are you going to do tomorrow?"
The three girls decided to apply for a special emergency allocation. They approached the "office," managed by Dominic Jackson, 12, who handed each one a piece of paper.
"Please fill out the application."
The girls looked confused as they gazed at the jumble of symbols.
"I can't read this!" Jennifer said.
"Please fill out the application," Dominic repeated.
"How, when we can't understand it?" Latoshia asked, furrowing her brow.
"What do you mean you can't understand it?" asked Churchman. "Can't you read our language? When you come over here, you have to learn how to read and speak our language."
Right about then it dawned on the students what it must be like to be hungry, poor and unable to read English.
"I've never had an experience like this," said Sylvester Wayne Powers, 13, who along with Renarldo Head, 12, was assigned to be a store owner who treated customers with contempt. "I had never thought about this stuff before."
That, officials said, is precisely the point.
"When you are learning to deal with someone who is different from you, it is good to first learn their perspective on the world," said Luke Frazier, who supervises Maryland's student volunteer program. "It ends up helping [them] as well as you."
CAPTION: Rebecca Churchman teaches responsibility to her Hunger 101 class at Robert Goddard Middle School in Lanham-Seabrook.
CAPTION: Students in Churchman's Hunger 101 class pretend to be store owners selling groceries to peers with "food stamps." Students learn to budget their money.
CAPTION: At Robert Goddard Middle School, Rebecca Churchman discusses the role of a mother on welfare with Ingrid Guzman, 12, during Hunger 101. The class is taught at five county middle schools this year.