There is famine in the land- Food Stamp Challenge reflections

Vayihi Raav Ba’aretz – There is famine in the land.

In our torah reading this week, there is once again famine in the land, different from the famine Abraham experienced and a far cry from the famine Joseph and his brothers will endure in just a few weeks. In Parshat Miketz, Joseph provides food not only to the Egyptian population, but also to the entire world.

There always seems to be famine in the world. Who will be that Joseph to provide for all? As individuals, we lack the capacity to play that role of Joseph coming to the rescue, feeding the world. We can in fact collectively combat hunger.

For some perspective, last week I, along with members of the Jacksonville Jaguars, attended 2/3 of their game against the Indianapolis Colts. I spent $20 on dinner, which would translate into roughly 2/3 of my $31.50 allocated to me this week during our 2nd Food Stamp Challenge.

The Food Stamp Challenge is now in its third year but 2012 is of particular importance. The Farm Bill, the massive bill under which SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, is authorized, is up for renewal this year. Given the massive budget cuts that may be looming due to the fiscal cliff (or to prevent it), there is fear that SNAP may be drastically reduced, with tragic results to the millions of families who depend on food stamps to survive. Already, SNAP benefits do not last most participants the whole month. 90% of SNAP benefits are redeemed by the third week of the month, and 58% of food bank clients currently receiving SNAP benefits turn to food banks for assistance at least 6 months out of the year. The hope is that the Challenge will raise awareness of these issues among its participants and others who they
interact with.

Over 150 Jewish clergy around the country took the challenge this past week. Colleagues found creative ways to involve congregants- holding Food stamp dinners feeding 20 people on a $30 budget, very different than trying to spread out the same amount for one individual over the course of the week. This being our second challenge in less than a year, I believe I ate healthier and heartier than in our first challenge. I used new tricks for soups, eggs, and tofu. I was under budget. I was able to mix and match foods so no food went to waste and I didn’t feel like I ate the same meal twice. It didn’t help that I lacked some much needed nutrition while battling a case of laryngitis Next time, I may try for two weeks, given the fact that it is easier to budget when you can buy in bulk. I may try out the Jacksonville Farmers market, one of only markets in the state that accept the SNAP program, with its affordable fruits and vegetables. And, of course, as the challenge comes to a close, so too does my need to spend $31.50 a week on food. It was a choice to be on a challenge, and I’ll choose to take myself off next week. It’s a sobering thought that the challenge, while making participants more self-aware and empathetic to the causes of hunger, does little to battle hunger unless it inspires myself and others to combat hunger through advocacy, volunteerism, and donations.

Vayihi Raav Ba’aretz – There is famine in the land.

This past week, I tried to view every motion, every event, and every unfolding story through the lens of hunger.

On Monday we celebrated Veterans Day. How does hunger affect our veterans and their families?
Veterans are 50% more likely to become homeless than other Americans due to poverty, lack of support networks, and dismal living conditions in overcrowded or substandard housing.
• About 1.5 million veterans are considered at-risk of homelessness. At risk is defined as being below the poverty level and paying more than 50% of household income on rent. It also includes households with a member who has a disability, a person living alone, and those who are not in the labor force.
• Research shows that the greatest risk factors for homelessness are lack of support and social isolation after discharge. Veterans have low marriage rates and high divorce rates; and, currently, 1 in 5 veterans is living alone. Social networks are particularly important for those who have a crisis or need temporary help. Without this assistance, they are at high risk for homelessness.
• Nearly half a million (467,877) veterans are severely rent burdened and paying more than 50% of their income for rent. More than half (55%) of veterans with severe housing cost burden fell below the poverty level and 43% receive food stamps.
• Nearly one in seven homeless adults are veterans, as of December 2011.
• While only 8% of Americans can claim veteran status, 17% of our homeless population is made up of veterans. In 2010, the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) estimated that on any given night there were 76,000 homeless veterans sleeping on American streets.
• More than 4 in 10 homeless veterans were found unsheltered.
• $31 million of SNAP/food stamps funding in 2008 was spent at military commissaries to help feed military members and their families who struggle against hunger.

What about those currently enlisted?

The most recent quality control survey by the Agriculture Department found about 1,000 military members receiving food stamps.
The Defense Department argues that if housing allowances are included in pay, most service members don’t qualify for food aid. However, a benefits consulting company called BeneStream.com, which studied the issue in 2009, estimated then that 130,000 service members actually would be eligible for the help.
Jacksonville is a military town. This should be our issue.

Vayihi Raav Ba’aretz – There is famine in the land.

This past week, an Action News Jacksonville story ran about the issue of Panhandling in certain Jacksonville neighborhoods. One City Councilman hoped to ban in his district, while others were worried the pan handling would push into their neighborhoods. “It’s been a very bad problem” the councilman remarked. The story made the “panhandlers” the issue, not the fact that people in our community feel the need to resort to “panhandling.” Hunger and homelessness in our area are the very bad problems.

Vayihi Raav Ba’aretz – There is famine in the land.

Deuteronomy 15:7 instructs on how we should treat those in need.

If there be among you a needy person, of your brothers, within any of your gates, in your land which the Lord gave you, you shall not harden your heart, nor shut your hand from your needy brother.

What does this passage teach us?

1) The responsibility for poverty relief is an obligation not a choice
2) Even the poorest member of society possesses inherit dignity; each member of the community is responsible for preserving the dignity of others
3) Jewish law does not propose a full redistribution of wealth, but rather, institutes controls against the gap between the rich and the poor become too wide
4) There is a need for both “immediate assistance” and “long term advocacy”
5) Later the text states “the poor will never cease” There is always never enough food. There will always be hunger. It is how we respond to such needs that defines who we are.

Rabbi Jill Jacobs, in her book “There Shall be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice through Jewish Law & Tradition”, sites one word in the biblical text as being the cornerstone of the Jewish attitude toward the needy: “achicha”, your brother. With this word, the Torah insists on the dignity of the poor, and it commands us to resist any temptation to view the poor as somehow different from ourselves.

Vayihi Raav Ba’aretz – There is famine in the land.

Hunger has no rules or provisions of when and where it strikes. As we approach 3 weeks since Superstorm Sandy, there are those without heat, those without water, those without food. Part of the money we raise this week goes to those victims.

Vayihi Raav Ba’aretz – There is famine in the land.

In reflecting on our brothers and sisters in Israel, we think of those who lack the supplies, those in harms way, those living in uncertainty. I think of my visit in December with other Jewish educators- how we might be able to help those who are in need?

To paraphrase Judah Halevi,” My heart is in the east, my stomach at the ends of the west, my twitter feed in #jjcfoodstampchallenge and my facebook wall reads “Am Yisrael Chai.”

It is difficult to take a challenge not knowing what will take place in the world that week. It may seem mundane to focus on a challenge when thousands run for cover as sirens fall on most of Israel. Unfortunately, it may never be convenient to raise the issue of hunger. We can’t wait for the sirens to stop, for hunger to take a halftime break. Hunger is constant in our lives. Hunger has a face. It is the homeless veteran. It is the Hurricane Sandy victim still without clean water or electricity. It is the It is the young child eating rations in a bunker outside Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. It is a peddler. It is a congregant. It is a friend. It is a brother.

On Yom Kippur, our holiest day of introspection, we chant the words of Isaiah, “It is to share your bread with the hungry and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe them, and do not ignore your own flesh. “ We deepen our own understanding of self by opening our hands to others. May we strive to open our mouths to advocacy, our wallets to generosity, our hands to building a world attentive to the needy. May it be a world of sustainability, a world without famine.

Posted on November 18, 2012, in Hazzan's Monday Morning Quarterback. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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