#38 of 49: Attend a Hunger Dinner

For the past three years, I’ve been hearing of the Hunger Dinner; but last night was the first time the date worked with my schedule.  Let me say, it was an emotional rollercoaster for many reasons.

What is a Hunger Dinner?

Each year, Feeding Tampa Bay (FTB) hosts a dinner at their warehouse.  It’s an ingenius way to share with Tampa residents exactly who are the people who benefit the most from Food Pantries.  And it’s NOT who you would expect.

I’ve been associated with Feeding Tampa Bay for 3 years, and I proudly serve on their Development Committee.  I was fortunate to tour their facility thanks to their Executive Director, Thomas Mantz, when I was in Leadership Tampa Bay.  Whenever I tell people about Feeding Tampa Bay, the response is almost always the same: Some derivative of, “Oh, they feed the homeless right?”  Yes, but to paint their entire organization with that brush would be wildly inaccurate. The number of meals that go to the homeless are merely a sliver of the total meals provided for the Tampa Bay Region.  The majority of the meals go to hard working moms and dads who sometimes have 2 or 3 jobs, but just can’t make enough to keep up with today’s high-priced everything.  And that’s why the Hunger Dinner is so important.

When I arrived, there was a welcoming social area, providing wine and other beverages. It was a great way to meet people throughout the city and socialize.  Around 6:30 PM the awesome team at FTB passed around an envelope to every participant, with instructions not to open it until instructed to do so.

Thomas took the stage and explained how the night would unfold.  “Each of you have been given an envelope.  In a moment, I’ll have you open it, and it will say one of two things:  It will either tell you that tonight, you are food secure and you can enjoy a wonderful meal, or it will tell you that you are food insecure and there will be a role for you to assume this evening.  All of the stories on the cards of the food insecure are real people in the Tampa Bay Area.”

Here’s a sample from one of the cards:

“I retired at the age of 50 from social services due to the decline of my husband’s health. He suffered a stroke last year and we are not able to afford home healthcare, which has left me caring for him full-time. Just around the same time as his stroke, my sister passed away from cancer, leaving behind her special needs son. Today, I’m a full-time caregiver to both my husband and nephew. The financial assistance we receive each month mostly covers our living expenses and medicine – but there is little left over for food. Each day poses a new challenge for me, but I’m grateful for the support my local food bank and neighbors provide in order to get us by. I just hope my health remains stable because I don’t know who will take care of my husband and nephew, and how we would afford more medical bills.

Tonight, we can only spend $1.50 on dinner.”

Then he invited a few special guests to come to the stage and read the stories they were given that night.  They were stories of people here in the Tampa Bay Area.

One was of a college educated, married woman named Carol.  She was a teacher for special needs children.  She was a mother of a special needs child herself.  A medical tragedy in her life meant she could no longer work as a teacher.  On her husband’s salary, they could no longer afford assistance for their own son, so she became his full-time caretaker while her husband makes a living.  It wasn’t enough, and she was only able to budget about $2.00 a day to feed all three of them.  Don’t think that’s possible?  Keep reading and I’ll show you just how far an annual salary of $65,000 / year goes.

Here’s her story:

Another story was about a college student named Nevin.  He is pursuing his engineering degree while trying to make the American Dream a reality as an entrepreneur.  His meals consisted mainly of food from friends that they were no longer going to eat.

Here’s his story:

Do you have or know someone who has a special needs child?  There’s a chance the woman in this story may have taught your child.  Do you have a child away at school?  There’s a chance they are food insecure, but their pride keeps them from calling you to ask for help.

Some of the participants discovering their fate for the night

As we opened our envelopes and discovered our fate for the night, I was blessed to be food secure and instructed to sit down at the table to enjoy a wonderful 3 course meal provided by Puff & Stuff Catering.  Meanwhile, my friends Gilit and Kevin were labeled food insecure and forced to go to a food line and choose which food they could purchase with their allotted money for the night; usually less than $2 dollars.

To make it interesting, each food secure person was to sit next to a food insecure person and instructed not to share their food.  This was emotional for both people regardless of their fate.  The food secure, like myself, dealt with the guilt of eating in front of our food insecure friends.  Steak, baked chicken Parmesan, fresh salad, and strawberry cheesecake. While my friends ate food prepared from a can, void of any significan nutritional value, and felt, if only for a moment, the pain and shame to be one of the ‘have nots’ in society.

“When I retired as a nurse, my husband and I decided to complete our family and adopt two boys.  Last year, my husband passed away, which left me taking care of the boys full-time.  Both boys have special needs and require around-the-clock care.  I am teaching my boys to be independent and they make me proud every day.  But doing this alone is really hard.  This is the first time in my life I have needed to use the services of a food pantry to make sure me and the boys have the food we need.  I’m thankful for the support of my neighbors and community because these moments would be very difficult to overcome alone.  I pray my health remains because my boys need me and I wouldn’t have the financial ability to take on more bills.

Tonight, I can only spend $1.75 on dinner.”

The reason why this evening was so hard for me was because I am someone who has experienced food insecurity in my life.  When I was 24 years old, I moved to Seattle to start my own business.  With no funding and no business acumen, I failed miserably.  Within 9 months, I was around $85,000 in debt and eating every 3rd day simply because I didn’t have the money to buy any food.  Those 9 months were the most shameful months of my life.  I never socialized with friends (I couldn’t afford to go out to eat or see a movie), I had no furniture in my apartment except an air mattress to sleep on and a desk to do my work.  My family was across the state in Spokane and I never wanted them to know how hard I was struggling.  I lied every day to people when they would ask me, “How’s it going?”  I felt like a fraud.  I was a fraud.  But one thing I was not, was lazy. Nor was I lacking vision or ambition.  Nor was I living on welfare or foodstamps.  I didn’t qualify for those services.  I was a small business owner, and while I didn’t make much, I made enough to be considered above the poverty line.  Therefore, I didn’t qualify for any government assistance.  Had I known about food services like Feeding Tampa Bay, maybe I could have given my body the nourishment to be able to work the kinds of hours that startups require; but instead, my body didn’t have the energy to work the hours needed to earn the money required to buy the food my body craved in order to function. I was caught in an endless loop, and it just kept getting worse every day.  But I was lucky.  I was able to get out of the cycle by taking a job and shutting down my business; and very soon after, I was getting my life back in order, paying off my debt, and finding my self-esteem.

“As a business executive of a multi-million dollar company, my life was in order – with a husband, two healthy children, a nice home, a car, and a successful career.  After the crash of the economy in 2008, my husband and I were both laid off, which was the beginning of a downhill spiral for us.  My husband became very depressed and verbally abusive with all the pressure of helping our family survive.  Realizing my marriage was unhealthy, I filed for divorce and began to rebuild my life with my two children.  I found a lot of support in faith-based food pantries and local organizations.  I wouldn’t have been able to manage feeding my children in those times without the help of my community.  I am now a huge advocate for single moms and work with local programs to alleviate the expense of childcare for families with marital struggles.  While this is work I am passionate about, it still only provides enough to get us by.

Tonight, dinner costs cannot exceed $2 dollars.”

But many in Tampa Bay are not so lucky.  Not yet anyway.  They are caught in this downward spiral, and without charities like Feeding Tampa Bay to help them out, their spiral would be their destiny.  This Hunger Dinner was given to me by Feeding Tampa Bay, and all they asked was that I share my experience with someone, so that they may gain clarity on who the people are who benefit from this great charity.

Here are some sobering facts:

  • 1 in 4 children in public schools will go without a meal from Friday evening through Monday morning.  Their parents simply don’t have the resources to feed them.
  • Children and seniors make up nearly half of the hungry in Tampa Bay.
  • 1 in 5 retired US Military Vets are food insecure

As each person read their real-life story to the table, our tears welled up.  Professional businessmen and women reading their plight for the night couldn’t get through their stories without choking up and crying.  And they only had to pretend to be this person for an hour.  Can you imagine how it must feel to be this person day in and day out?  Let that sink in, please.  Because last night, it certainly did for me.

“I’m 22 years old and an only child.  I was born into a broken family with chronic substance abuse.  When I turned 18, I traveled down to Florida to gain my independence and create a brighter future for myself.  I have worked many hard, odd-end jobs in order to get by, but finding a good job with my experience is nearly impossible.  My rent, bills, gas, and food always seem too expensive with my budget and I’m beginning to lose all hope.  My passion for music keeps me going and I practice every day in hopes I will find a future in it somehow – but at this rate, I may not even be able to afford opportunities so that I can provide a  better life for myself.

Tonight, I have borrowed $2.00 from my neighbor for dinner.”

How much is enough?

If I told you that a married couple with 2 kids were making $65,000 a year what would you assume?  If you’re like me, you think they have a relatively good middle class life.  But let’s see how far $65,000 actually goes for a family of 4.

Feeding Tampa Bay provides nearly 50 million meals per year to hard working families in the Tampa Bay Area.  They have a capacity for 100 million. They can reach that capacity by support from the ‘haves’ in our society like you and I.  That can happen with your time, treasure, or talent.  You have at least one of those 3 that you can provide.  I hope that after reading this, you will.  If that answer is yes, you can click this link to learn more about how you can be a part of the solution.  A society that takes care of those less fortunate is a society that is strong, compassionate, and committed to making their entire city a better place for all to live.  Let’s be that city Tampa!


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