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Friday, September 25, 2020

How to feed the hungry

On the fifth night of Sukkot, a panel gathered in The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ Wilshire Boulevard headquarters to discuss how to handle hunger both at home and across the country. Rabbi Noah Farkas of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino explained that it was an auspicious date for such a conversation. 

Consider, he said, the lulav that is waved during the holiday. It is an aguda (bundle) composed of different plant species, each of which has a specific set of qualities: One has a taste, one a smell, one neither and one both. These are supposed to correspond to the people of the Jewish community, Farkas said, some of whom are versed in Torah and some of whom know justice, some of whom know both and some neither. 

“And the rabbis ask the question, then, why do you have this last group, the group of people who just don’t seem to have any worth?” he said. “[They answer] by giving the line from the Torah that we are to take up all four species together and to make them one aguda, which means for me that if we want to change the world … we have to bind ourselves to each other and cover for each other’s failing and work together through all of our differences.” 

This seemed to be the theme of the night, which brought together four diverse panelists doing work both in Los Angeles and across the globe, whose strategies ranged from short-term emergency food aid to encouraging grass-roots activism to lobbying members of Congress directly on issues of international consequence. The panel’s title was “The Second Harvest 2.0: Innovative Strategies That Address Hunger Locally and Globally.” Part of Federation’s Community Engagement Initiative, the Sept. 24 event drew about 50 people.  

Farkas, founder of the group Netiya, which works to help communities of faith plant urban gardens, was joined by Robert Egger, whose L.A. Kitchen aims to tackle food waste while creating jobs and feeding the elderly, as well as Paula Daniels, former chair of the L.A. Food Policy Council and senior policy adviser to former L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Rounding out the panel was Jonathan Zasloff, representing the American Jewish World Service, where he volunteers, and moderator Abby Leibman, president and CEO of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger. 

The conversation covered topics from corn subsidies to international food aid, and it tended to focus on broad-based systemic thinking over immediate solutions to local issues. As Leibman remarked at one point, “A board member [once] said to me, ‘We’re not going to food bank our way out of hunger.’ ” 

Or, as Egger put it, “Sure, I want to fish the baby out of the water here, but who’s throwing the babies in the water upstream?” 

Hunger is a complex problem, the panelists agreed, and finding a solution to it is even more complicated. It doesn’t help that Congress passed a bill in September that, if enacted, would cut $40 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program over the course of the next 10 years. Leibman characterized this as “huge slap in the face … to all those who are struggling to recover from the terrible economy and to put food on the table for their family.” She also said that “as the nutrition safety net is being shredded … somebody, somewhere, somehow is going to have to pick up the slack.”

This means finding short-term solutions, like food banks, but also thinking long-term about creating systemic change. For Egger that means job creation, and his goal with L.A. Kitchen is to produce something that will feed the hungry today while also giving them the skills to look for work that will enable them to support themselves tomorrow. 

To that end, L.A. Kitchen will run a job-training program for people returning home from prison, pairing them with youth aging out of foster care and teaching them to prepare food in commercial kitchens. L.A. Kitchen will take seconds — produce that’s considered unsellable for cosmetic reasons — and turn it into meals for the city’s elderly. It’s an elegant system that creates, as Egger puts it, side-by-side learning and serving instead of a model that “emphasizes the redemption of the giver, not the liberation of the receiver.” 

Daniels looks at the issue from a civic angle. She said that Villaraigosa’s idea was to “use the market power of the city to influence what’s being produced,” creating a demand for healthy produce and then using a decentralized system of local food hubs to distribute it.  In effect, this means using the government dollars that purchase food for schools and hospitals to incentivize local production of that produce, and then creating a smaller-scale system to distribute it throughout the city — which means jobs in picking and packing, driving and distributing as well as preparing and serving. 

The issue, both in America and around the world, panelists agreed, was rarely that there weren’t enough calories; it’s almost always an issue of getting those calories into hungry mouths. 

Zasloff, who is also a rabbinic student at the ALEPH ordination program, closed out the panel by reminding the audience that charity is not a spectator sport, especially in Jewish tradition. He spoke of a blessing that thanks God for knowledge and awareness, and urged everyone in the room to acknowledge their own blessings, and to try once a day to think or do something about hunger.

“Do one thing every day, and that will make you more aware, it will connect you in with what else is happening, and it will begin to …  motivate you to do something and pursue your own path, that will allow you to link up with other people.”

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