September 23, 2019

Who Are the Hungry, and Who’s Feeding Them?

On any given Wednesday on Pico Boulevard, a line of people starts snaking out of the SOVA food pantry early in the morning. Some of the people are homeless, some are dressed for work, some have kids with them. Some are Jewish, many are not, and all of them are there on a monthly visit to take home a week’s worth of free canned and dry goods, fresh produce, baked goods and meat.

Jewish Family Service’s SOVA Community Food and Resource Program served more than 9,700 people at its three pantries in October, a number that is up 60 percent since October 2008 and up 85 percent since October 2007.

Federation’s newly launched Fed Up With Hunger campaign doesn’t necessarily aim to eliminate the lines outside SOVA — that would mean eliminating poverty altogether — but rather to ensure that anyone who doesn’t have the money to buy food can easily access an emergency food source, such as SOVA or governmental programs.

Federation has partnered with MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger; Jewish Family Service (JFS); The Board of Rabbis of Southern California; and several non-sectarian hunger-fighting organizations to develop its Blueprint to End Hunger, which is at the core of its Fed up With Hunger campaign.

The plan looks roughly toward a goal year of 2015 — the same year President Obama has set for ending childhood hunger — in laying out a plan to rally Jews and non-Jews to become aware of the problem, to volunteer time and resources to solve it and to lobby government and private-sector programs to upgrade existing programs to ensure that all who are hungry may come and eat.

For the campaign, Federation has latched onto the language employed by the Los Angeles Regional Foodbank that one in eight people in Los Angeles faces hunger. In an edgy video with a Beastie Boys soundtrack at givelifemeaning.org, a note drawn onto a ragged piece of cardboard reads, “1 in 8 Angelenos feel hungry every day,” a claim echoed by actress Debra Messing in a video message.

While one in eight people have a legitimate fear of feeling hungry every day, only a portion of those actually end up not eating enough. Still, the problem is real.

About 1.2 million people in Los Angeles County are food insecure, according to a 2003 UCLA Health Policy Research study that analyzed data from a California Health Interview Survey. The study did not count children, homeless and those without phones, estimated at around 400,000, according to Andrew Cushnir, associate executive vice president at Federation, who oversees Federation’s operations that serve the vulnerable. Those numbers match up with nationwide figures produced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which conducts a yearly census that measures hunger and food insecurity.

A family that is food insecure might be unsure of where the next meal will come from and may continually have to choose between things like paying rent, buying medication or eating a real meal. Of those 1.2 million in Los Angeles, around 290,000 are regularly going hungry — skipping meals, feeding only some members of the family or eating inadequate quantities. A Federation study on poverty in the Jewish community estimated that 100,000 Jews in Los Angeles are living in poverty; around 30 percent of low-income Californians experience food insecurity, according to the UCLA study.

Moderate declines in the number of hungry people between 2003 and 2005 will most likely be erased when the next round of data comes out in a few weeks. Experts assume they will see hundreds of thousands of more people who have been added to the rolls over this past year of economic crisis.

“We don’t have starvation in the United States, but we do have hunger,” said Eric Schockman, CEO of MAZON, a national grant making and advocacy organization to fight worldwide hunger. “It’s episodal, and you can get out of it immediately, and anyone can fall victim to it.”

Families who are food insecure are more likely to miss school and work, have more anxiety and depression, and are less likely to fill needed prescriptions and care for chronic conditions.

There are 19 federally funded nutrition assistance programs, as well as dozens of local nonprofits that feed the hungry, but not everyone is accessing that aid. According to Michael Flood, president and CEO of the Los Angeles Regional Foodbank, around 700,000 people are being served at the network of food banks in Los Angeles every year, and about 800,000 receive food stamps. Only around half the people in California eligible for food stamps are utilizing the program.

That leaves hundreds of thousands who reported that they face hunger but are not getting adequate assistance, either because they are too proud to take help or are unsure what is available or how to navigate the system. Many are believed to be undocumented immigrants, who are not eligible for governmental programs and often reluctant to go to food banks or other charitable organizations, even though they do not check immigration status. About 2.7 million undocumented immigrants are believed to be living in California, and the UCLA Health Policy study found that nearly 40 percent of low-income undocumented immigrants are food insecure.

But even those who utilize food programs — school lunches and breakfasts, nutrition programs for pregnant women and infants, food banks or free meal sites — are probably not getting enough. Food stamps don’t cover a full month’s worth of groceries, and clients are limited in the number of visits they may make to a food bank.

While the Los Angeles Regional Foodbank increased its distribution by 40 percent this year, demand grew faster than supply, Flood said.

“On the private charity side there is actually not enough supply,” Flood said. “Though the food bank volume has grown as significantly as it has, there are still food pantries that are running out of food,” said Flood, who collaborated on Fed Up With Hunger.

Organizations say they are already benefiting from Fed Up With Hunger since it launched in September, with Sukkot events and an effort to get synagogue rabbis to address hunger during the High Holy Days. The campaign distributed 42,000 reusable shopping bags with its logo and literature about the campaign.

SOVA took in 40 percent more in the High Holy Day food drive this year than last year.

“We’re seeing more interest from volunteers coming to SOVA to help out, and increased donations,” said Paul Castro, executive director of JFS. “The issue of hunger has been front and center for us for a while, and I think Federation picking this up and promoting it in a much larger way has been helpful.”

JFS, which helped Federation create the plan, is also readying itself for increased demand, since part of the plan calls on advocates to help connect more people to available resources.

In addition to SOVA, JFS runs senior and homebound nutrition programs that provide 200,000 meals a year.

But Federation is looking for more than increased donations. The Federation’s Blueprint to End Hunger lays out plans for individuals, political leaders, community organizations and businesses to take on the cause through means as diverse as planting and harvesting a community garden to spreading the word among potential recipients about what is available. The program provides talking points for lobbying Los Angeles leaders to declare Los Angeles a hunger-free zone and to establish a timeline and benchmarks to reach that goal. The blueprint proposes a Food Policy Council to coordinate governmental, nonprofit and school district programs.

Still, the goals are more limited than the publicity-savvy term “ending hunger” implies.

To end the phenomenon of hunger, hunger’s root cause — poverty — would have to be eradicated.

“I don’t think we have the capacity to end poverty in Los Angeles in any guaranteed short period of time,” Cushnir said. “But we can make sure that emergency food delivery systems are serving people in a way that allows them to get what they need to eat.”

The Los Angeles Regional Food Bank prefers the term “fighting hunger,” which more accurately describes the effort.

Schockman of MAZON believes that addressing hunger, even if it doesn’t mean ending hunger, is a first necessary step in alleviating greater symptoms of poverty.

“My mission is not to end hunger, but I believe if you put food in people’s stomachs you can move the needle upwards, so that they can begin to think about affording childcare and health care and rent and prescription drugs, and all the other things a middle class existence gives us the privilege to think about,” Schockman said.

Federation is partnering with synagogues, which have long been on the frontlines of raising funds, food and awareness about hunger.

“I don’t know of any synagogue that was not already doing something for SOVA or MAZON or Tomchei Shabbos [which provides weekly deliveries of groceries], but now we’re seeing a blending of these efforts and an opportunity to think of new initiatives and think collaboratively,” said Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive director of The Board of Rabbis of Southern California, a co-sponsor of Fed Up With Hunger.

Temple Ahavat Shalom in the North Valley, in coordination with The Federation’s Valley Alliance, had for some time been planning an event to package 35,000 ready-to-cook meals in one day. With Fed Up With Hunger raising the profile of the event, nearly 400 showed up to packing day in October.

University Synagogue in Brentwood had already been donating to SOVA, making sandwiches for AIDS patients and providing food at a Santa Monica community center. But with Fed Up With Hunger as a catalyst, it has upped the profile of the issue. University’s Rabbi Morley Feinstein gave a sermon about hunger on Rosh Hashanah; on Yom Kippur, a new task force on hunger met at the synagogue during a breakout session.

Some congregations are serving as role models. For 20 years, Wilshire Boulevard Temple has been stocking and manning its own food pantry to serve around 200 people every Sunday in addition to supporting SOVA. Valley Beth Shalom in Encino recently opened its own SOVA pantry, and B’nai David-Judea Congregation hosts a monthly lunch where members and the neighborhood needy dine together.

Kehillat Israel in the Pacific Palisades has been focusing on hunger for the last 20 years, constantly and consistently driving the message home to congregants. On the High Holy Days, the Reconstructionist congregation collected 26,650 pounds of food for the Westside Food Bank, after congregants received shopping bags with a list of needed items printed on it. The congregation’s nine-year total to the food bank is 82.5 tons of food. One pound of food is estimated to equal what is necessary for an individual meal.

In 1990 Kehillat Israel founded Extra Helpings, with congregants driving to bakeries, restaurants and markets to recover surplus food for the food bank. By 1995, Extra Helpings was collecting 1 million pounds of food a year, so the congregation turned the program over to the Westside Food Bank, which now collects more than 2 million pounds a year.

“It really is an issue that has connected remarkably well with congregants, that gets a passionate response from members and where people feel like they are making a huge difference in the lives of people who really need assistance,” said Bruce Rosen, a lay leader in Kehillat Israel’s hunger efforts.

Federation is counting on that pull to bring in thousands of more people from all corners of Los Angeles.

“It’s one of those rare campaigns that can and should unite us,” said Rabbi Mark Diamond. “It’s an absolute shanda [embarrassment] that in a community blessed with such enormous natural and human resources, that we have so many people who are hungry in Los Angeles…. We have to do more, and I see a real energy and spirit of Klal Yisrael [the united People of Israel] around this that I haven’t seen in a long time in this community.”