Food for Thought

Jewish Light Editorial

Jews starve. That’s about as plainly as we can say it.

As we reported in our recent “Can We Talk?” series, “No Place At The Table,” which focused on hunger, as well as the companion discussion event at the Jewish Community Center, Jews suffer from the expanding food issues affecting our greater community.

From unemployment to aging to downsized government support to the senseless waste of foodstuffs, myriad factors have pushed hunger to front and center status among the many elements of societal inequality and injustice we face.

There’s no immunity for Jews; far from it. As the data from the Harvey Kornblum Jewish Food Pantry and the newer nonprofit Tomchei Shabbos show, numbers of Jews in need of consistent and predictable food support continue to grow. And when you add the gloss of shame that many in our community face in asking for help, the problem becomes even more complex and challenging to solve.

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None of this is a knock on the community organizations and resources striving to meet the need. Quite the contrary; without food pantries and groups that help hungry Jewish individuals and families in a respectful and dignified way, the situation would be worse. The number of hunger-challenged individuals and families has been growing at a rate that outpaces the ability of local agencies and programs to meet their needs on a consistent basis.

First and foremost among the issues is an insufficient supply of food and resources that simply won’t stretch to the full extent of need. The U.S. Congress has callously reduced available funds for food under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (SNAP) Program. The amount of U.S. Department of Agriculture resources available for filling food shelves at pantries has also shrunk.

Then there are bizarre circumstances that contribute to the problem of food shortage. For instance, any number of national retailers that sell food throw away tons on a daily basis. There are many reasons for this, but cumbersome expiration labeling and rules exacerbate the problem. The Natural Resources Defense Council’s 2012 Wasted report showed how Americans trash up to 40 percent of the food supply every year, with a value of up to $165 billion (www.nrdc.org/food/wasted-food.asp).

The tragedy of perfectly fine food going to waste led several local Jewish teens to begin St. Louis Food Rescue (http://stlfoodrescue.org), a recipient of the Light’s Unsung Heroes award (as was Tomchei Shabbos co-founder, the late Merle Hartstein). The nonprofit collects food from stores and distributes it to nonprofit agencies serving in-need constituencies.

The real-life limitations on food resources play out in tragic ways. For instance, an audience member at last week’s session described from heartbreaking personal experience how a person can visit food pantries like Kornblum only once a month, and their date and time are pre- determined.  Yet upon visiting, the allocation may only be for 7 to 10 days, leaving the recipient to fend on his or her own for the remainder of the month. That’s all assuming the wherewithal to both afford and obtain transportation to get to the pantry at the designated time.

Sadly, the insufficient resources are met head on by a demand that appears to be growing. The Kornblum pantry’s figures suggest that it may serve as much as 10 percent of the local Jewish community, and its service to the greater community continues to increase due to greater need. Tomchei Shabbos, which when it began seven years ago serviced six observant families, now serves almost seven times that many, with additional need projected for the future.

Then there are those who live just above the cusp of eligibility for government assistance. Yes, people at or below the federal poverty level receive SNAP benefits and those 62 and older may get government surplus food boxes as well as subsidized housing like that at Covenant Place. But there are a growing number who have lost jobs or gone through other life-altering experiences (divorce, illness and more) who are struggling mightily but do not meet governmental requirements for subsidies or assistance.

What can you do? Plenty. Of course you can donate food and funds to food pantries, and participate in food drives at your synagogues and other agencies. You can review the resources available in our community at stljewishlight.com/hunger so you can direct those in need to the right places, or help them access those services.

But you can also contact your legislators, both state and federal, either directly or through groups like the Jewish Community Relations Council. Make sure they know that allowing anyone, Jews or otherwise, to go without food in a country replete with resources is a societal shonda.