Hungry 24/7

Are you hungry?

Chances are you’re only a short reach away from your next meal or snack. If you’re reading this on Yom Kippur, your wait is probably longer. But either way, when you say you’re hungry, you probably know where your next meal will come from.

On Yom Kippur, we fast to focus our minds. We give up food for 25 hours as a mitzvah, but it is also our choice.

That’s not the situation for more than 50 million Americans — right now, one in six Americans is living with food insecurity — which means they either are constantly at risk of being without their next meal or living with disrupted food patterns. This shocking number comes from a study just released by Feeding America, a food-relief organization. These people do not choose to be hungry.

And here are some even more stark statistics:

• 17 million of America’s children live with food insecurity.

• Only 10 percent of the 50 million are homeless.

• About 36 percent of food-insecure families include one working adult.

This problem is rampant in a country that prides itself on being one of the most affluent in the world.

Just over a week ago, an episode of the TV sitcom “Modern Family” showed Cameron and Mitchell indulging in extreme dieting. Deprived, they become depraved; crazy — really crazy. Champagne problems, really, because of course eventually they go off their diet. (Never mind how.) But the picture is real: Imagine having to live without nourishment.

A letter to the editor in last Saturday’s New York Times responded to a columnist who suggested that the $5 per person per day provided by the federal government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, otherwise known as food stamps) is not ideal, “but enough to survive.”

The letter writer, a food-pantry director in Harlem, noted: “To survive on food stamps — let alone prepare nourishing meals — is nearly impossible.” In her pantry, people who receive SNAP benefits cook their beans from scratch yet still can’t get through the month without help. This is just as true in Los Angeles, as Julie Gruenbaum Fax reported in a story about SOVA in these pages last week.

I was thinking about all this as I approached my Yom Kippur fast, so I called my friend Abby Leibman, who in March became president and CEO of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, the L.A.-based national nonprofit that works to prevent and alleviate hunger among all peoples. Leibman is a longtime social justice activist in the Jewish community, the one-time founding director of the Women’s Law Center and always an advocate for those who are most vulnerable. Leibman’s charge with MAZON is to increase its visibility, as well as its impact, she said. Founded in 1985, MAZON currently grants a total of about $3 million annually to 300 organizations nationally and worldwide, including food banks, food pantries, kosher programs and home-delivered programs for the food insecure. It also promotes advocacy and education related to hunger issues. Leibman said she hopes to double MAZON’s annual budget of about $5 million “so we can re-grant more money, and also do things on a systemic basis.”

The latest news about hunger in America is not news to people in her work, she said. But her own fresh eye has helped her take a sharper look at the terminology. For example, people often talk about food pantries like SOVA as part of the “emergency food system,” but it’s hardly just for emergencies anymore. For too many people, food pantries have become “the safety net that allows them to survive,” Leibman said. Since the downturn that began in 2008, we have seen a sharp rise in the number of people classified as poor, even as some in Congress are attacking the necessity of the government’s SNAP program. That SNAP needs to continue seems obvious. But, still, that’s not enough.

Many of us have picked up a bag to fill with food to bring to the synagogue sometime during this season, to contribute supplies for the local pantry. And if you’ve filled that bag already, more than likely you did so with food that travels easily and won’t spoil. Pasta, rice, cereal, canned goods. All this is sustenance, but not all that it takes to survive.

MAZON — which Charity Navigator has just raised to four stars, its highest rating for philanthropies — has just begun a promising new initiative to explore ways to distribute more fresh foods. Created in partnership with Kaiser Permanente, the program is called “Healthy Options/Healthy Meals” and is initially funding 12 food banks around the nation, helping them explore ways to make healthy and nutritious food more available to populations with specific needs, such as the elderly.

Leibman said she also wants to create an innovation fund at MAZON. After 25 years in the business, MAZON’s staff knows what works now, but they are looking for new ideas. For that, Leibman said, she needs to raise $1 million “to find and fund organizations doing something really unique. To give real seed money to get something off the ground.”

The challenge in pulling in new money like that is that, unlike some other kinds of charities, there’s nothing sexy about hunger, she said. But it’s not going away anytime soon. So it’s important to remember, “There are people who face life challenges that we can’t imagine and that we haven’t had to experience,” Leibman said. One in six Americans does.

And without knowing where that next meal is coming from, it’s hard to imagine how to move on. “I believe nobody can improve their life if they’re hungry,” Leibman said.

“It’s not brand new, but just think what it must be like to be living with it.”

The Hunger Question

"We will never go hungry," Ahmad Zughayer boasted as a truck from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) unloaded sacks of flour, sugar, oil, rice and milk powder in the Balata refugee camp near Nablus.

"We will never go hungry, but not for the reason you think," he added. "We simply stick together. Whenever anyone misses anything, someone will help out, be it family or neighbors."

As a U.S.-funded survey reports growing levels of malnutrition among the Palestinian population, Israelis and Palestinians, have differed over just how severe the socioeconomic crisis is in the Palestinian areas, and who bears the blame.

Palestinians say Israeli security closures are intended to strangle the Palestinian economy and impose collective punishment. Israel says many innocent Palestinians are paying the price for their compatriots’ belligerence and the Palestinian Authority’s ineptitude and corruption.

Before the intifada, tens of thousands of Palestinians worked in Israel and maintained a decent standard of living.

For 20 years, Iyyad Maher, 45, also from the Balata camp, worked as a truck driver distributing dairy products in Israel. Since the intifada began in September 2000, he has been sitting at home, unemployed.

According to the World Bank, 35 percent of the Palestinian labor force is unemployed, but the situation in the refugee camps is worse, with unemployment figures at 50 percent or higher.

The obvious result is that family income has fallen sharply, and there is less money to buy basic commodities. In the past month, Israel has imposed a curfew in the West Bank and a closure that prohibits movement between Palestinian cities and towns.

Israel says it would like to ease the predicament of the general Palestinian population, while trying to maintain its own security. When Israel does relax its closures, Palestinian groups often exploit the freedom to send terrorists to attack Israel.

Israel and the Palestinians held high-level talks last week to discuss security cooperation and ways to ease Palestinian hardships. So far, no dramatic improvement has been felt. Zughayer, however, sounded confident.

"Don’t worry about us," he said. "We can always settle for bread and olive oil."

His comments conflicted with a recent survey conducted by Care International, which was designed by Johns Hopkins University’s School of Public Health and funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

The preliminary results of the study, carried out among 1,000 Palestinian households, showed that 9.3 percent of Palestinian children up to 5 years of age suffer from acute malnutrition, meaning they weigh less than they should for their age or height. The study surveyed nutrition levels, availability of food and household consumption. The result was an accusing finger pointed at Israel, as the study’s authors sought to tie the rise in malnutrition to Israeli-imposed restrictions on movement and the dismal economic situation in Palestinian areas, rather than to Palestinian violence or Palestinian Authority mismanagement.

Maj. Gen. Amos Gilad, Israel’s coordinator of government affairs in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, rejected the accusations. He admitted that the standard of living in the territories has dropped considerably, but denied categorically that the population was suffering from hunger.

The truth may be somewhere in the middle. There is no hunger because of a high level of mutual aid among the Palestinian population and the continued supply of food rations by UNRWA, and also because the Israeli army — despite closures and curfews — allows for the regular supply of food to the Palestinian territories.

On the main street of the Balata camp, in fact, fresh fruit and vegetables were piling up on the produce stands. Lumps of meat were hanging in the butcher shop, and the falafel stands were as busy as ever. To all appearances, the population here is not suffering from hunger.

Still, they could be suffering from malnutrition. With unemployment in the territories at an all-time high, few families can afford to buy a pound of grapes for 35 cents, not to mention meat and dairy products.

Indeed, the USAID study found that 36 percent of Palestinian families in the West Bank and Gaza Strip do not have enough money to consistently feed their families.

The figures put the Gaza Strip on par with the poverty-stricken African countries of Nigeria and Chad for acute malnutrition. But Gilad told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee last week that the issue of hunger is partly a matter of definitions.

"Hunger is when there is a lack of basic commodities. Hunger is when people have swollen bellies and fall over dead," Gilad said. "There is no hunger now."

If foreign humanitarian aid to the Palestinians declines, the Israeli army is preparing for the contingency that it will have to establish a military government and resurrect the civil administration that governed Palestinians from the 1967 Six-Day War until the formation of the Palestinian Authority under the Oslo accords, Gilad told the committee.

Jacob Adler, a medical adviser to the Israeli military authorities in the West Bank and Gaza, admitted that "there is a certain problem of availability of food," but argued that malnutrition already had increased in the mid-1990s under Palestinian Authority management.

Not all Palestinians blame only Israel for the crisis. A few weeks ago, thousands of demonstrators took to the streets in Gaza demanding that the Palestinian Authority supply "bread and work."

Even inside the Balata camp, residents openly blame the Palestinian Authority.

"Don’t tell me that the Palestinian Authority has no money," said Maher, who used to earn more than $1,000 a month from his dairy delivery job in Israel. "I remember the days when the Israeli military governor came to his office with a beat-up Sussita [a type of Israeli car produced in the 1960s]. Our leaders all drive Mercedes."

Gilad, too, told the Knesset committee that the Palestinian Authority under President Yasser Arafat is "extremely corrupt," with its leadership "driving fancy cars, hiring maids from Sri Lanka and not bringing up its children to become suicide bombers."

"Sometimes," he added, "I think we care about the Palestinians more than Yasser Arafat and his gang."

Maher would not elaborate how, after two years unemployed, he still managed to make ends meet.

"I have burned out all our savings," he said. "Now I’m considering selling the refrigerator."