JCRC launches anti-poverty effort


At many morning meetings, participants are offered a bountiful breakfast spread of fruit, bagels, muffins and hot and cold beverages to awaken the palate and the mind.

At a Jewish Community Relations Council meeting last week, breakfast was a simple breakfast bar, coffee and water in a conscious effort to keep the cost of the meal to $1 or less per person.


The sparse meal was aimed at driving home the reality of living on a “food stamp diet,” which offers a national average allocation of around $21 each week per person, or $1 per meal.

The JCRC, in concert with a national push through the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, used the breakfast, called “Understanding the Face of Hunger,” to mark the start of a campaign to combat domestic poverty and to invite members of the community to take part in the “Food Stamp Challenge,” where for one week (Sept. 14 – 21) participants will live off of that $1 per meal.

The JCRC invited U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Cape Girardeau, who took the “Food Stamp Challenge” last Spring, to attend the meeting, and speak on her experience living off of $21 for a week of meals, and about the 2007 Farm Bill reauthorization act, which covers the government’s food assistance programs.

Rep. Emerson said she and Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., a fellow co-chair of both the Congressional Hunger Caucus and the House of Representatives’ Congressional Hunger Caucus, took the Food Stamp Challenge in May.

“We decided that with all of the work we were doing on hunger, it was a little bit embarrassing, to be quite honest, that we didn’t really know what it felt like to be hungry,” Emerson said.

Although they recognized that living off of $21 per week for meals was no comparison to actually living in poverty and having no other option than to subsist off of food assistance programs, she said that the week still was an important lesson.

“It is really important for us to at least try to understand, even for a short period of time, what it’s like to know that you don’t have any other means by which you can get food,” she said.

Nationwide, according to the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service, over 26.5 million people in the United States received Food Stamps during the 2006 fiscal year. In Missouri, the FNS reports that 816,460 people received food stamps during the month of May.

“When we talk about the face of hunger, we need to find ways to vividly get across what it means to be hungry, particularly to those of us who are so fortunate in this land of plenty,” said Batya Abramson-Goldstein, executive director of the JCRC.

Abramson-Goldstein quoted Ben Sirra from the Talmud, who said, “A small bit of bread may be life to the poor; one who deprives them of it sheds blood.”

“We have to get across the fact that inaction is action. Inaction is shedding blood,” Abramson-Goldstein said.

She noted that the Food Stamp Challenge organized by the JCRC is taking place during a time of particular significance to Jews: in between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

“Jewish tradition is very clear about the obligation to combat poverty and we’re going to do what we can to rally our community and to work with other communities across the area on this issue,” she said.

“Nationally and locally we really feel that there is a need to re-energize the organized Jewish community around combating domestic poverty and also to strengthen what is a very natural connection between direct service and anti-poverty advocacy,” Abramson-Goldstein said.

While one part of the Food Stamp Challenge is to raise awareness of what it means to live in poverty, Abramson-Goldstein said another major component is advocacy: calling and writing elected officials to encourage them to improve food stamp benefits in the 2007 Farm Bill reauthorization, which the Senate will be working on in September.

“The farm bill reauthorization is one of the most important anti-poverty actions that Congress is going to take this year,” Abramson-Goldstein said. “So by having the Food Stamp Challenge, we’re hoping to raise awareness and we’re engaging our own community and our elected officials.”

Rep. Emerson told the crowd of about 50 people, including many representatives of local food banks and food pantries, that their efforts are vital.

“Hunger is such a prevalent issue in the United States,” Emerson said. “We are the richest nation on the face of the Earth; we have lots of ability to get people fed. Since many of you are leaders on the front lines of this issue, we need you to keep fighting and fighting and fighting on this issue and trying to enlist others in this effort, because until every person in this country can eat three nutritious meals a day, our job is not done.”

People interested in participating in or finding more information about the Food Stamp Challenge can call Marilyn Ratkin, director of domestic issues at the JCRC, at 314-442-3873 or [email protected].