Joe has no food in his home and has no money to shop at the supermarket. Only one thing is keeping him and his family from starving: foods banks, the charitable organizations that distribute food to the needy. Asking for a handout leaves a very bad taste in anyone’s mouth. Unfortunately, Joe and the many millions of Americans and their families in the same predicament are left with no choice.
Hunger in America is not new; there were always people who were unable to put food on the table. But the issue has become exacerbated this year by illness, shuttered businesses, record unemployment, and related problems.
Data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey between September 2-14 show how widespread this problem is. The data showed that approximately 10% of adults - over 22 million Americans - said that in the previous seven days they sometimes or often did not have enough food to eat. In a nation once called the breadbasket of the world, and that still provides much of its food, these numbers are shocking.
Almost certainly, these numbers are even worse than they appear to be, because some people prefer going hungry to risking anyone finding out about their desperate situations and being humiliated.
Meanwhile, a growing number of people around the country are suffering. In some states, the lines of people waiting for assistance from food banks stretches for miles.
Federal programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women Infants and Children (WIC,) and The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) help millions of people. Both New York City and State also provide various programs and some social agencies do too.
But even with these, many people still can’t afford to buy food. Of course, kosher food is even more expensive, which makes this problem more acute in the frum community.
Increasingly, food banks are coming to the rescue. National organizations coordinate with local agencies about how much and what foods to order; they also store and deliver these to local sites. The food subsequently is distributed directly to needy people.
These foods are mostly nutritious items, including vegetables, milk, canned goods, and sometimes fish, chicken, and/or meat. For the multitude of people whose unemployment benefits have either run out or whose budgets simply can’t be stretched to purchase these items, this free food is literally a lifeline.
Changing With The Times
Because of all the strange events that have occurred this year, many people have been forced to change their lifestyles. Some people, for example, skip one meal a day or try to stretch one meal into two. Given the widespread hardship, it’s no surprise that many food banks are overwhelmed.
Bloomberg reported that the number of Americans trying to cope with hunger is expected to increase 45% to “more than 50 million” by the end of this calendar year.
This is certainly a problem in New York too. In August, hundreds of people in Queens stood in line waiting for assistance from a food bank; another one reported a “tsunami of demand.”
“Don’t Tell Anyone”
There is no shame in falling into hard times, but in the frum community, those who do try to keep this a closely-guarded secret. An estimated 1.5 million New Yorkers, almost one in five, cannot afford to buy food, according to The New York Times, and frum people are among them.
Kosher food banks and related chesed organizations are sensitive to the needs of the communities they serve. They typically deliver packages in unmarked cars or when possible make deliveries discreetly at times when neighbors are least likely to notice.
Alexander Rapaport, the executive director of the Masbia Soup Kitchen Network, told FOX 5 NY that “We have done disasters before but nothing is even close to what we are doing now...Demand has increased by 500%.” The Masbia network was opened 15 years ago and currently has locations in Forest Hills, Borough Park, Flatbush.
Rapaport said there is so much need that his staff and volunteers have recently been working around the clock. All three locations are now open 24/7 and feed 1,500 families a day, but “it is still not enough,” he said.
Rather than having recipients stand on lines for hours, Masbia has updated into what Rapaport called digital lines: Recipients simply make an appointment when they want to pick up their food.
Those interested in assisting families in need can do so by contributing to organizations such as Masbia or Tomchei Shabbos. The rabbi of your shul will surely have additional suggestions.
If you sense that a particular individual can’t afford to buy food, be very cautious before approaching him or her directly, because this is a very delicate subject. If you are wrong, that person will be insulted. And if you are right, bear in mind that raising this subject must be done with the greatest sensitivity and tact. What may be intended as a harmless comment or joke may be taken as hurtful and deeply offensive and elicit a very angry or even hostile response.
Hunger is a problem in Israel, too, and may be even more serious there because unemployment benefits and related supports are not as beneficent as they are in America.
Meanwhile, the problem shows no signs of abating any time soon. In fact, it is being projected that there could be a shortage of eight billion meals at food banks in the next 12 months.
May Hashem have mercy on His world and resolve this issue quickly.