Food Stamp Challenge: The Week The Rabbis Went Hungry


— by Eric Harris

This week Rabbi David Saperstein, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and other members of the RAC staff, is taking the Food Stamp Challenge. Part of “Fighting Poverty with Faith’s” initiative to focus people of faith on issues of economic justice and the need to sustain vital social safety net programs, Food Stamp Challenge participants live for seven days on the standard weekly food stamp allotment of $31.50. Rabbi Saperstein will participate in the Challenge from October 27th through November 2nd, joining a half dozen prominent Jewish leaders and ten Members of Congress in this effort to call attention to anti-hunger programs and educate the faith community on the plight of hunger.

We are honored to be able to participate in the Food Stamp Challenge, and experience even for a brief time the ongoing struggle of the millions of Americans nationwide who are confronting hunger on a daily basis. We have long advocated for anti-hunger programs, like SNAP and WIC that meet the needs of the 49 million food-insecure Americans but the Challenge places in stark relief how difficult it is to obtain enough food and nutritious food on a food stamp budget – and why we must do better as a nation.

Jewish tradition teaches that feeding the hungry is a vital responsibility. The Midrash says:

When you are asked in the world to come, ‘What was your work?’ and you answer: ‘I fed the hungry,’ you will be told: ‘This is the gate of God, enter into it, you who have fed the hungry.’

Participating in the Food Stamp Challenge will not, by itself, end hunger in America; that will take a sustained commitment by our nation and its leaders. To that end, we are hopeful that our participation in the Food Stamp Challenge this week will inspire others to advocate for policies addressing families and individuals who confront hunger nationwide. During these difficult economic times, easing the burden on those who are most vulnerable must be our number one priority.

All members of our congregations are being called to register online, and join us in the Food Stamp Challenge and use it as an opportunity to educate your synagogue and community.

Other food stamp challenge participants are listed after the jump.

Who else is taking the challenge?

Ask your Member of Congress to take the challenge too.

Hazon Goes to the White House: Food Justice and the Farm Bill

Valerie Jarrett, Senior Advisor to President Obama, addresses the group.

— by Liz Kohn

Last week 12 excited Hazon representatives and 160 other Jewish participants gathered in Washington D.C. as part of the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable (JSJRT), a collection of 21 nonprofits supporting social justice as an essential component of Jewish life. The two-day affair began on Thursday, July 28th with congressional meetings and culminated the following day with the White House Community Leaders Briefing Series, a unique summer-long opportunity for grassroots leaders to engage White House officials and voice issues close to our hearts.

Jon Carson, deputy assistant to the President and director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, succinctly articulated the purpose of the series: “I’m not here to talk,” he said. “I’m here to listen about what you’re seeing across the country.” For many in Hazon’s cohort and millions of American Jews, this issue is food justice.

Early Friday, after a lively opening session at the National Press Club, the large group split four ways for agency briefings about housing, healthcare, education and food justice. I joined the food justice cohort for an overview of food accessibility, policy and budgeting by three key members of the White House staff.

More after the jump.
American Jewish World Service Director of Advocacy, Timi Gerson, first introduced JSJRT and the session’s storytellers: Rabbi Andy Kastner, American Jewish World Service Neta Fellow and campus rabbi at Washington University and David Napell, MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger Board Member, shared short, telling stories of food injustice and insecurities, setting the stage for the briefing from agency staff. USDA Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships Acting Deputy Director Julie Curti was the first staff member to share her insights.

It was a pleasure hearing Curti mention the USDA’s first Food and Justice Passover Seder and stress the importance of nonprofit partnerships in actually executing the communal work. She painted a troubling landscape of hunger and food access in America, revealing that 50.2 million Americans were food insecure at some point in 2009. She said a recent study also found that 23.5 million Americans live in low income areas that are more than 1 mile from a food store, a trouble with food access on the retail side often described as “food deserts” or “food swamps.” The third theme she discussed was obesity, saying it has become clear that simply “too few fruits and vegetables consumed, sometimes by choice, but many times not. ” She then detailed various ways the government is combating these issues; from their 18 different agencies addressing producer and consumer components of accessibility and 15 partnerships around nutrition assistance programs.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is the most important with approximately 44 million Americans enrolled, up from 28 million in 2008. This number, Curti added, still only reaches 68% of eligible participants, which she called “an issue of reach, not funding.” She highlighted several programs, such as the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP), which gives food to nonprofits to distribute to kids. Others such as the Community Food Projects Competitive Grants Program relate to urban farms and gardens and address the supply side of food access. There is also the Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI) which helps to increase the availability of nutritious food in grocery stores, small retailers, corner stores, and farmers markets.

Curti finished her presentation by praising who in the bigger picture is the greatest champion of healthy food access: the First Lady, Michelle Obama. Her Let’s Move! initiative to build healthier communities has recently received commitments from private retailers like Wal Mart and Walgreens as well as public support from a variety of individuals and venues. Curti acknowledged the government’s many food justice oriented Jewish nonprofit partners (including Hazon!) and thanked us for our presence and dedication to the cause.

Brandon Willis, Senior Adviser to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack spoke next, and Jennifer Yezak, the Director of Intergovernmental Affairs at the USDA chimed in during the question and answer session. Willis overviewed the Farm Bill and said that while it is difficult to know its timing or breakdown, funding cuts are inevitable. The Farm Bill is incredibly complex, with approximately 70% of its funding going to nutrition programs, followed by conservation and commodity programs. This complexity leads to health, economic, and environmental issues and as with any complex and broad legislation, straightforward answers were difficult to come by.

Yezak shared that recent discussions about regulatory reform provided the Administration with some ideas that need to, and will, get on the table: “there are efforts and discussions about this in the USDA. Rural Development State Directors are looking at ways to make their loans and grant programs more accessible and easier to apply for.” She encouraged us to continue our involvement as these conversations progress and said she will be on hand as a resource and source of support.

Ruth Messinger, president of American Jewish World Service echoed this sentiment: “We must not underestimate the power of letting our government know that global food justice, equitable healthcare, education reform, and affordable housing are authentic expressions of Jewish values. They are issues that Jewish leaders care about deeply and will work on intensively.” This collective commitment to advance social justice in the food realm has the potential to drive change in a big and powerful way. Moments like last week’s symbolize that we are doing so across communities and around the country, in the Jewish community and beyond.

Liz Kohn, originally from Evergreen, Colorado, is a Masters in Social Work 2012 candidate in the University of Michigan’s Jewish Communal Leadership Program and is Hazon’s Social Work Intern. Her professional and volunteer work and travels have deepened her desire to develop skills in meeting both individual needs and communal challenges related to accessibility and affordability of fresh, healthy food.

Reprinted courtesy of The Jew and the Carrot.

JRA Special Food Distribution in Honor of Victims of 9/11

— by Amy Krulik
Senator Arlen Specter will keynote this National Day of Service Event

The Jewish Relief Agency (JRA) will hold its monthly September food distribution on Sunday, September 11th, 2011 as part of the National Day of Service to recognize the 10th anniversary of 9/11. Senator Arlen Spector will give the keynote address and will be joined by area civic and political leaders.  Volunteers from throughout the 5-county Philadelphia area, Southern New Jersey, and Delaware will join together to pack and deliver food to struggling families throughout the Greater Philadelphia area.

More after the jump.
Over 850 volunteers of all ages and abilities are needed to help pack and deliver over 3,000 boxes of fresh produce and non-perishable pantry items. Volunteers will meet at the JRA warehouse at 10:00 AM to pack food until about 11:30 AM. Most deliveries take about 30-45 minutes to complete. The JRA warehouse is located at 10980 Dutton Road, Philadelphia, PA 19154. Refreshments, including bagels and coffee, will be provided to all volunteers. A playroom is provided for our youngest volunteers should they need a break from the excitement of the warehouse.

“The tenth anniversary of 9/11 reminds us of the importance of volunteering and how it makes a difference in the lives of our fellow neighbors,” notes JRA’s Executive Director Amy Krulik. “We are so thankful for the dedication of all our volunteers who help our recipient families and work tirelessly to end the problems of hunger and food insecurity facing far too many people in our community.”

Families, individuals, organizations, and companies interested in volunteering on Sunday, September 11th, or at any of our monthly distributions, should email [email protected] or call 610-660-0190.

Detailed directions to the warehouse can be found on the JRA website. For more information about JRA and a complete list of upcoming distribution dates, please visit www.jewishrelief.org, email [email protected], or call 610-660-0190.

JRA is a dynamic, volunteer-driven organization whose goal is to help families and individuals struggling with food insecurity. Since it’s founding in 2000, JRA has been bringing volunteers together in the spirit of community and repairing the world. Through the efforts of JRA’s community of more than 12,000 volunteers, we are able to provide food relief packages to nearly 3,000 low-income families throughout the Greater Philadelphia area each month.  JRA is the largest hunger relief agency serving the Greater Philadelphia Jewish community and the third largest direct service food pantry in the region.  For more information about JRA, please contact Amy Krulik at 610-660-0190 or [email protected]

Thoughts for the Fast

It is a custom for firstborn Jews to fast on the day before Passover to commemorate the miracle by which firstborn Jews were saved from the plague which struck the firstborn Egyptians.

This year the fast falls on Monday, April 18. Let us take this fast of our choosing as an opportunity to share in the hardship of those who struggle through life, and do not have the means to feed themselves properly.

MoveOn is organizing a communal fast to protest the immoral budget cuts Republicans are pushing in Washington. 30,000 people including 28 Congressmen will be joining this fast.

Last week’s budget agreement-now public-contains cuts to critical programs but does little to make corporations and the rich pay their fair share.

More than half of the $38 billion in cuts target education, labor, and health programs.

The worst cuts and riders didn’t make it into the budget-but that was the Republican plan all along: propose the unthinkable, threaten to shut down the government, and then walk away with cuts that would have been beyond the pale just a few months ago.

Now Republicans are pushing a new round of proposals to abolish Medicare and make far deeper cuts to education, nutrition, health care, and other essential programs-while giving even bigger tax breaks to millionaires and corporations. And this time, after winning so much in the last round, the Republicans actually have a shot at getting every last cut they want.

We need to restore a moral dimension to the warped debate going on in Washington.

See video above for more information.

A letter from Abby J. Leibman of Mazon follows the jump.
— Abby J. Leibman, Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger

This Passover as you gather with family and friends to retell the story of our people’s freedom from bondage, please take a moment to consider those Americans who are still enslaved – to hunger.  

Hunger in America is at an epidemic level, despite how it might seem at first glance.

50 million Americans – including 17 million children – struggle with hunger every day.

That’s more than the entire population of Canada.

Hungry people live in every community in the country and come in all ages, colors, shapes and sizes. They wrestle with impossible choices no one should have to make: buy my daughter’s asthma medication or feed my family? Whose turn is it to eat: the children or the adults?  

It breaks our hearts – it should break yours.

There is another way – an end to hunger is within our reach.  Early in the seder we say, “All who are hungry, let them enter and eat.” More than an invitation to join us at the dinner table, we at MAZON see these words as a rallying cry:

  • …to do more to help those who so desperately need it;    
  • …to fight for responsible government policies that promote the health and security of everyone in our nation;    
  • …to provide access to resources that allow people to pick themselves up and build (or rebuild) their lives;    
  • …to give every man, woman and child a chance not only to live their lives, but to thrive.

Please join our fight.    

Chag Sameach,


Abby J. Leibman
President & CEO, MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger
 

Reactions to Hunger-Free Kids Act

The Hunger-Free Kids Act has garnered support from the key “red furry monster demographic” but the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism had a mixed reaction.

— Mark J. Pelavin,  Associate Director, Religious Action Center

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (S. 3307) addresses a key need for struggling low-income families. In reauthorizing Child Nutrition Programs with $4.5 billion in new funding over ten years, this critical, albeit flawed, legislation ensures that thousands of low-income children will not go hungry during the worst economic conditions in a generation. Moreover, Congress greatly enhanced the nutritional content of these supplemental food programs, which is an important step in the ongoing effort to confront the growing problem of child obesity. We urge the President to quickly sign this essential piece of legislation into law.

Unfortunately, despite its admirable accomplishments, the legislation contains insufficient funds to ensure access to these essential programs. Additionally, Congress chose to fund the bill through a cut to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamp) benefits-the second such cut this year. By imposing what amounts to a $60 per month cut in SNAP benefits for a family of four, Congress hurts the very families that this legislation is designed to help. Cutting SNAP benefits during the third consecutive year of rising poverty rates negates the positive impact of a strong Child Nutrition Reauthorization.

We call on Congress to act immediately to restore SNAP benefits to the level of funding that recipients were told they could rely upon until 2018. We also call on the U.S. Department of Agriculture to take any and all administrative steps to increase access to child nutrition programs. Food security is the foundation upon which our nation’s future prosperity is built; in a nation of plenty, no American should ever go hungry.

Thanksgiving Hunger Quiz

In honor of Thanksgiving, here is a Hunger Quiz from the Jewish Federation:

  1. People are hungry because there is not enough food for everybody on our planet.
    • True
    • False

  2. You can tell if someone is hungry by how they look.  
    • True
    • False

  3.  How many children does the United Nations estimate die every day from causes related to hunger and poverty?
    • 40
    • 400
    • 4,000
    • 34,000

  4. How many people a month in the Greater Philadelphia area does the Mitzvah Food Project of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia serve?
    • 250
    • 1,000
    • 2,000

Answers are the jump, along with hunger relief resources.

Answers to Hunger Quiz

  1. False.  Each year a total of 470 pounds per household is thrown away.
  2. False
  3. 34,000
  4. 2,000

Now that you have learned more about the problem of Hunger, please support one of the local organizations dealing with this important issue.

This Rosh Hashanah Remember Mazon


— Kenneth Myers, Vice-President of JSPAN

The season of reflection is here, and it has to weigh heavily on those of us who ponder larger questions.

Our economy stumbles along, with unemployment far too high and too wide among a broad cross-section of the old, the young, blue collar folk and new college grads. The large financial prizes handed out to those in power in a few industries seem totally out of place in a society with pockets of 20% unemployment.

Peace in the Middle East seems no closer, and each year that it fails to materialize gives credence to a number of very wrong answers to the open question. As we depart Iraq and struggle in Afghanistan, American hegemony in world affairs seems only a dream of the distant past.

In this country we Jews have long enjoyed a golden age like few others in our history. We are empowered as never before to reach for the goals of Torah, Tikkun Olam, striving for the perfection of the world.

America is also striving, and our brilliance is that we do prevail in time. We are the most powerful, most respected and admired nation on earth. We will restore full employment, expand the reach of health insurance, continue to do good works around the globe, and stand by Israel while we work for peace in the Middle East. We will respond unselfishly to all the challenges, as the richest nation on earth should.

We wish you the best of New Years.

This Rosh Hashanah Remember Mazon

Many Jews eat apples and honey together during Rosh Hashanah to symbolize a wish for a sweet new year. Tashlich is another Rosh Hashanah custom, in which we symbolically cast away our sins by tossing breadcrumbs into a body of water, such as a river, ocean or stream. After the ritual observance, add a gift of food to the hungry or a gift of money to Mazon, a Jewish response to hunger.

To donate, click here.