Food Stamp Challenge – I Ended Mine, Millions Cannot

6:00 a.m.  LaGuardia.  US Air Shuttle.  I am typing over a breakfast consisting of a McDonald’s Egg McMuffin (without cheese) and a cup of tea – a luxury that during the past week I could not have afforded.  Indeed, it cost 30 cents more than my daily allotment for food over the last week.

A week has passed since Erev Rosh Hashanah (note the ethical dilemma about that below) when I, with a number of other Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist rabbis across the nation, began our participation during these Days of Awe in the “food stamp challenge.”  The purpose, of course, is to experience, for one week, the daily challenges and frustrations of trying to feed yourself on what our food stamp program provides for its recipients. 

The Food Stamp Program is remarkable program, serving more people than any other low income program; it is fast to enroll in, with millions moving on and off over a year, as they face temporary difficulties.  It literally makes the difference between sustenance and malnutrition to millions of families. 

But it also makes every day daunting. 

The Food Stamp Program allows individuals $1 per meal, or $21 per week.  It means scouring the paper for coupons, the grocery store for sales, calculating to the penny which foods are cheapest. Pasta and rice, beans, bananas:  Doable for a week, but beyond that? 

What I forgot when we agreed to do this the week between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur was that I would be traveling for much of the week.  At home, the regimen is conceivable; on the road, it is, as best I can ascertain, simply impossible to have three meals a day.  I made it by reducing my intake to the equivalent of a meal and a half a day. 

Typical day: a donut for 78 cents and a cup of tap water for breakfast (or if I were home, it was a bowl of cereal with a banana and tea – with three cups from one tea bag. (I mostly swore off bread for the week).  Lunch:  carrots and apple or banana (from a stand) and a large glass of tap water.  Dinner, if at home, rice and beans or pasta. 

When I was out all day (4 of the days), it meant skipping one meal entirely.  The one time I split a late night light beer I passed on dinner. Twice I splurged for a slice of pizza – once for $1.68 and the other a larger slice for $2.25 that I split with Al and Shirley Vorspan (two for the three of us), relishing it as we told jokes.  For merely one week, such tradeoffs and choices were fascinating, instructive and to be candid a source of bemused appreciation for my friends.  But for the millions who have no choice but to make painful tradeoffs in order to feed their families, this exercise is not a matter of instruction, but of survival.   

The best meal?  The first was dinner with two other participants, Rabbis Rachel Cowan and Steve Gutow at Rachel’s apartment in New York.  Steve, the dynamic head of the Jewish Council on Public Affairs, conceived of choosing this week for rabbis to participate. Rachel is one of the truly visionary rabbis of this generation; most relevant for this week, she concocted some of kind of bean soup (I forgot to ask because I was absorbed in eating what was the most delicious soup I think possible on this diet). 

The most amusing?  I was visiting with Al Engelberg, a generous and creative donor to the RAC.  (We all owe Al a debt of gratitude for groundbreaking legal cases that enabled the generic drug industry to develop.)  Inadvertently, my staff had arranged for me to join him for lunch.  When we met up, I explained the situation and told him I would be delighted to sit with him at the nice restaurant he had chosen but I could not eat.  His face lit up.  Without missing a beat, he said, “David, secretly I love going to McDonald’s so I sneak out once in awhile.  You give me a legitimate reason to head there. Let’s go get you the $1 meal.” And off we went! 

Dollar meals at McDonald’s when you’re traveling: Not the healthiest, but at least good tasting filler.   

Most frustrating meals?  All the lovely receptions accompanying my speaking engagements, where I could eat almost nothing.  I even had to pass on the bottled water on the stage (fortunately at last night’s they put out a pitcher of tap water). 

Then, the final ethical dilemma.  I began after dinner on Erev Rosh Hashanah.  So, was this week a Jewish week that allowed me to resume normal meals beginning with dinner last night? Or was it a U.S. week, which would have begun after my three meals last Wednesday, requiring me not to eat normally until breakfast today? 

I split the difference, sitting with a cup of tea through an early dinner with Rabbi Marla Feldman, our superb Director of the Commission on Social Action, and Naomi Abelson, the CSA’s new Congregational Relations Manager before my talk at the Center for Modern Jewish History on "Jewish Lawyers in the Civil Rights Movement."  Late last night I had an appetizer – I was keenly aware that at $7, it would have fed me those on food stamps for more than two days every week, every month, every year. 

We can do better in this, the wealthiest country in the history of humankind.  We can lift those on welfare out of poverty.

Our tradition suggests that in this week of reflection we should act as if all the good deeds and all the bad deeds of the world hang in a balance and what we do next will tip the scales.  We can act to tip the scales to justice for the poor and hungry of America. Let us act to ensure that this coming year is such a year of justice and fairness for America and all its people.  

From my family to yours: Have an easy fast; think of the hungry of America when you do; and let it be a year of sweetness, health, and fulfillment for you and your loved ones.

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Rabbi David Saperstein

About Rabbi David Saperstein

Rabbi David Saperstein for 40 years served as the Director and Counsel of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. He was selected by Newsweek magazine in 2009 as the most influential rabbi in the country and described in a Washington Post profile as the "quintessential religious lobbyist on Capitol Hill.” He is now the Ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom.

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