Hunger Is a Challenge Not a Problem - Solutions Abound

May 1, 2003
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By Mark E. Talisman

On the issue of hunger, there is a knowledge and compassion gap among Jews in the United States. After having spent nearly 40 years working on problems of endemic hunger (and homelessness, too), I cannot understand why that special social-justice nerve Jews have deeply embedded inside them is absent regarding this issue of hunger.

Within the Jewish community, synagogues, youth groups, day schools, and other gatherings of Jews collect canned goods from their own cupboards and put them in large bags for delivery to hungry people; sometimes we substitute for non-Jews at soup kitchens and shelters on Christmas or Easter. But we only touch the very outer limits of hunger in America - a problem that also afflicts our own elderly, shut-ins, dysfunctional families, suddenly unemployed families, and singles. In times like this, Jews living below the poverty level hovers at 20 percent or more! Miami, with so many elderly, may be a higher figure. The irony is that most Jewish federations don’t know how many Jews in their own geographical areas fall below the poverty level, making it difficult to provide targeted assistance. Yes, we have meals on wheels for the lucky who live in the right places. But many of our own folks and others aren’t even close to such luxuries.

No matter how innovative we are, when it comes to hunger and creative solutions to an issue that grows larger by the day in abundant America, we fail on all counts.

I’ve had the privilege to serve for many years on the National Emergency Food and Shelter Program. I also helped create, several years ago at the Council of Jewish Federation’s Washington Action Office, a “Memorandum of Understanding” between Israel’s Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs and the U.S. Health and Human Services Department. While I found that local nonprofits, churches, and groups of people in neighborhoods creatively found ways to fill the huge and ever widening gap among those with and those without basic nutritional food, unfortunately, very few Jewish communities had community pantries for the hungry to go and shop. The Dallas Federation was, at that time, the only federation that had a kosher pantry available for the Jewish and general community to use, and use they did. What we say on Shabbat and the holy days of our lives is meant to apply on this earth as we reach out to ensure no person ever goes to bed without food or decent shelter. We must acknowledge and address the fact that malnutrition has a deep connection to learning and productivity in school.

We waste so much food in the process of production. And we lack knowledge about our food production systems - from the field to the conveyor belt - to creatively reduce waste. Years ago, a contractor for McDonald’s discovered that when the vast fields of iceberg lettuce were machine cut for American supermarkets, there were perfectly good leaves of lettuce left on the remaining stems. A machine was invented, with the help of McDonald’s, to pick the remaining lettuce leaves, which are then washed and shredded into the very format needed for Big Macs! Second Harvest, a food recovery group, now follows that McDonald’s harvester and recovers the third layer of last lettuce leaves, leaving nothing wasted at all.

What is to be done with the remains of fertile fields in America after the main crops are picked? How can we maximize redistribution - especially in urban America? We might start by creatively redistributing untouched remains from our family simchas. I resolved long ago that dented cans of food from my pantry were insulting as a donation. So I bake bread - a nutritional nearly one-stop way to feed the hungry. What else can we do?

Why not challenge synagogues, Hillel campus memberships, Jewish schools, and our youth organizations to strategize about long-term manageable ways to provide streams of nutritional foods on a sustained basis? How about organizing trips for the younger, able bodied to assist with food production - picking during harvesting foods that can then be collectively canned and preserved, frozen and otherwise conserved? Why not constitute a new agricultural/urban tithing, where a very small portion of crops are volunteer harvested and donated to the hungry across the United States?

What about pairing inter-generational members of the Jewish community, younger high school and college students with the elderly who are in need - not only to provide a steady source of food but companionship and perhaps occasional employment as well? We might just provide an opportunity to explore and appreciate the food chain and both sides of the hunger issue. Group strategizing, community by community, should provide innovative, community-based ideas to provide food, drink, and comfort while we look for longer-term policy solutions. So what are we waiting for?

If anyone doubts this evil cannot be conquered, then they have not breathed deeply of the huge energy that exists among our young, of the determination of our elderly who have witnessed similar crises before and successfully conquered them, and of the concerned bystanders in between. What we all need is a call to action after digesting the facts and facing the human faces of poverty - a monster with solutions within our grasp.

A decade ago, speaking before his Parliament, the Japanese prime minister commented that the true measurement of any so-called powerful nation was if any of its citizens went to bed at night without food or shelter or any of its babies went to sleep without milk. By this simple test, how do we judge ourselves and our community? And our country, how does it measure against this simple standard?

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Mark E. Talisman was the founder of the Council of Jewish Federation's Washington Action Office and served as its director for 18 years. Among many issues, he focused upon hunger issues during that time. In 1979, he created the National Emergency Food and Shelter Program that was legislated into law under the sponsorship of the late Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill. It still exists in FEMA and has delivered over a billion and a half federal dollars through its national board, of which Talisman was a member for 14 years, to thousands of local boards across the country.

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