Hungry for Answers: Leading the Fight Against Food Insecurity

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The war against hunger is fought on many fronts in the Delaware Valley, as the Jewish organizations on the front lines can attest.

Sabina Dopiro hunches over the touch-screen monitor outside her office at the Raymond & Miriam Klein Jewish Community Center in the Northeast, fingers dancing across the keyboard as she scrolls through her options.

Fruit? Start with applesauce, apples, blueberries, canned mandarins, fresh oranges. Protein? Frozen chicken, sardines, beans, tuna and more.

Dopiro is showing off the ambitious undertaking that Mitzvah Food Project officials consider their crown jewel: the Choice Food Program, which allows recipients to select from a broad array of items — including fresh fruits and vegetables — that will help ensure they won’t go to bed with empty bellies.

Later on this crisp fall day, dozens of clients will take their turns at the computer station where Dopiro is now sitting, and at three others arranged around the converted racquetball court in the sprawling JCC complex on Jamison Avenue.

Once they place their “orders,” an army of workers will scurry to load brown bags full of canned goods, produce, meat and dairy products for the clients to take home.

It’s all about options, nutrition and dignity, says Dopiro, Klein site manager for the Mitzvah Food Project, one of a vast mosaic of Jewish resources in the city and suburbs that are supported by organizations like the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia as they respond to the needs of a hungry population.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food insecurity as “limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods, or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways.” In blunter terms, it means not knowing — or being sure — where your next meal is coming from.

Nationwide, the USDA reported that 6.8 million U.S. households faced what officials termed “very low food security,” meaning normal eating patterns of one or more household members were disrupted, and food intake was sometimes reduced, because they had insufficient money or other resources for food. 

Closer to home, the figures tell an equally grim story.

Some one million people in the Delaware Valley face hunger every day, according to Philabundance, the region’s largest hunger-relief organization. Many of those people are Jews.

They fit no statistical profile. They are teacher’s aides, physician’s assistants, baristas; they are the newly out-of-work computer analyst and the lawyer who was laid off last year. They are mothers and sons.

“About 4½ to five years ago, we did a comprehensive study looking at food insecurity in the Jewish community” in the Philadelphia area, “someone at risk of skipping or reducing the size of a meal because of poverty. We found 11,300 individuals are at risk for food insecurity on any given day,” says Brian Gralnick, director of the Federation’s Center for Social Responsibility.

No single relief organization or social service agency alone can fill a gap that large. In Philadelphia, a number of groups have risen to fulfill this most basic of needs, among them the Mitzvah Food Project, the Jewish Relief Agency, the Jewish Farm School, Challah for Hunger and Cook for a Friend.

A certain amount of redundancy is inevitable, anti-hunger workers concede: similar goals, similar visions, even many of the same clients. But picture the effort as a patchwork quilt, the separate pieces meshing to spread a safety blanket across a region where families remain very much at risk.

Feeding a Need

The Mitzvah Food Project began with a single community site in 1996, expanding over the years to keep pace with a growing demand. Today, it plays a key role in feeding Jewish Philadelphians, with five pantries strategically located throughout Greater Philadelphia. In addition to the Klein JCC, the project operates pantries out of the Kaiserman JCC in Wynnewood; the Jewish Community Services Building in Center City; Congregation Beth Shalom in Elkins Park; and Congregation Tifereth Israel in Bensalem.

Funding comes primarily from individual donors, including corporations and organizations, as well as from government dollars, project manager Deirdre Mulligan says. The Federation kicks in about 18 percent of the budget; government and private grants and in-kind food donations round out the rest.

Qualifying for assistance is relatively hassle-free — by design.

“You call and tell us you have need, and that’s it,” Mulligan says. “We’ll try to locate the pantry closest to you, and you fill out a one-page intake form. If you’re getting food stamps, we ask you to provide a letter of proof. We try to make it as painless as possible.”

She never loses sight of the fact that these are people coming for help, not numbers, she says. Many Jews are too proud to ask for government assistance; others feel the stigma — real or imagined — the world imposes on those who have fallen on hard times.

“We had one client who believed she would be a burden on society if she went for food stamps,” Mulligan recalls. “It took our social worker three months to convince her to apply.”

Back at the Klein, Dopiro shows a visitor around the Choice Food Program, which serves about 1,300 families a year. About 90 percent of them have incomes that place them under 250 percent of poverty, or $59,625 for a family of four. (The U.S. government’s 2014 guidelines define 100 percent of poverty at $11,670 annually for one person or $23,850 for a household of four.)

Roughly half the clients at the Jamison Avenue program are seniors; many are Russian immigrants. For most, Dopiro says, the facility is not the sole source of food, but rather a supplement to food stamps, unemployment benefits and other income.

With its shiny new touch-screens and 60 volunteers responding to clients’ printouts, this is clearly not your father’s soup kitchen. Some of the food they pack comes from Philabundance; additional donations come from BJ’s Wholesale Clubs, Food Basics supermarkets and other establishments.

This day, volunteers are breaking down 50-pound orange mesh bags of onions into more manageable one-pound bags to meet clients’ requests. Others are stocking the freezers with meat; kosher items go into a specially marked freezer for the 10 percent of clients who observe the laws of kashrut.

“We don’t accept pork, shellfish or products with mixed meat and dairy. We give treif items to other food banks,” says Dopiro, pausing when volunteer Renee Kelly brings over for inspection a package of sausages whose label notes — in fine print — that it contains pork casings.

Add it to the pile headed for Feast for Justice, Dopiro tells the eagle-eyed volunteer, referring to a food cupboard run by nearby St. John’s Lutheran Church.

In another wing of the Klein, some 225 participants in its Congregate Meal Program gather for the day’s lunch: garden vegetable soup, hamburgers, cole slaw, lettuce and tomatoes, with fresh plums for dessert.

The hot lunch, funded in part by the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging, is free, with a suggested $1 contribution.

Raechel Hammer, vice president of strategic development and compliance at the Klein, notes that the agency provided between 65,000 and 70,000 lunches at four sites last year to area residents 60 years old and older.

An estimated 80 percent of those served are Jewish — although the program is open to anyone — and many are Holocaust survivors. Close to a third of the participants live under the poverty line.

“There is a lot of invisible poverty out there; people often take pride in how they look, so you have no idea,” says Hammer, a social worker by training. “This is the Greatest Generation — the last thing they want to do is ask for help. The key is providing help in the most dignified manner possible.”

Loneliness and isolation are often hunger’s silent partners. That’s where the citywide Cook for a Friend program comes in.

More than 600 volunteers meet weekly or monthly at the Klein JCC or area synagogues to prepare meals for distribution. For many at home on the receiving end, it’s the only contact they’ll have with the outside world, says Sue Aistrop, the Klein’s director of community services.

“We do a survey every year, and most of our recipients tell us our drivers are friendly and caring, and that they feel more comfortable in their homes because of the meals we’re providing,” Aistrop says. At any given time over the past year, the Cook for a Friend program served about 350 people, who pay $2 per meal; the number varies as participants cycle in and out, Aistrop notes. All the food is funneled through the Klein facility.

Delivering Relief

The Jewish Relief Agency’s efforts to feed hungry citizens draws in people of all ages — the oldest volunteer on one recent packing and distribution gathering was 96, and the youngest was still in a stroller. More than 200 community organizations — synagogues, youth groups, camps, day schools, college fraternities and sororities — send teams to the 15,000-square-foot building on Dutton Road in the Northeast where the JRA houses its distribution warehouse.

When executive director Amy Krulik took on the job just over seven years ago, JRA’s volunteer base stood at 5,000. It’s roughly three times that today. The increase reflects not only the burgeoning demand for food relief, but also an uptick in the urge to do communal service, Krulik believes.

“On Sunday mornings, it’s a giant human assembly line,” she says. The product: boxes of food packed with a healthy mix of whole grains, fruits and vegetables, a protein such as tuna or gefilte fish. The recipients: pretty much anyone who asks.

“There are no specific income requirements — we recognize that family circumstances are more challenging than people are willing and able to articulate,” Krulik says. “If you think you need help, our goal is to make sure you’re getting it.”

Often, the line between volunteer and recipient blurs; an out-of-work man might be packing boxes one day, and opening his front door to accept a parcel from a JRA driver the next.

JRA delivers to all five counties in the Philadelphia region, including communities on the Main Line — a surprise to some people, Krulik says. Wherever they live, recipients are incredibly appreciative of the efforts. “They routinely offer candy, pieces of fruit, pieces of costume jewelry to express their gratitude for the mitzvah,” she says.

Her staff works with other agencies such as Jewish Family and Children’s Service and Federation Housing, Inc., to make referrals as needed. “Our job is to make sure we send people to the right place, and explain what other resources are available,” she says.

Funding for JRA’s $1.2 million annual budget comes from private donations, Federation, United Way of Greater Philadelphia, the Walmart Foundation and other sources, including a small amount from federal and state agencies.

Large-scale programs like JRA and the Mitzvah Food Project depend heavily on the efforts of synagogues, relief workers agree, notably year-round food drives that typically ramp up between Rosh Hashanah and Kol Nidre.

“Our members are very responsive,” says Melissa Johnson, executive director of Main Line Reform Temple in Wynnewood, where congregants fill and refill five giant corrugated watermelon crates to overflowing throughout the year.

“We collect about 10 tons of food for each holiday food drive,” Johnson says. “It’s been a commitment of our synagogue since its inception: to ensure that we are looking out for members of the surrounding community.”

At Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley, where members have been signing up for the Cook for a Friend program for more than two decades, brown bags donated by Trader Joe’s are quickly stuffed with canned tuna, peanut butter, pasta and the like.

Congregants also prepare turkey dinners just before Thanksgiving, says Andrea Coren of Wynnewood, chair of Har Zion’s Tikkun Olam Committee. It’s an intergenerational effort: religious school students prepare the soup and decorate the computer-paper boxes that hold the meal; members donate food and sweat equity; and even the caterers who serve the synagogue kick in with kugels. Jewish Family and Children’s Service supplies the names of the recipients, Coren says. “And if we know of needy people from the congregation, we give to them as well.”

Growing at the Grass Roots

Imagine tearing into a freshly baked kosher challah — maybe one studded with chocolate chips — while knowing that the $4 you paid for it is helping JRA or Philabundance. That’s the goal of Challah for Hunger, one of several relatively low-profile organizations turning out the next generation of anti-hunger activists in the city and its surroundings.

From its headquarters on Camac Street in Center City, the nonprofit oversees 70 chapters internationally, including at the University of Pennsylvania and Temple University. CEO Carly Zimmerman calls the chapters “social-change bakeries.”

“For many students, this is a first step about learning about food justice,” Zimmerman says. “We’re teaching students leadership, communications skills, advocacy skills. For me, every challah is the beginning of a conversation.”

Five to 10 students come together at Temple’s Hillel every other Wednesday to bake. They turn out 15 to 25 loaves, which will be sold to fellow students, as well as to faculty and staff. A portion of the proceeds goes back to Challah for Hunger; some goes to Hillel, and the rest — last year, about $100 — to JRA.

Meanwhile, Bala Cynwyd native and Akiba Hebrew Academy (now Barrack) graduate Nati Passow has turned his energy to “teaching people the value of sustainability through teaching them how to grow food.”

Passow is cofounder and executive director of the Jewish Farm School, whose initiatives include sending college students for weeklong stays on an organic farm, and sponsoring urban sustainability workshops on a two-acre educational farm in New York’s Hudson Valley.

A writer, carpenter and educator living in Philadelphia, Passow says more than 5,000 students have come through his organization’s programs over the past eight years, learning basic Jewish concepts such as leaving the corners of a field unharvested to be gleaned by the needy.

“The main way we’ve been involved in issues of hunger is through education,” Passow says. “Our whole Jewish justice curriculum looks at hunger and food access — both nationally and internationally — through a Jewish lens.”

The Way Forward

There are a myriad of ways to address the issue of food insecurity. Robin Rifkin’s is advocacy. A nutritionist by vocation and an anti-hunger advocate by passion, the Melrose Park resident is a founder of the Community Supported Agriculture program at Reform Congregation Kol Ami in Elkins Park — the first CSA in the area affiliated with the national nonprofit Hazon.

“Any extra food we get in a particular week — anything that people don’t pick up — goes to an emergency food bank,” says Rifkin, who serves on the Mitzvah Food Project’s steering committee and is active with the Action Against Hunger committee of the Old York Road Kehillah, a collective of synagogues and area organizations.

With the committee, Rifkin helped coordinate a public dialogue last summer with Beverly Mackereth, secretary of Pennsylvania’s Department of Welfare, to discuss ways to streamline the application process for food stamps

“Food drives and collections are one way of dealing with the immediate problem, but you also have to make it easier for people who are eligible for the SNAP program to receive them,” Rifkin says, referring to the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. “A lot of times, people hear how challenging it is, so they don’t even bother to apply.”

Rifkin also helped plan Hazon’s second local Jewish Food Festival on Nov. 16 at Temple Adath Israel in Merion Station. The daylong event will bring together foodies, farmers, rabbis, restaurateurs, educators and others to discuss such topics as food access, sustainable food systems and congregation-based food justice programs.

Federation’s Brian Gralnick believes one of the greatest challenges facing advocates is shattering the myth that it’s a shandah — a shame — to apply for public benefits.

“The fact is the government has a lot more money than this Federation does. We tell individuals they’ve paid into these benefits for years, and in some ways it’s their right to claim that money back. The bigger shandah is asking Federation for help if there’s money from other sources on the table.”

Another vital step, Gralnick says: Pick up the phone and share with elected officials the impact of hunger on everyday life, urging them to prevent further slashes to the food stamp program.

“Ending hunger in our country will save us money in the long run — it is the Jewish and moral thing to do.”

LIVING HUNGRY: ONE WOMAN’S STORY

Carol has become a pro at the fine art of stretching.

Food, that is.

“You make use of everything. I can make pasta last three days,” the 78-year-old breast cancer survivor says.

Once a month, she opens the door of her two-bedroom-with-loft condo in North Wales and welcomes in a driver from the Jewish Relief Agency bearing a heavy cardboard box filled with goodies: pasta, yes, but also beets, string beans, corn, tuna, sometimes matzah ball soup.

For the next few days, Carol (she prefers to give only her first name) won’t have to worry about filling her refrigerator — or her belly. It’s a welcome respite.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

As a child, she lived what she calls a “country club life”: trips to Europe, good schools, a degree in philosophy from the University of Wisconsin. Now, after a series of setbacks, she supplements her $720-a-month Social Security benefits and her $69-a-month pension by selling costume jewelry and other trinkets at local flea markets.

Carol lives by herself. Her four children are grown and out of the house, and her beloved Scottish terrier died last December. Despite Type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure, she declares herself in perfect health.

“Someone told me that because of my financial situation and also being Jewish, JRA would be a nice organization to be with. So I called and spoke with Amy. She was just lovely, and she signed me up for a box a month.”

That would be Amy Krulik, executive director of the food-relief organization, who notes that Carol is one of 49 million Americans at risk for hunger — 15 percent of the country’s population — and that food insecurity cuts across all ages, life stages and education levels.

“You can’t think month to month — you can’t think past a week, and that’s the scariest part,” Carol says. “I came from a well-to-do family, so I know both sides of the coin. And believe me, I much prefer the other.”

JRA is not her only source of nutrition. Several times a month, she’ll pick up dinner at a nearby church, and every other week or so she gets a food package from MANNA, which provides meals to those grappling with a serious or chronic illness.

A JRA pre-Rosh Hashanah delivery of honey cake, grape juice and Tam Tam rye crackers provided a recent treat.

“I’m like an eater that picks during the day — I have no huge meal at dinner time. Even if I don’t eat for a day it won’t kill me, but I haven’t reached that point,” Carol says.

Reaching out comes hard for her, she acknowledges, but she’s filled with wonder and awe that the resources are there for folks who need them.

“We all grow up and have a certain amount of pride, but there comes a time when you have to throw pride out the window,” Carol philosophizes. “It’s not the easiest thing, but it boils down to priorities, and I am very grateful to JRA for what they’ve done, very appreciative.”

Fredda Sacharow is a longtime journalist for numerous local and national publications. This article originally appeared in Inside Magazine, a Jewish Exponent publication.

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