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Poverty simulation at Missoula Food Bank tries for real-world struggles

Adult volunteer “students” attend simulated public school as volunteer “teachers” Selena Hallfrisch and Sarah Poole run the classroom as part of Poverty Simulation. (Renata Birkenbuel / Missoula Current)

Every day, the Missoula Food Bank and Community Center helps 200 families who struggle with some form food insecurity, lack of affordable housing or ability to pay healthcare costs.

“It is 1 in 5 people who live in Missoula County who at least one time during the year struggle with something as basic as food assistance,” said Jessica Allred, director of development and advocacy for the food bank.

To create awareness, food bank employees held a poverty simulation for about 50 volunteer adults on Wednesday evening. The simulation covered a range of issues, from work to child care, cashing paychecks and other daily functions.

“With all the simulation, we try to add a respectful window to what it’s like to feel those pressures of poverty,” Allred said.

Emcee Amanda Ceaser, center events and marketing coordinator, told the volunteers gathered in assigned hypothetical family pods to take the event seriously.

“This is a simulation. This is not a game,” said Ceaser. “The experiences used here are real – but not as good for the 140 million Americans living this way every year.”

Allred said in reality, the number one reason folks walk through their doors is to seek relief from the high cost of housing.

“Certainly, housing and underemployment are the most reported reasons,” Allred said. “We also see pressures from childcare costs and we see pressures from healthcare costs.”

Kathleen McCart plays the role of a utility collector as volunteer Brad Kraft, in the role of an 85-year-old man, pays his bill in the Poverty Simulation at the Missoula Food Bank and Community Center on Wednesday. (Renata Birkenbuel / Missoula Current)

The poverty simulation, comprised of 18 stations covering real-life circumstances, included four 15-minute “weeks” within a mock month. Volunteers were assigned families and faux photo identities and ages to get a true feel for another’s situation.

“You need to survive the next month,” Ceaser told the role-players. “There are events that happen – good and bad. Every week is like a time module.”

Kathleen McCart, retired after 31 years with the U.S. Forest Service, acted as the utility collector. It was her first time experiencing the simulation.

“It makes me anxious, because I have been behind on bills on occasion,” said McCart. “It also makes me anxious because people aren’t always at their best.”

The Missoula County Detention Center simulator held adult volunteer Kate Lindner, who took on the role of a 9-year-old boy sent to juvenile hall because he took a paring knife to school to cut an apple in his lunch.

Per her assigned profile, the boy had to remain in juvenile hall because Quinn Mawhinney, posing as a police officer, could not locate a family member to pick him up.

Such real-life scenarios swept solemnly through the poverty simulation.

“It’s a super eye-opening experience,” said Ceaser, who took simulation training in St. Louis, Missouri, with 80 participants. “All of us are touched by poverty.”

The food bank also launched its annual holiday fundraising drive.

“Our goals are ambitious: (to raise) $250,000 and 50,000 pounds of food – and really essential to provide those basic-need services that we provide everyday downstairs,” said Allred. “When 200 families are shopping every single day, it really does go quite quickly.”

Contact Business Reporter Renata Birkenbuel at 406-565-0013 and renatab@missoulacurrent.com.