SNAP Challenge Thoughts and ‘Grumblings’

Post from Rabbi Pitkowsky, 12/8/11 (afternoon)

In this post, I want to share with you some ideas about what each one of us can do to alleviate the indig

nity and suffering of hunger in our world. Hopefully, the idea that we should help in the first place is self evident. Our tradition teaches that the world stands on three pillars, Torah (study of sacred texts), Avodah (prayer), and g’milut hasadim (acts of loving kindness). What could be a more important act of loving kindness than helping provide someone with enough food to eat? Donating our time and financial resources to cultural institutions is very important, because without culture (art, music, etc.), our lives would be greatly diminished. Certainly, donating to organizations devoted to Israel and Judaism is vitally important. For me, however, there is something viscerally satisfying about helping to provide for someone’s basic needs: food, water, shelter. How can someone ever rise out of their current situation without having their basic needs met?

It is easy to be overwhelmed with the enormity of the problem of hunger and to think that each one of us could not possibly make a difference in this world. That thought, however, would be completely not true. Each one of us can make a difference, and the more of us that choose to act, the more of a difference we can make. Here are some ideas as to how YOU can make a difference:

1. Write to your U.S. congressman and senators

The biggest threat facing the anti-hunger community today is that the federal government will drastically reduce the amount of money that is provided to fund programs like SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Progra

m). In an age where money is hard to come by and constituencies fight it out over every dollar of the federal budget, I can guarantee you that the poor/homeless/hunger lobby is not among the strongest lobbies in the country. How can we possibly win a fight with the big and powerful lobbying groups that have billions of dollars to spend on their efforts? The only way we can make our presence felt is by reminding our elected officials that while we may not have a lot of money at our disposal, we do have one powerful weapon. We can vote them out of office if they disappoint us. From conversations I have had with members of Congress, I can guarantee you that letters/e-mails matter. We all should hope that our elected officials want to protect SNAP because it is the right thing to do (protect the neediest and most helpless in our society), but if they end up protecting SNAP funding because they want to keep their job, I promise not to complain. Here are the web site addresses for the three elected officials for the area around CBS.

  1. Senator Frank Lautenberg: lautenberg.senate.gov
  2. Senator Robert Menendez: menendez.senate.gov
  3. Congressman Steven Rothman: rothman.house.gov

2. Donate your time

One of the most important lessons each one of us needs to learn (and to impart to our children) is that we can make a difference. No matter our age, financial situation, or physical condition, we can all donate some canned goods and bring it over to a food shelter, some of us have the time and ability to deliver ‘Meals on Wheels’ to homebound people, and a lot of us can help out in various other ways. The most important aspect of donating your time, however, is also the most challenging. Make it a regular part of your routine. Maybe once a month you do something for someone in need. Maybe it is once a week. When you make it part of your routine, you will not only help others in need, but you will feel better about yourself as well.

Be on the lookout for more information about ways to help others through CBS. We have a wonderful group organizing programs for children, and our Social Action Committee is hard at work on additional programs. I am in the process of figuring out with the Center for Food Action in New Jersey (main office in Englewood), exactly what the relationship between CBS and CFANJ can be. When we iron out the details, I will let you know. In the meantime, feel free to check out the following websites, which describe two great anti-hunger organizations, one local (CFANJ) and one national (Mazon).

  1. Center for Food Action in New Jersey: www.cfanj.org
  2. Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger: www.mazon.org

3. Donate your money

As important as it is for all of us to be involved with our own hands and feet, we also must realize that large o

rganizations like CFANJ or Mazon can get much more food with a single dollar than any one of us can. They are able to buy in bulk at great discounts. Consider donating money to one of these organizations (or one of a large number of other great organizations) as a way to help those in need. Maybe you can donate as part of your regular tzedakah donation or as part of your celebrating a simcha (happy occasion). Mazon has a 3% program, where people donate 3% of the cost of their simcha to Mazon, a small and yet substantial way to mark a simcha and to help those in need.

I have tried in this post to share with you some thoughts about how each one of us can make a difference. Now go and make a difference!

 

Post from Rabbi Pitkowsky, 12/8/11 (morning)

I wrote yesterday about the SNAP challenge in general, and specifically about the food that I was able to buy on the limited budget available to me. Today, I want to share with you some thoughts about the extent of the presence of poverty in our country. I promise not to bore you with statistics, but I do want to share a few with you. I hope that these few will awaken you to the incredible situation we find ourselves in today. One out of every seven Americans receives SNAP benefits (approximately 45 million people), and out of that total figure of 45 million, 16 million are children. 16 million children is almost 25% of the total number of children in the United States. Can you imagine that? In a country of incredible food surplus and waste, one out of every 4 children is part of a family that cannot afford to buy their own food.

What about in our own area of Bergen County? Certainly in this wealthy part of New Jersey (I know that we may not feel wealthy when we pay the bills necessary to live in this affluent area, but compared to most people in our country and certainly throughout the world, we are incredibly wealthy), how could there be any problems of poverty and hunger? According to the Center for Food Action in New Jersey (CFANJ), an anti-poverty and hunger organization based in Englewood, they distributed more than 50,000 parcels of emergency food aid in 2010. Each parcel contains a week’s worth of groceries. And lest you think that the help is needed far away from our area of Bergen County, the three towns in Bergen County with the highest number of people who have received help from CFANJ (help can be in the form of food, rent, other anti-poverty assistance), were Hackensack (6,140 people), Englewood (6,060), and Teaneck (2,698). Imagine that, in our area, with so much affluence, there are also people who honestly cannot pay their own bills.

Sitting here in my office thinking about these statistics, I cannot get over the fact that as hungry as I feel right now (and I do feel hungry, because the amount of food I could buy with the allowance given by SNAP just was not enough), I know perfectly well that this will all be over tomorrow night. It is not hard to imagine, however, the despair that will set in for people, child or adult, who has to live with hunger every day of the year. Hunger affects the way we function in life, so kids living in poverty not only lose out on the opportunities that students in better-off districts and school might have, but they also lose out a second way because their brains are not functioning at full capacity. And what about for the adults, trying as hard as they can to make a living, but finding it harder and harder to do so? What does it do to a person’s self esteem and self respect when they are unable to provide for their families?

I remember as a child growing up in Fair Lawn, how my brothers and I could never understand why my father, who was a public school teacher in New York City, almost never had off from school when we did due to snow storms. There could be three feet of snow on the ground, every school in northern New Jersey could be closed, and for some reason, the New York City public schools would still be open. How could that be? How could anyone expect teachers from the suburbs to somehow brave the snow to get in to school?

It was only later that I understood at least one of the reasons why the New York City public schools so rarely closed. When the schools closed, the tens of thousands of kids who received free breakfast and lunch from the school system would have no food to eat. Can you imagine that? Every other kid in the school district was praying (as I did) for a snow day and woke up at 5 a.m. to find out whether or not we got “the call” or not telling us that there was no school, and this group of students, this large group of students, instead were wishing for the opposite. They wanted school to be open, not because they did not want to sled down hills and have snowball fights, but because no school meant no food for them. What a crazy world we live in….

My next post will be about what each one of us can do to make our voices heard, and to open our hearts to our neighbors in distress. Stay tuned…

 

Post from Rabbi Pitkowsky, 12/7/11

Do you remember the scene from Charles Dickens’ play Oliver Twist, when Oliver, the poor English orphan, asks for a second serving with the simple and yet heartbreaking words, “Please sir, may I have some more?” I always imagined that scene with Oliver’s bowl being filled with a suspiciously colored gruel, something that no one would eat unless they were really hungry. In other words, something that no one would eat unless they had no other choice.

I felt exactly that way this morning when I reluctantly put my spoon into a bowlful of plain steel-cut oatmeal. Don’t get me wrong, I love oatmeal. In a normal week, I eat it five or six mornings for breakfast. Usually, though, I add raisins and grape nuts to my oatmeal. These additional items add to the inherent flavor of the oatmeal and make it delicious. Not this morning, though.

This morning, and this entire week, my wife, Ingrid, and I are participating in the SNAP challenge, an attempt to bring attention to the abysmal level of food support available in our country for those who need assistance. SNAP is an acronym for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly called Food Stamps), a federal aid program that provides food support for those people who cannot afford to buy their own groceries. I am grateful that we live in a country that provides support for people in need, but I have two concerns: one concern is that the support we give people is not enough to sustain a family over the long term with healthy food, and second, I am concerned that our federal government, in trying to cut federal dollars overall, will cut programs and funding for the most vulnerable members of our society, including those who rely on SNAP funding.

The SNAP challenge is to spend the same amount of money on food for an entire week that a person who receives SNAP benefits would be able to do. Given a few meetings beyond my control and Shabbat, I am doing it from Monday morning, December 5, to Friday afternoon, December 9. The average allocation to an adult is $1.50 per meal, which works out to $21 for the time allocated. $21 for over four-and-a-half days of food for one adult. That is astounding. Given that many of the worst diseases that plague our country nowadays (Type II diabetes, heart disease, stroke, hypertension, high blood pressure, obesity) are strongly related to lifestyle choices (diet and exercise), you would think that our government would have a vested interest in providing people on government assistance with healthy food (fresh fruits and vegetables), if not for altruistic reasons, then simply to save money later on with health care bills. But guess how hard it is to buy fresh fruits and vegetables for $21? It is next to impossible.

In this post, I want to share with you exactly what Ingrid and I were able to buy for $21 a person. In future posts, I will share with you some thoughts about food politics in the United States, and other musings about food, poverty, and what each one of us can do to alleviate the hunger, suffering, and indignity of our fellow human beings. Here is our menu this week:

  • Breakfast: steel cut oatmeal, rice milk, one glass of orange juice
  • Lunch: whole wheat bread, soy nut butter (much more expensive than peanut butter but a necessity in order for Ingrid to be able to bring lunch into her school with a nut-free policy).
  • Dinner:
    • Two nights: Brown rice, black beans, onion, tomato, avocado
    • One night: one box of pasta, one jar of tomato sauce
    • One night: two baked potatoes
  • Snacks: 4 apples (this was the only fruit for the entire week, and it needs to be split between two adults).

As I write this post Wednesday night, I can tell you how the past two days have been on this special diet. I have left every meal hungry and dissatisfied. Although I usually eat the same food every morning without complaint, the fact that I have to eat the same food every morning this week made the entire experience much less enjoyable for me. It certainly made me wonder what it would be like to eat the same food every day, not for a week as part of a “sympathy stunt,” but because more expensive or varied food is beyond your financial means.

There is so much we take for granted. We live in a time and place of such opulence and overabundance that when we are confronted with the startling reality, that there are thousands of hungry people in our very own community, millions across our country and billions across the globe, we find it hard to understand how we could all be living on the same planet. How can it be that children living just a few minutes away from our synagogue go to bed hungry every night while an abundance of food sits in the supermarkets and on the shelves, out of their reach because of economics? I understand that in a capitalist system there will be some who will have more and some who will have less, but people without enough food to eat? That reality should be an impossibility in anyone’s economic or societal model, but unfortunately, it is the reality we live with.

Rabbi Pitkowsky