We have heard the statistics. Poverty rates are climbing and millions of people are out of work, out of food, or without homes. To be more specific, 45.2 million Americans in July alone filed for SNAP benefits; more than half were children. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has reported that more than 48 million Americans struggle to find adequate food and experience the bitter reality of hunger. Looking at the devastating numbers alone can be dehumanizing.

We are taking the Food Stamp Challenge to experience and remind ourselves of what hunger feels like in our nation of plenty.

Studies and reports describe the pervasiveness of hunger in America, but they do not convey the humanity of those caught in its wake. Hungry children suffer from impaired development and poor performance in school. Tens of thousands of adults, possibly millions, endure illnesses caused by the vestiges of hunger and malnutrition. Some who struggle with hunger resemble the iconic young man crouched in the corner of a subway portal with a simple sign: “No food, no job, no home.” Others suffer from hunger out of sight of the outside world. They are our neighbors and members of our own Jewish communities who have fallen on hard times. They are caught and protected by the most vital of our national safety net – one that provides food. The average SNAP benefit for these families, children and seniors is just $31.50 per week per person – roughly $1.50 per meal.

Hunger is an urgent challenge for millions of Americans, and before Congress considers cutting SNAP benefits, we are asking citizens across this nation to go further than knowing the statistics. We are asking them to understand the realities of hunger. We urge you to join us on our journey. Visit http://www.foodstampchallenge.com to learn more about the Food Stamp Challenge and register to join us.

The Food Stamp Challenge has attracted support from religious, political and community leaders from across the country. This is not just a Jewish effort, however. We are being joined by a number of leaders from the wider faith community. They bear witness to the growing number of Americans facing hunger in our towns and on our streets. Members of Congress and other statewide and local civic leaders also will be taking the Food Stamp Challenge. This is a nationwide effort to raise awareness and break through the sterile statistics.

As Jews, we recently finished the High Holy Days, with the powerfully poetic closing of the gates of Heaven and our fates sealed by God. Yom Kippur is a beginning, not an end. Our work to better our world and ourselves is begun anew each year, and we fast in order to prepare ourselves mentally and spiritually. Isaiah warns us on Yom Kippur, however, that the fast is not “a day for men to starve their bodies” or “to lie in sackcloth and ashes.” It is about “sharing our bread with the hungry and satisfying the famished creature.”

The Food Stamp Challenge, like the fast on Yom Kippur, is meant to teach us to feed hungry people and to imbue ourselves with a more complete understanding of the quality of life of those in need.

Hunger in America is not just about numbers. It is living without security or energy. It is living on the edge. These truths about hunger are not gleaned from statistics. And they are truths we need to share with each other, and importantly, our leaders. We are living in a political world. We will need to put all the pressure we can on members of Congress and the administration to do the right thing.

JTA Wire Service