Combatting Hunger

Give a hungry man a fish, you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish, you feed him for a lifetime. Give him chicken soup while fishing, you feed him, teach him and give him a taste of home.

The Los Angeles Jewish community has launched a spirited multilevel attack on local hunger. Through donations, education, and chesed (lovingkindness), these nonprofit organizations, volunteer groups and concerned individuals combat the rampant Los Angeles hunger problem, which was commemorated nationally on June 2.

"The rate of hunger in Los Angeles County is double the national average," said Michael Flood, executive director of the Los Angeles Regional Foodbank. "Los Angeles residents who struggle with hunger include working families, seniors, children, the disabled, and the unemployed," he said, noting that 1.4 million of the county’s 10 million residents have difficulty putting food on the table, and 584,000 of those struggle with resulting health consequences.

While the number of those hungry is overwhelming, the determination of those helping is inspiring.

SOVA, a kosher food pantry program, distributes free groceries to Los Angeles County needy. With Westside, Valley and Beverly/Fairfax locations, SOVA (Hebrew for "to eat and be satisfied") feeds over 32,000 people a year.

Founded by Zucky’s Deli owners Hy and Zucky Altman in 1983, SOVA began as a Santa Monica haven where hungry neighborhood Jews could obtain food without questions or red tape. Now a program of Jewish Family Service, a beneficiary agency of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, SOVA continues to alleviate hunger while transitioning people from poverty to self-sufficiency. The emergency food program assists clients once a month, providing personal hygiene products and a four-day supply of food for all family members.

"We act as bridge when clients must choose between buying medicine and buying food. We are a place to come at the end of the month, when the paycheck can’t be stretched any further," said SOVA Executive Director Leslie Feldman. "Our fastest-growing client group is working families who just aren’t making enough to put food on the table for their young ones," she said.

In Los Angeles, 29.4 percent of the households seeking food assistance have at least one employed adult. These working-class needy are often overlooked. "It’s not just the people on the street who are hungry, it’s your neighbor down the street," said Feldman, who started as a SOVA volunteer in 1998.

Like the hungry working class, the Westside pantry itself goes unnoticed to most. Nestled on Santa Monica Boulevard near Sawtelle, it’s the type of place one drives past frequently, but never notices. The storefront contains several volunteer-occupied desks, an information board, and boxes of client cards — filled with proof of need, family size and visit dates.

The back section is packed with humming refrigerators and gray metal shelves that are divided into "family" (larger, bulk-sized containers), "homeless" (easily transportable items that don’t require cooking) and "kosher" sections. (While SOVA always has kosher food items available for its clients, not all the food it carries is kosher.)

SOVA receives significant funding from The Jewish Federation, and supplementary support from the City of West Hollywood, MAZON and private contributions. It stocks its shelves with food donated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, purchased by donors during weekly grocery trips and collected through congregation food drives. Over 70 part-time and 100 full-time volunteers lend a hand at the pantries weekly.

"SOVA survives on the generosity of others. People give money, food, and time. We cherish it all," Feldman said.

Contributor Carolyn Spiegel uses double coupons, rebates, and store specials to stretch her charitable dollar. In a year, she donates thousands of dollars in food, having spent only hundreds. "Buy creatively, and you can make donations you otherwise couldn’t afford to," Spiegel said.

She uses the Rite-Aid rebate book to pick up essentially free toiletries. When Healthy Choice and Nutri-Grain ran frequent flyer campaigns, Spiegel, who lives in Beverly Hills, purchased enough food for SOVA to earn a free ticket to visit her daughter in Florida. "It’s money I would have spent on a ticket anyway. So technically, all that food I donated cost me nothing," she said. "If every family just clipped coupons, and put them towards SOVA donations, we could feed and give dignity to thousands."

Like SOVA, Project Chicken Soup (PCS), takes a hands-on approach to fighting hunger. The group prepares and delivers free kosher meals to HIV and AIDS patients. With no paid staff, office space or source of funding outside of donations, the all-volunteer group creates meals like grandma used to make.

"We provide our clients with some Yiddishkeit," said Sherry Elkin, PCS treasurer and cooking-team captain. "A lot of our clients are far from home and family, so we bring them comfort food and company," added Elkin, a 10 year PCS volunteer.

Two Sundays a month, 60 volunteer chefs, ranging from students to bubbes, gather at the Hirsh Kosher Kitchen on Fairfax. Using eight industrial size ovens and 50-gallon soup pots, the dynamic group cooks two-plus meals for roughly 100 clients. A typical Sunday delivery features chicken with kugel, meatloaf with oven-fried potatoes, stuffed cabbage, vegetables, pineapple cake and more. And of course, two heaping servings of soup, one of which is always chicken.

"Sometimes chicken matzah ball, sometimes chicken noodle, and I personally season them. That’s where all the taste comes in," Elkin says.

The deliveries also include goodie bags filled with toiletries, Jewish holiday treats, Kosher candy and flowers.

"PCS volunteers put their hearts and souls into this organization," said client coordinator Molly Pier, a Temple Judea member. "And they always bring that extra ingredient of love," she said.

PCS clients cherish the kosher nosh and the kind-hearted kibitzing. "Project Chicken Soup is so good to me, they’ve been my lifesavers," said Robert James, a Westside resident and longtime PCS client. "I look forward to the phone calls and the visits and the meals. It’s difficult for me to cook and shop for myself, or even put groceries away, and to have families and children around who are so helpful — I don’t know what I’d do without them," he said.

While SOVA and PCS address hunger locally, larger organizations like MAZON fight hunger globally.

MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger is a nonprofit organization that allocates donations from the Jewish community to programs that prevent and alleviate hunger among people of all backgrounds. Since its foundation in 1985, MAZON (Hebrew for "food") has granted more than $26 million to hunger relief organizations worldwide. SOVA and Project Chicken Soup are two local grant recipients.

Though MAZON aids people of all faiths, it is deeply rooted in Jewish tradition. "Hunger is blind, so we help needy of all backgrounds" said MAZON Executive Director Dr. Eric Schockman. "But, Mazon is a Jewish organization; our donors are Jewish and our core philosophy is Jewish," he added.

Historically, rabbis asked that celebrations commence only after the community’s poor were seated and fed. In this spirit, MAZON asks the Jewish community to give 3 percent of the cost of a life-cycle celebration to feed the less fortunate. "We no longer literally invite the needy to eat at our weddings and bar mitzvahs. The 3-percent theory is a modern manifestation of that lost Jewish tradition," said Schockman, a member of Kol Ami in Sherman Oaks.

Shirley Kern of Westwood, a frequent MAZON supporter, doesn’t wait for a major simcha to contribute 3 percent. She gives in honor of a birthday, an anniversary and life’s smaller occasions. "It’s an opportunity to commemorate a milestone in a meaningful way,"she said. "Why not celebrate your good fortune by helping others?"

Temple Beth Am of Los Angeles is one of over 1,500 synagogues, Hillels and Jewish organizations that sponsor biannual MAZON pledge drives. On Yom Kippur, congregants donate the money they would have spent feeding their families on the day of fast. On Passover, they donate what they would have spent inviting someone less fortunate to join the seder table.

"Congregants complain they can’t eat bagels during Pesach or eat at all on Yom Kippur. They have headaches and stomach aches after just one day without food," said Beth Am’s Rabbi Perry Netter. "We basically ask congregants to stop kvetching and start helping. And they do," he said. MAZON recently received a $1.4 million gift from the California Endowment, the state’s largest health foundation, to assist the more than 100,000 people left hungry as the result of a Sept. 11-related job loss.

MAZON will distribute a portion of this money to frontline anti-hunger groups and a portion to organizations that publicize benefits. "Direct assistance alone will never solve hunger. We have to teach the needy they have options like food stamps, lunch programs, and unemployment insurance," Schockman said.