Written by Rabbi Robin Sparr and Jo Rothman. Delivered by Rabbi Robin Sparr.
Shana tova and g’mar tov.
Many of us are at the beginning of a long and hungry day, and while we strive to keep our thoughts focused on teshuva, return, and renewal, a little part of us may at times drift towards the clock, counting the hours until we can eat.
For some of us, a day without food is a once-a-year affair, and we associate it with this Day of Atonement and fasting. But for many people both within and outside of our community, hunger is a familiar thing, a part of daily life.
Who are the hungry people in our neighborhoods? When we talk about chronic hunger, many of us think of homeless people and folks receiving public assistance. But hunger is much more widespread than we realize, and affects every aspect of people’s lives. And because of the shaming and blaming that comes with financial insecurity, many people feel too ashamed, undeserving, or hopeless to ask for assistance at all.
Presently, about one-third of Americans live at or below the poverty line, and a significant percentage of these families struggle with food insecurity. Food insecurity, defined as the lack of dependable access to a healthy diet, impacts more than 11 percent of American households, or over 37 million people, including more than 11 million children. Nearly half of those include at least one household member whose eating patterns were disrupted, meaning at least one person in the household regularly went without adequate nutrition. To put it more plainly: in millions of homes across America, people are simply not eating much or anything, so that their children or partner or parents have at least a little something to stave off their hunger.
Additionally, school policies around the country often shame and punish the children of low-income families in the lunchroom. In some districts, if a child doesn’t have the money to pay for a school lunch, the food will be thrown away in front of the child rather than allowing them to eat it. In Pennsylvania, a businessman offered to pay off the school lunch debt of all families in the district, and was rebuffed. Only when national public pressure was brought to bear did the district accept the payment and erase those debts. Around the country, individuals outraged by the story initiated fundraisers through the online platform GoFundMe to pay off school lunch debts for their neighbors, but those efforts are merely a Band-Aid on the problem. In 2014, after a significant battle, Minnesota passed a law stating that no child would be denied a hot lunch for lack of funds, but few states have followed suit.
Military personnel also struggle unnecessarily with food insecurity. Nearly a third of military children attending Department of Defense-run schools nationally qualify for free or reduced-price lunches; by base, that statistic can be as high as 65 percent. While our defense budget is by far the largest in the world, there are food pantries on or near almost every military base in the country. One-and-a-half million veterans live in households that rely entirely on SNAP, or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, benefits (which used to be called food stamps), and in 2017, 16,000 active-duty personnel received SNAP benefits as well.
Furthermore, SNAP benefits are being cut. A new proposal from the Department of Agriculture would end SNAP benefits for more than three million people. Indeed, our government has tried repeatedly in the last few years to cut food stamp spending by up to 25 percent. Of the 39.7 million Americans on SNAP, 44 percent are children. These cuts have the potential to send barely-secure families into severe food insecurity.
Seniors, too, struggle with food insecurity. Nearly one in six seniors faces food insecurity today, and that number is rising. Other at-risk groups include college students, households with income under $30,000 a year, people of color, disabled people, and single-parent households. Compounding the difficulty for seniors and some other demographic groups is the difficulty of accessing information and assistance. Resourceful and educated or well-connected people may be able to get themselves on lists for meal delivery and other community services, be able to transport themselves to offices where they can complete necessary documentation for public assistance, and be able to track and follow up the maze of paperwork required of them. Many others, overwhelmed by the challenges put before them, are unable to access existing supports, and continue to slide downward.
In Linda Tirado’s compelling book, Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America, she shares her journey living at and below the poverty line, and it is arresting to learn how easily and quickly she goes from a typical, middle class life to an unimaginable, for most of us, hand-to-mouth existence. Like many of the one-third of Americans living in poverty, Ms. Tirado tumbled into downward mobility, a spiral that left her with impossible choices regarding where to live, as certain subsidized housing is time limited – where to work, the options being a job that paid ok but included daily sexual harassment, or a lower wage, physically brutal job – and what to eat: frozen burritos are 12 for $2 and you can’t make fresh burritos that cheaply.
Nina McCollum, presently out of work for two years after 15 years as a communications professional, wrote recently on Huffington Post about the toll living with food insecurity takes. She says:
It’s important for people to understand how difficult is to be poor. There’s a world of difference between donating food to pantries and being the one on the receiving end, hoping someone has dropped off something special instead of cheap canned tuna they got at a dollar store. A jar of almond butter on the shelf at my pantry was so special a find it once made me cry.
The hoops you have to jump through to obtain and qualify for aid—not just once, but daily, weekly and monthly―are incredibly difficult. You spend hours on the phone or in line for mostly unhealthy food, and you regularly have to provide adequate proof to continue to qualify. The mental and physical struggle is horrible, and it shouldn’t be this way. Unemployment, underemployment and poverty are not problems that can be solved overnight, but removing the stigma associated with struggling and needing help can happen immediately.
Many who are struggling today used to be food secure, like Ms. Tirado and Ms. McCollum once were. Many people who grew up in the middle class have suffered from downward mobility as manufacturing jobs disappear and the job market changes. Employers are much more likely to require a bachelor’s degree or higher, or to hire temps instead of full-time, long-term employees. The gig economy and contractor work are on the rise. With these shifts in employment, many struggle even if they theoretically work a forty-hour week. Others struggle with student loans, medical debt, and any number of other financially impactful factors. As the bills pile up and money becomes scarce, food and other basic needs become choices to be made rather than givens.
But there are bright spots. In Boston last week, Mayor Walsh released Boston’s Food Access Agenda, a program that aims to banish food insecurity by 2030, by creating a coalition of stakeholders including Boston Public Schools, various food banks and farmers’ markets, and other key food programs supporting low income Bostonians, which will ensure healthy, fresh food is available and distributed to those in need throughout the city.
And there is Mazon, an organization devoted to ending hunger in the United States and Israel. Mazon is active in all areas of food justice, including policymaking, education, and community outreach. They were a key ally in the school lunch legislation in Minnesota, and are currently fighting to improve access to food among military families and seniors. They also provide training and resources to other food justice groups, facilitate partnerships with synagogues, create educational materials for classrooms and communities, and develop and implement initiatives to improve food security in communities across the United States and Israel. They do incredible work and are a great resource for those looking to learn more and get involved.
The Torah commands farmers to leave the corners of their fields unharvested and to leave any dropped harvest for the poor to collect; these leavings were referred to as gleanings. Gleaning is among a number of things required of us as Jews, and is considered tzedakah. Even today, many people practice gleaning both in the traditional sense and in more modern contexts, such as collecting leftover food from supermarkets to be distributed. Today, I’d like to invite you to look for opportunities to participate in gleaning, and to work towards food justice in a couple of other ways as well.
On Rosh Hashanah, we distributed empty grocery bags for you to fill with nonperishable food and return this week (we will accept them until next week). Please be as thoughtful and generous as you are able in selecting foodstuffs for our neighbors.
You’ve already heard a plea for funding today, to sustain our unique and precious holy community. Today, I ask you to open your hand and your wallet, again and again, and urge you to donate if you are able to Mazon to further their work, both here and abroad, to end hunger. You will find an envelope in your machzor.
At the end of the day today, most or all of us will break our fast, at the TEMV potluck or with our loved ones. But as we do, we must be mindful of those whose fasts are involuntary and have no set end, and we must work towards a world without food insecurity.
G’mar chatimah tovah—may your fast today be an easy one, and may you be sealed in the book of life for blessing and abundance.
© 2019 Rabbi Robin Sparr and Jo Rothman. May not be reproduced or distributed without written permission.