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September 23, 2012

MARK BENNETT: Hunger Challenge: ‘An exercise in empathy’

TERRE HAUTE — The prayer fit.

Two Fridays ago, John Etling — agency director for Terre Haute Catholic Charities — offered the prayer, for all inclined, at a lunch served to participants of a project called the Hunger Challenge. Its organizers — the United Way of the Wabash Valley, and Catholic Charities — ask those who volunteer to live for seven days and seven nights on $29.27 worth of groceries. They term the challenge “an exercise in empathy.”

Empathy differs from sympathy. With empathy, you understand another person’s feelings because you’ve experienced the same thing.

For a week, the Hunger Challenge participants experienced a small dose of the difficulties faced by 18,730 people in Vigo County every day. That number includes 1 of every 4 kids in the county. Across west-central Indiana, 41,140 people and 13,480 children live in “food insecurity.” The term means they lack access to a reliable, daily supply of nutritious food. I’m fortunate; I’ve never been in that predicament. Some challenge-takers sitting in the Ryves Youth Center dining hall that day — business people, teachers, principals, health-care staffers, insurance agents, real-estate brokers, television reporters, home renovators, bosses and secretaries — also had never struggled to find their next meal. Some had.

The prayer Etling gave prepared us to see things from the same side. In part, it called on the Lord to “open our eyes that we may see you in all our sisters and brothers. Open our minds that we may understand their hopes and dreams, their sorrows and pain, their longing for you. Open our hearts to give generously of ourselves …” Afterward, Etling asked if we had hopes and dreams. We mulled that question over a lunch identical to those being served across the street at the Catholic Charities soup kitchen. You had to wonder about the hopes and dreams of the folks in those statistics, especially the young.

Two days later, I shopped at a discount grocery with my wife and daughter, and ended up 21 cents under the limit, but not without a humbling glitch. Even with a cellphone calculator, we were 94 cents beyond the maximum when the cashier rang up the bill. We put back two cups of yogurt and three paper sacks to hold it all, watched for the new total on the register, paid and headed out.

The $29.27 figure is the average weekly amount that Vigo County food stamp recipients have to spend on food, as of July totals, according to Feeding America, a nationwide network of hunger-relief agencies such as Catholic Charities. (Food stamps are now referred to as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.) Under complex guidelines, that amount can vary because of changes in the number of people in a household and incomes. Still, for the purposes of the challenge, $29.27 was the fixed grocery budget.

As the project began, I immediately realized amenities I’d taken for granted, starting with Sunday breakfast. Coffee, bold or flavored, was out. So were the amazing pancake creations my wife conjures up. Unable to comprehend one day let alone a whole week without java, I made it a “must-have” on my grocery list and committed $2.79 of my budgeted amount for a bargain can of coffee. I got my caffeine, all right, plus some heartburn.

Instead, on Sunday morning, I went with rice and eggs, a favorite throw-together I learned in college. Back then, my nutritionist — a fellow guitar player who read lots of magazines — explained the dish’s health virtues, which now seem questionable. Anyway, breakfast tasted just fine, but I still missed what I didn’t have. And throughout the week, despite my wife’s help with recipes and experimentation, I thought more deeply about perks of life I’d mindlessly consumed and suddenly did not have. Coffee and cookies at the bookstore and coffee shops. Dining out with family and friends. Snickers bars grabbed while waiting to pay for gas. Diet Pepsi from the office beverage machine.

Finally, though, as my challenge neared its end, I understood those things I missed were special-occasion treats to others. “Needs” now looked like “wants.”

More than once last week, I had people tell me they’d lived in that situation in the past, as a kid, a young adult or a parent.

As I return to my regular routine, I know that others must continue their real struggle. My eyes are more open.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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