Reflections on ‘The Food Stamp Challenge’

During the past week, I, along with the clergy of the Jacksonville Jewish Center committed to participating in the Food Stamp Challenge, a program started by the Jewish Council on Public Affairs, which encourages clergy and community leaders to spend a week “living on food stamps” to raise awareness for hunger. I was committed to spending roughly $1.25 – $1.50 per meal. I spent roughly $21 on five days worth of food. I bought the cheapest option for each type of food, but that was sometimes more difficult when keeping kosher. My list of food for five days consisted of: oatmeal, instant soup, condensed soup, pasta, tomato sauce, a small block of cheese, frozen bagels, apple juice, white rice, and vegetarian baked beans.

I gave up some of the staples (and addictions) that are a part of my regular diet: coffee, Diet Dr. Pepper, and snacking. I was properly better off without the snacks throughout the day or the cans of soda with each meal, but including these items was not even an option for me. They did not fit into my budget. My stomach rumbled and I sometimes went to bed hungry, but I ate three meals a day. Thursday was Asarah B’Tevet, a minor fast on the Hebrew calendar, but when I fasted and skipped breakfast and lunch, that was a conscious choice; it was my decision to fast. I was not forced to skip one meal so that I could eat a more filling meal in the evening.

I realized that hunger was more than just having little food to eat. Hunger meant rationing foods so that I could have three meals a day. Hunger meant monotony – basically eating the same thing for breakfast, lunch, and dinner each day because that was all I had in the refrigerator. My greatest challenge was not eating enough food, but it was eating enough healthy foods. Fruits and vegetables, as well as meats and cheeses were not a regular part of my diet. They were too expensive. I found myself choosing cheap foods over healthy foods. When the price of a single grapefruit is the same as a big bag of cheese puffs or greasy potato chips, it is difficult to choose the healthier foods.

Participating in this challenge also made me feel guilty of how much food I waste. We often make too much food when having guests for a meal – food that ends up going to waste. I often “over order” when out to eat at a restaurant and leave plenty of food on my plate. How can I waste so much food when others struggle to have food on their plates?!?

The goal of the Food Stamp Challenge was to raise hunger awareness that would lead to action. We accomplished that by raising thousands of dollars for Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger, as well as through continued participation in our many Social Action Community projects. Our responsibility to do Gemilut Hasadim, Acts of Loving Kindness, is not limited to our inner circle or insular communities. Our responsibility is to each other.

I was surprised by how many friends, co-workers, and community members constantly checked in to see how I was feeling and see how I was doing. They offered to buy me coffee or buy me lunch. While I appreciated these kind gestures, I reminded them that I was doing this to raise awareness. My goal was not for others to buy me food. My goal was for us to buy food and give tzedakah to those who actually are hungry and in need of governmental food assistance.

My hope and prayer is that participating in such a program helped to raise awareness and will lead to action so that one day we will live in a world where we all have food in our bellies and a child does not have to go to sleep hungry. For every meal that we have, for every dollar that we spend on food, for all the food that I admittedly waste, I have an obligation to help feed those that are hungry. We all have an obligation. We all have a responsibility. Now what are you going to do with that responsibility?

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One response to “Reflections on ‘The Food Stamp Challenge’

  1. Rabbi Mark Wieder

    I was one of the ones who wanted your company for coffee and a bagel and to shmooze with a group that meets weekly. The awareness that the several dollars per person was out of reach for someone living on $1.25 per meal persisted through the week and beyond, along with an understanding of how social ties can wither. There’s a big difference between making choices to “tighten one’s belt” and having no good options. I pray for those who feel trapped.

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