I think it’s particularly hard for Jews to see people go hungry. Food is how we celebrate, mourn, and get through pandemics. So important is feeding our guests that some of us feel personally insulted when there are too many leftovers. (I’ve already interrupted my writing several times to get a nosh from the kitchen.)
That’s why my synagogue’s social justice committee places such importance on helping a local food pantry, urging members to donate food, shlep boxes, pack cartons, and otherwise volunteer. That, and the fact that hunger is a very real result of social injustice. I volunteer at that pantry, which is based — as are many — at a church.
Most of the pantry volunteers are women of a certain age — and older — yet they are among the spryest, strongest, and most tireless people I have ever met. Some of them are church members, some are synagogue volunteers. Role models all. It puts me in mind of an exercise video I watch, where the exerciser in chief refers to the assembled group as sisters in sweat.
The thought of children with empty stomachs personally offends me. I noticed the other day that supermarkets carry an obscene amount of food. It put me in mind of a movie I saw where a woman recently arrived from the then Soviet Union practically went into shock when she saw the vast variety of food choices on supermarket shelves.
How can it be that the food exists but can’t find its way into the mouths of our fellow citizens? And that food is desperately needed. They say that volunteering is as fulfilling for the volunteer as it is for the recipient, but I’m willing to wager that the relief of having food to eat trumps my internal glow.
Last week was particularly difficult. Chatting with a representative of “my” church while we were picking up food from another church in Dumont, I overheard someone saying that the food line in front of a Baptist church in Englewood last week “went around the block.” There was also a line at the Dumont church parking lot, with dozens of cars, vans, and trucks either bringing or taking away cartons of packed and sorely needed food and milk.
“It takes an army to feed Dumont,” according to the website of the town’s social services department. It would seem, then, that we would need the full panoply of military services to feed all of Bergen County (let alone the rest of the country). I went to the Dumont church thinking that I would sail in, load a few boxes, and take off for Teaneck. But apparently, the demand for food is increasing so dramatically that everyone waits their turn on a long line to get the food so urgently needed in their town.
And yet, lest we volunteers think we are making big strides in reducing hunger, an outreach director for MAZON — A Jewish Response to Hunger told our synagogue committee that while indeed there is a place for food collection and volunteering at pantries, that really is just a drop in the bucket. It’s a band-aid. Unless we can help bring about real, systemic change in our country’s policy of food distribution, the problem of food insecurity will continue to grow.
And how do we do that? We identify those who set policy, unearth and work to remove obstacles to distribution (for example, difficulty in accessing applications for food stamps or inability to fill them out), and advocate for a solution to these problems. It is easier to shlep a box than to influence a legislator — yet that, he said, is more likely to have a larger, longer-lasting effect.
Recent discussions with friends have centered on what we are able to do as individuals, especially now, when we are isolated and, let’s face it, growing older. I refuse to accept that we are permitted to throw up our hands and hope the problems will resolve themselves. They won’t. I’m also jealous that the churches are doing most of the hands-on work of small-scale relief. I’m proud of my synagogue, and other synagogues, for our supporting roles, but I wish sometimes that we were the featured act.
At any rate, taking the words of MAZON to heart, we can do more. Letter writing campaigns (perhaps too ubiquitous during this election but nevertheless effective) can be put into the service of social justice. We can let our legislators know that we really do care if our neighbors have enough to eat, and we will keep nudging them until they come up with ways to alleviate the growing problem of food insecurity. According to the most recent data, the average per person benefit from SNAP — the program formerly known as food stamps—was about $125 a month, which works out to about $1.39 per person per meal. With all due respect, that’s bupkis.
This problem is very much in our own backyard, and if the economy continues to decline, may hit closer to home than we ever imagined. At the risk of sounding clichéd, the time for action is now.
Lois Goldrich of Fair Lawn is a former editor of the Jewish Standard and a member of Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck.