For the second year in a row, I, along with the clergy and many congregants at the Jacksonville Jewish Center, spent a week living on food stamps. Of course, I wasn’t actually living on food stamps. Rather, I was living on the monetary equivalent to food stamps, which equals roughly $1.50 per person per meal. $4.50 per day. As a member of the Rabbinical Assembly, I participated in the Food Stamp Challenge along with lay leaders, professionals, and clergy across the American Jewish community. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, assist those who are most vulnerable. In fact, according to feedingamerica.org, 76% of households that receive SNAP assistance include a child, an elderly person, or a disabled person. More than 46 milliion Americans, that is 1 if every 7, are on food stamps and 25% of children in this country are on food stamps.
I expected, as I did last year, that I would feel hungry. I am embarrassed to admit that the greatest inconveniences were saying goodbye to by supplemental drinks for the week – a Starbucks coffee or a can of Diet Dr. Pepper. Additionally, I am one who enjoys snacking throughout the day (which I know isn’t good for me anyway) and this week I had to prioritize. My expenses barely covered three meals a day. There was no room for a mid-afternoon or a late-night snack.
Still, I was not hungry. My portions were smaller and I was more conscious about not letting any food go to waste, but I did not starve. My meals were repetitive: a lot of soup, pasta, oatmeal, rice, and beans. The lack of variety seemed to annoy me more than a lack of food. I also found that I was excluded from social and communal gatherings. Eating (going out to restaurants, etc.) is a key component to socializing. I declined invitations to dinner with peers because I was limited to $1.50 for dinner instead of fifteen or twenty dollars.
I also realized that there is a difference between being hungry and being food insecure. While I did not experience hunger, I certainly experienced food insecurity. This includes rationing one’s food, and for many, not knowing where your next meal will come from. Food insecurity often leads to insufficient nutrition. As I walked up and down the aisles of the supermarket with my calculator, being sure to stay in my $1.50/meal budget, it was very clear what foods would fit in my budget and would foods would not. I was able to buy foods that were boxed, processed, and packaged, but it was nearly impossible to fit any whole foods – vegetables, fruits, meats, and cheeses – into my miniscule budget. This is especially true when kosher food is even more expensive! I didn’t mind not eating fruits, vegetables, or meat for the week. After all, it was only a week. However, a food insecure child is left with very little nutritional foods. A lack of nutrition can weaken a young child’s immune system and put them more at risk for illness. It was no surprise to me why so many food insecure children end up eating unhealthy foods. A big bag of cheaps is one dollar. A fast food hamburger is ninety-nine cents. When you are on such a tight budget, the quality of food is of no concern. Rather, one only cares about putting food in his or her belly.
Many in our communities and congregations may be food insecure and we are unaware. Nothing they say or do would suggest this. We are responsible for each other, for caring for each other, for ensuring that no one goes hungry. Let us do all that we can – raise money and donate funds to organizations like Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger, raise awareness, and take action – so that fewer children go to bed wondering where their next meal will come from, so that fewer parents skip breakfast to ensure that their kids have enough to eat, so that fewer individuals are forced to choose the food that is cheapest over the food that is healthiest.
Leviticus 19:9-10 teaches us that we must not reap the corners of our fields or gather the cleanings after our harvest. Rather, we should leave them for the poor and the stranger. The Torah is teaching us that we are responsible to feed those who are hungry in our community. With 46 million in this country dealing with food insecurity, we better get moving.