Tradition, bias rules help veil number of Jews who go hungry

By Repps Hudson, Special to the Jewish Light

Nobody knows how many Jews go hungry today.

Out of an estimated 50 million people in the United States, 18 percent – or one in every six men, women and children – do not have enough to eat every day. But no one can say with certainty how many Jews routinely face hunger.

For cultural and personal reasons, Jewish families that cannot provide enough food to feed everyone at their table often are not as visible as people from other communities.

“There is no official data that show food insecurity. It would be discrimination to require people applying for assistance to tell their religion,” said Michelle Stuffmann, director of outreach and communications for Mazon, a nonprofit in Los Angeles that works largely, but not exclusively, with Jewish groups to devise ways to combat hunger in America.

Then there are deep-rooted cultural reasons within the Jewish community.

“Historically, it’s important that Jews not show weakness,” Stuffmann said in a phone interview last week. “They fear that other people who aren’t Jewish might take advantage of this somehow.”

She called this “old thinking” – that if members of the Jewish community were to acknowledge that Jews are struggling to find enough to eat, “that would bring shame on the larger Jewish community for not helping.”

Yet the tradition of Jews helping Jews, as well as helping the larger non-Jewish community, remains strong, Stuffmann said. 

For Jewish families, having to turn to a food pantry raises issues of shame and pride  – or rather a loss of pride a father or mother may feel because he or she has no job or cannot put food on the table. That may cause a sense of shame and of failure in those who are having severe problems providing food for their children, spouses and others in the home.

“A sense of shame gets in the way of reaching out for help,” she said. “We are a community that is supposed to take care of our own.”

The Harvey Kornblum Jewish Food Pantry, 10601 Baur Boulevard, is believed to be the largest food pantry in the St. Louis area. Yet it continues to have trouble meeting all the demand. By far, the majority of its clients are not Jewish; the Jewish component is quite small.

“(Our) clients are mostly from St. Louis city and county,” said Cory Eichorn, manager of the Kornblum food pantry. “They receive some kind of public assistance, or they fall under the poverty line set by the state of Missouri. For a family of four, the gross income of someone eligible for the food bank is under $2,454 a month.”

However, when food pantry officials interview new candidates for their eligibility, they take those candidates’ word for their income, said Marcia Mermelstein, Kornblum pantry coordinator. Food pantry officials do not require potential clients to provide pay stubs, or proof of other income or tax forms. And while potential clients are asked to state their religious faith, they are not required to do so.

In addition, the food pantry is not allowed to favor Jewish clients over others. The pantry receives much of its food from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Federal law prohibits pantries that receive U.S.D.A. food from favoring clients of one group or faith over another.

One indication of the need for meals in the St. Louis Jewish community can be found in the number of kosher families served by the food pantry. In December, the food pantry provided kosher food for 81 families, Mermelstein said. In January, that number was 80.

In December, the pantry served 7,333 family members of all faiths and tastes. Assuming four members for each family that requested kosher food – hypothetically, 324 people in December –  the kosher part would be slightly more than 4.4 percent of the total number of clients for that month.

Likewise, in January, the food pantry fed 7,237 family members, of which the kosher part was also 4.4 percent.

However, counting families that take kosher food does not necessarily reveal how many Jewish families are in need.

Mermelstein said some Jewish families who do not keep kosher may choose kosher meals because they think the quality will be higher. And, she said, non-Jewish families also make take them for the same reason.

Furthermore, some Muslim families take kosher meals because they know kosher meat will conform to their rules of halal – and they won’t accidentally get pork, which Muslims are forbidden to eat.

For perspective, consider these figures from Feeding America, a nonprofit that compiles statistics by county about Americans who do not have enough to eat regularly. The latest figures on the website ( show that 86,940 people in St. Louis and 157,500 in St. Louis County faced food insecurity in 2011, which was before the current sharp increase in demand for the pantry’s free food for those who qualify.

The Jewish food pantry gets most of its clients from those two counties.