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Students Dramatize Harsh Reality of Hunger

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Faun Allen says she knows what it’s like to peer inside a starkly empty refrigerator, to watch her family scrape by with the barest of necessities--and to be surrounded by friends unacquainted with want.

“They say, ‘Let’s go to the mall. I wanna buy these shoes,’ ” the 17-year-old Canoga Park teen-ager said, her hands fluttering to demonstrate her friends’ carefree attitude toward money.

“I share my shoes with my brother,” Faun said with a slight shrug.

Faun, a senior at Canoga Park High School, spoke after she and 650 other students were treated Wednesday to a lesson in the poverty that dwells in homes and on streets throughout the county--a lesson new to some, painfully familiar to others like Faun. The lesson came in “Rations,” a play that includes a series of vignettes about hunger in Southern California.

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“Most people think it’s just in L.A., but it’s not,” said 17-year-old Roderick Bell after the play. “It’s all over.”

“It’s not just a foreign problem,” added freshman Bonnie Luke, 13.

“Rations” was performed by a troupe of professional actors who volunteer their time for Love Is Feeding Everyone, a charitable organization founded in 1983 by actors Dennis Weaver and Valerie Harper. LIFE collects discarded but edible food from supermarkets and distributes it to the needy, and also strives to raise public awareness about the pervasiveness of hunger.

“They all know about the guy who stands on the sidewalk with a sign, ‘I will work for food,’ but what they don’t know is that 76% of the 2 million people who go hungry in Los Angeles County are women and children,” said Toni Plume, a member of LIFE’s youth education task force, which developed “Rations” last year.

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The “Rations” cast travels to local high schools twice a week; about 9,000 students have seen the program. In one of the play’s many episodes, which incorporate music and humor, wealthy schoolmates find food stamps stuffed in the wallet of a close friend--a surprising discovery that leads to some personal and emotional revelations.

“It’s surprising how few people know what’s out there,” junior Daniel Paschal, 16, said. “I know a lot of people personally who have food stamps, but people think they’re so well off.”

At Canoga Park High, for example, more than a quarter of the school’s 1,700 students participate in a campus meals program that provides low-income students with breakfast and lunch for free or at substantially reduced prices, said Assistant Principal Alice Parrish.

“In schools which you normally thought of as middle class, you’re getting more and more needy kids,” said Parrish, adding that she hopes the play will jump-start a campus canned-food drive that has so far generated little response.

Parrish said the similar fashion styles of many teen-agers, clad in T-shirts and jeans, make identifying needy youths difficult. For Faun, hunger was something experienced at home--and, as with some characters on the stage Wednesday, some of Faun’s classmates knew nothing of her family’s financial situation.

“I know what it’s like not to have food,” said Faun, one of a social worker’s six children. “All my friends come to school with $5 to buy lunch, and I only have 50 cents to buy a piece of fruit.”

Roderick and Bonnie, sitting next to Faun after the play, nodded sympathetically, saying that they had friends whose lives were similar to those portrayed on the stage minutes earlier. Faun, meanwhile, does not begrudge her wealthier friends their possessions.

“When they’re 16--boom! They get a car. I get a bus pass,” she said with a self-deprecating chuckle. “But I know I’m better off than other people. I can’t be bothered by them having cars.

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“It just makes me want to work harder so that I can have more money to help other people,” Faun added. “And I still have a way to get around. I have my feet.”


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