Hunger for Righteousness
Just before the High Holy Days, Rabbi Steve Gutow of the Jewish Council of Public Affairs asked me to join a group of Jewish and congressional leaders in a project called the Food Stamp Challenge. I was somewhat aware of the Food Stamp Challenge because, among others, Rabbi David Saperstein, who directs our Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC) in Washington, had participated last year and he had written about it. A number of members of the RAC staff took the challenge this year as well. But being aware and actually participating were two different things!By accepting his invitation, I committed myself to living for one week on the budget of a food stamp recipient. I had $31.50 to eat for seven days, a mere $1.50 per meal. As the rabbi of a very privileged community, I knew this Challenge would be good for my soul and important for my understanding of the reality of poverty in America.In 2000, there were 17 million people dependent on food stamps. Today, there are more than 45 million; about half are children. Most of the adults work, but if their family qualifies for SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), they make less than $2,422 a month for a family of four or $29,064 a year. There are real lives behind these numbers.I have a pretty simple, healthy diet so I figured it wouldn’t be too hard to stay within the $1.50 limit per meal. But that week of following the tight financial guidelines of food stamps gave me a perspective that was truly humbling.Hunger and famine were constant realities for our biblical forbearers. The book of Genesis mentions famine 26 times. Shortly after Abraham and Sarah arrive in Canaan after heeding God’s call of Lech Lecha, before they can even unpack and get settled in their new surroundings, we are told Va’yehi Ra’av B’aretz–therewas a famine in the land. So Abraham and Sarah pick up and head down to Egypt in search of food. Their descendants retrace their hunger trail numerous times before our people end up as destitute slaves in Egypt following the time of Joseph.
So here is part of what I learned. First, I had to think very carefully about what I would eat for the week and where I would purchase my $31.50 worth of groceries. I quickly determined that I couldn’t shop at any of the convenient grocery stores if I wanted to find inexpensive food. I ended up driving 15 minutes to a huge discount supermarket, where I realized immediately that I couldn’t afford any of the brands that I usually buy. Two of my staple foods would be rice and beans. I put a few generic cans of black beans into my cart, which at $1.39 per can seemed like a bargain, but realized that the dried kind, while requiring more time for preparation, would save a significant amount. Surveying the cheap loaves of bread, I could see they had less nutritional value than a cardboard box. Since I was going to eat more bread than usual, I chosea healthy brand of whole wheat for $3.99 that was marked down because its expiration date had passed.When I got to the produce department, I was determined to purchase plenty of fresh, healthy vegetables but my budget just wouldn’t allow it. One bunch of bananas for $2.36 plus a bag with four heads of inferior romaine lettuce for $3.49 was all the fresh produce I could manage.
During my week of eating modestly, I flew to Atlanta for a meeting so I packed two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. This is a meal I like–definitely not a hardship. But having awoken at dawn to catch the flight, I desperately wanted a cup of coffee when I landed. I shopped around the terminal for the cheapest plain cup of coffee, while those around me ordered grande mocha lattes (which, by the way, cost almost a whole day’s food allowance). After looking everywhere, I found the best deal for $1.75. It was the only prepared food that I bought that whole week. My flight home was delayed by a few hours, but since I had already finished my food, I couldn’t purchase any snacks or even a bottle of water. Not so hard, to be sure, but not at all what I am used to.
The bottom line: I did this experiment for only one week. If I had to buy my food in the corner market of a low income neighborhood, the prices would have reduced the amount of food I could purchase. But after all, I have a car and could drive to a few stores to find the best prices and then could put the groceries in my car as opposed to schlepping them on public transportation or walking the distance carrying the week’s food for my family.
So, who are the millions who rely on food stamps? They are seniors who find themselves eating cat food because canned tuna is too expensive for them on their fixed incomes. They are formerly middle class — even upper-middle class — parents who have lost jobs and cannot feed their families without the additional support.
Here’s a breakdown of those who received food stamps during 2005:10% are elderly, 40% are Euro-American, 36% are African American, and25% of households have a disabled person. One in eight children in America lives in a home that receives food stamps.The annual budget for SNAP has doubled since 2007 to $70 billion. As Congress works to produce $1.5 trillion in budget cuts, the programs that make up our nation’s nutrition safety net -SNAP, school meals, summer food, after school snacks and meals–are now on the chopping block. I am not a public policy expert and I know cuts must be made across our federal budget, but as these important decisions are made to ensure the fiscal sustainability of our nation, we need to consider how much responsibility our society will take for the most vulnerable people among us. In a recent report, the Congressional Budget Office found that from1979 to 2007, average inflation-adjusted, after-tax income grew by 275% for the 1% of the population with the highest income. By contrast, forthe poorest fifth of the population, average real, after-tax household income rose only 18% in that same period.
You don’t have to be a math wiz to calculate that not all boats rose on the tide of economic prosperity in the past three decades. This disparity deserves serious attention by all who care about the fight for social justice in our great country.I wonder how the Members of Congress who took the Food Stamp Challenge were affected by their week-long experience. I hope some if not all of them feel more strongly that as we reduce our country’s debt we need to be careful about cutting programs like SNAP.
I know I still have no idea how hard it is to be poor in America. I may have been eating different and less food than normal, but at the end of the day, I went to sleep in a heated home, and each morning I woke up and went to work at a great job that enables me to provide plenty of food for my family (not to mention health care).The real test of the Challenge was not whether those who participated could get through the week. No. The real test is what we do afterwards.
Congressional leaders of both parties need to sort through monumental economic challenges and competing concerns. There is no question in my mind that while the budget is a moral document,neither political party can claim moral authority in setting forth its priorities. And they must not make these crucial decisions without all of us speaking up for the most vulnerable.I hope you will join me in letting our elected leaders know that we have no appetite for cutting the debt by increasing hunger.
May we never stop working for a society where the only hunger we know will be the hunger for righteousness.
Rabbi Rick Jacobs is the senior rabbi at Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, NY, and the URJ president-designate. See his full bio and other writings on the URJ website.