From Maggie Bayonet, who distributes food at the Dar Al-Hijrah mosque in Falls Church, to Maryann Tolbert, who prepares hot meals at Greater New Hope Baptist Church in Northwest Washington, there were plenty of soldiers from the front lines of compassion Friday at the 2014 Capital Area Food Bank Hunger Summit.
But purpose became entangled with frustration when some of the providers attending the summit were asked to play the game “Face Hunger,” pretending to be someone in need who must navigate the same Washington area social service network that the people they serve have to deal with every day.
“It is so hard doing this,” said Bayonet, after about 30 minutes during which she had been denied food stamps, was unable to fill out an application for assistance because the form was in Russian, and had left a bank frustrated because she had only about $5 in her account. In many ways, Bayonet said, the exercise reminded her of an earlier period in her life when she was poor.
“This ‘Face Hunger’ session allows someone to have empathy with those who are in need. It is hard to know what people are going through if you always have been able to go to a grocery store and get what you want,” said Marian Barton Peele Sr., director of partners and programs at the Capital Area Food Bank.
Peele said that the 500 food bank partners distributed 37.5 million meals to more than 478,000 participants last year. During the summit, people from churches, community groups and nonprofit organizations heard a range of speakers talk about the connection between diabetes and poverty, the challenges to urban school nutrition programs and the intersection between health and hunger.
“This is very enlightening because it shows what I could be going through,” said John Mills, who operates a food bank in Brandywine.
Susie Harris, who works with a food bank at the Paramount Baptist Church in Southeast Washington, said that taking part in the role-playing exercise showed her that trying to make it on the streets “can be very stressful.”
Tolbert, of Greater New Hope Baptist Church, said that having a door slammed in her face was insightful because many people don’t realize how hard it is for the poor to make it. “We give people food, clothing and hot meals on the second Tuesday of the month, but it’s hard to get people to volunteer,” she added.
Lilia Torres and Beysith Lagos, the Virginia regional coordinators for the Food Bank, said that things are even harder in the Virginia suburbs, even though they have about 180 providers, because people in need are so spread out. And some illegal immigrants are reluctant to admit they need help for fear of being deported.
“There is a stigma,” Torres said. “People don’t ask for help.” And when it comes to some immigrants, Lagos said, “some people are afraid that we are going to turn them in to the government.”