BEVERLY — When religious school students at Temple B’nai Abraham in Beverly learned about the issue of food insecurity, including how it affects kids, they decided to do something about it.
As a result, on May 1 the TBA Religious School will hold a walk to support the nonprofit Project Bread, which manages the Walk for Hunger. This year, the walk is virtual due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with participants encouraged to find their own routes – creating an opportunity for TBA.
Lyla Feinberg, a fifth-grade student, mapped out the two routes of the TBA walk – a one-mile and a three-mile version – with her father, Jared Feinberg. There will be scenic views of the Dane Street beach
and downtown. She described the religious school curriculum as making an impact on her.
“For me, I think, it was really informative, and really eye-opening,” she said. “I know a lot of people out there are hungry. We need to do something to help with this.”
The curriculum was launched because this year is a shemitah year – a biblical concept of a Shabbat-style rest for the land every seven years – with another influence being the Passover phrase “Let all who are hungry come and eat.”
“There are hungry people that need our help,” Rabbi Alison Adler said. “I think that understanding comes out of our yearlong focus on the shemitah year.”
As she explained, because the land was unfarmed during such a year, “communities made sure everybody had enough to eat.” The result, she added, was “learning those concepts with the kids and working to put them into action.”
Rob Leshin of Danvers, a temple board member and religious school parent, spoke to students about issues he deals with as director of the state’s Office for Food and Nutrition Programs, which is part of the
Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. These issues include food insecurity.
As Leshin explained, “food insecurity means you don’t always know when your next meal is going to be, or if you’ll have enough funds for enough food.”
This year, he said, “it made a lot of sense to put together a sort of plan for the temple’s participation in the Walk for Hunger.” He called it a “nice sort of active way to end the [religious school] year, raise some money for a good cause, Project Bread. The Walk for Hunger is their main fundraiser … it seems to be working out pretty well.”
In addition to the local walks, younger students in the school held a food drive for Beverly Bootstraps.
Leshin said that as he educated TBA students about food insecurity, he also discussed “how many students in Massachusetts depend on school meals as their main nutrition source.”
He noted that the current situation may be different from what some of today’s parents remember.
“Some [schools] even have farm-to-table initiatives,” Leshin said. “There’s a certain amount of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, rich grain requirements, sodium limits, fat and calorie limits. Overall, school meals have gotten much, much healthier as the years have progressed.”
The original school lunch act was passed back in 1946. More recently, the Obama Administration created multiple initiatives related to kids and health, from former First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move program to former president Barack Obama’s Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.
The latter “included new regulations, new changes to meal patterns requiring larger amounts of fruits and vegetables,” Leshin said, “more whole grain-rich grains offered. It made the meals healthier.”
When he spoke to the students, he told them that a free school lunch program for all Massachusetts public school students – which had been enacted during the pandemic – was scheduled to come to an end in June. He also told them that there is a bill before the state legislature that would continue these free lunches – “School Meals for All,” supported by Project Bread.
Leshin noted that his presentation was informational in nature and that due to his job as a state employee, he cannot lobby for anything. He said that it had an impact on the students, who independently decided to support the School Meals for All bill.
One of the student supporters is sixth-grader Ari Kepnes, who recalled his confusion upon learning that free meals were slated to be discontinued.
“Why would schools stop doing this?” he asked. “It would be such a good outcome to give kids less fortunate than others food to eat, who didn’t have any money to buy food, who look forward to school meals. It didn’t make sense to me … I was confused. Why would they stop it if kids looked forward to it? Why stop that, why not help those kids?”
Rabbi Adler is proud of the students’ efforts to fight food insecurity.
“I think it’s important for them to learn about it,” she said, “and also kind of taking the lead for the congregation, get the rest of us to do something. I think it’s a great way to get adults to do things … adults really respond when asked to sponsor [the kids], walk, contact our state representatives … I hope [the kids] feel a sense of empowerment from that.”
Reflecting on current events, she said, “There is so much bad stuff happening, people feel really powerless in the face of the world.” She noted how important it is “to realize that there is always some way you can really help people, even … at home in our communities.”