Sixty-eight-year-old Barry* lives in government-subsidized housing in the City Line Avenue section of Philadelphia. His mother, his only family, lives in a nursing home. Barry's small Social Security payments, combined with his $16 a month in food stamps and approximately $24-a-month pension, don't quite cover his basic living expenses each month, which include significant medical costs. Vacations are non-existent, and going to the movies is a rare luxury for which Barry must carefully plan and save.
For the past four years, Federation's Mitzvah Food Project (Food Project) has provided a lifeline to Barry through twice-monthly food packages, supermarket gift cards and special holiday-food packages delivered by the Food Project's Kaiserman JCC food pantry in Wynnewood.
"The people at the Mitzvah Food Project are doing holy work," said Barry.
"I've always struggled financially," he continued. "If the Mitzvah Food Project were not available to me, I would live, but it would make it that much more difficult. There just aren't enough words to describe how much I appreciate what the Mitzvah Food Project does."
Rise in Numbers of Those Served
Since 1996, Federation's Food Project has provided food and basic staples to community members in need and educated and advocated on their behalf. From Sept. 1, 2009, to Aug. 31, 2010, the Food Project's six community pantries delivered approximately 23,000 food packages and 24,000 supermarket gift cards to community members like Barry who are at risk of food insecurity.
A steep rise in the number of households served — a 24 percent increase this past fall as compared to fall 2009 — combined with increased food costs, and reduced funding from agencies such as the State Food Purchase Program, has made it more challenging for the Food Project to adequately meet community members' nutritional needs.
A saving grace for the Food Project — and for Jewish community members in situations similar to Barry's — is gifts from private donors like the Borowsky Family Foundation begun by Irvin J. Borowsky, founder of North American Publishing Company, the National Liberty Museum and the American Interfaith Institute.
This past summer, the foundation — through its Irvin J. Borowsky Campaign to Fight Hunger — made a first-time grant of $5,000 that enabled the Food Project to directly purchase food for its five main food-pantry sites at Philabundance, the region's largest hunger-relief organization. Philabundance distributes millions of pounds of food across the Delaware Valley each year to a network of some 600 hunger-relief agencies like the Food Project.
The additional $1,000 received by each of the Food Project's five main sites enabled the purchase of additional bulk food for these sites at Philabundance. Since most donated products are offered by Philabundance at 18 cents per pound and Feeding America recently estimated that 1.3 pounds of food provides one meal, the Irvin J. Borowsky Campaign to Fight Hunger funds could provide 21,368 meals to the community's hungry children, families and seniors.
"The Borowsky Family Foundation's support is just wonderful," said Laurie Franz, co-chair of the Mitzvah Food Project Advisory Committee. "It's always important to feed people, but now, as the needs have increased so dramatically, we need more food. Helping the Food Project to purchase more food in large quantities is the best way to make a difference. It's nice to see the foundation taking the lead in the fight against hunger."
In announcing the grant, Irvin Borowsky said: "There is a desperate need in the community for food — from infants to seniors. You don't typically think of the Jewish community having these needs, but indeed, they do exist. Addressing Jewish hunger is an area that has long been close to my heart. I am impressed by the Mitzvah Food Project, a marvelous program first brought to my attention by my son, Ned. This just seemed like the perfect fit."
A Catastrophic Effect
According to Ned Borowsky, who served as board chair of the Philadelphia Food Bank before it merged with Philabundance, "the economic downturn has had a catastrophic effect on the number of food-dependent people in our population, especially immigrants and the working poor. The service that Federation's Mitzvah Food Project is providing out of these food cupboards is really terrific."
In addition to the pantry at the Kaiserman JCC, the Food Project manages pantries from Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park, the Klein JCC in Northeast Philadelphia, the JCC Stiffel Senior Center in South Philadelphia and Congregation Tifereth Israel of Lower Bucks County.
This September, after a successful trial partnership, the Food Project formally added Shir Ami-Bucks County Jewish Congregation in Newtown as its sixth pantry. Through volunteers, the pantries provide food packages to more than 1,000 vulnerable households each month.
Food is distributed twice monthly, and consists of three days' worth of food, including canned and dry goods. Some new community partnerships have enabled the Food Project to also begin including fresh produce.
Last year, 17 percent of clients were children in low-income families, and 53 percent were seniors on fixed incomes.
According to Laurie Wagman — Irvin Borowsky's wife and the foundation's president — essential to Borowsky and the foundation's decision to support the Food Project is the project's successful collaboration with other hunger-relief agencies. Just as crucial, she added, is the caring and dignified manner in which the Food Project distributes nutritional support to its clients.
"State and federal funding is down, so other grants are key," explained Wagman. "It is so important that individuals step up to help provide something so core to the human existence. Irv's hope is that the Irvin J. Borowsky Campaign to Fight Hunger will encourage others to be a part of the hunger-relief effort."
"Food not only enables life, it also builds families," she continued. "Sharing food is the cornerstone of families and of our community. It is a gift and a privilege to be able to help the Mitzvah Food Project fill this need in our Jewish community."
Community members can help fight food insecurity by making a tribute gift, a personal donation or a food grant, similar to the Irvin J. Borowsky Campaign to Fight Hunger. For more information, call 215-832-0531 or e-mail: [email protected]
*Last name has been omitted by request