I’ve been celebrating Purim ever since I was a little kid, screaming “Boo, Haman” at the top of my lungs at the annual megillah reading, but it wasn’t until a few years ago, while working at The Jewish Federation of Los Angeles on the “Fed Up With Hunger” campaign, that I learned about the lesser-known but important mitzvah of giving matanot l’evyonim (gifts to the poor). In the Book of Esther, we read, “The same days on which Jews enjoyed relief from their foes and the same month which had been transformed for them from one of grief to joy and from mourning to festival, they were to observe them as days of feasting and merry-making, and as an occasion for sending gifts [mishloach manot] and presents to the poor [matanot l’evyonim]” (Esther 9:22).
It can be discouraging that the issue of hunger is still with us thousands of years after those words were written. How can we, as individuals, even begin to make a difference, given all the people around the world who don’t have enough to eat, or, as often is the case locally, don’t have enough nutritious food to eat every day?
The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that in 2012, an estimated 14.5 percent of American households were food insecure at least some time during the year, meaning they lacked access to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members. Seniors older than 65 are hit particularly hard. MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger reports that one out of every 12 seniors in America is caught in a daily struggle to meet their nutritional needs.
Food insecurity plagues the Jewish community, too. Touch of Kindness-Tomchei Shabbos, a local nonprofit based in the Orthodox community, provides weekly groceries and other services for poor Jewish households; it is now feeding more than 1,000 individuals each month, aided by a huge network of volunteers. Among the families they help, the biggest financial challenge is that the main breadwinner in many of these households was laid off during the Great Recession and couldn’t find a replacement job that paid as in prior years. In addition to the groceries, Touch of Kindness provides credit at kosher stores as well as discounted furniture, clothing, diapers and other types of assistance. The budget for its food program alone is $1.2 million.
Jewish Family Service/SOVA Community Food and Resource Program (JFS/SOVA) celebrated its 30th anniversary last year, and continues to feed and help 12,000 people a month — both Jewish and non-Jewish — with a staggering 3 million pounds of food distributed in the course of a year. Margaret L. Avineri, director of Integrated Clinical & Community Services for JFS/SOVA, said that they have a new emphasis on fresh and healthy food, as well as providing comprehensive services at three sites in partnership with Bet Tzedek and Jewish Vocational Services, with funding from The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. Even though the national economic situation has improved since 2008, she said it hasn’t trickled down to the unemployed, immigrants, seniors and disabled who often need supplemental assistance to get by.
Professionals and volunteers in the field say the problem is especially bad at the end of the month, when seniors and the disabled living on fixed incomes from Social Security or Supplemental Security Income run out of money. This is particularly acute when someone has a chronic condition, such as uncontrolled Type 2 diabetes, and ends up in the emergency room because all they could afford to eat at the end of the month was ramen noodles.
My good friend Ellen Rabin, development director of Meals On Wheels West, told me about a new program she is working on to reach out to hospital discharge workers so that doctors will literally write a prescription for Meals On Wheels services when poor people are discharged. Hunger is an ongoing health-care issue. “People can’t be healthy if they don’t eat right,” she said.
What happens now is that patients who are food insecure before hospitalization return home and end up eating prepackaged snack food that doesn’t come close to meeting the dietary requirements of their illnesses.
Abby Leibman, president and CEO of MAZON, which is based in Los Angeles, said that as important as the short-term, day-to-day food assistance is to ensure that people have enough to eat, there is a need to be part of the “crucial long-term change.” MAZON has opened up its own Washington, D.C., office to strengthen its national presence. She said that, as a Jewish anti-hunger group, it is important to show “there is a real commitment from the Jewish community on a national level” and that MAZON brings to the table its 300 grantee partners and 1,000 synagogue partners, including many in Los Angeles.
So, this Purim, even though the Talmud encourages us to imbibe enough alcohol to the point of confusing blessing Mordecai with cursing Haman, we should remember the very real hunger pangs of our neighbors. That should sober us up sufficiently to continue to donate our time, money and hearts to the cause of hunger.