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All this has been brilliantly brought home by an array of agencies that have sponsored what’s called the SNAP/Food Stamp Challenge. Here, the work of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs has been exemplary. In particular, the JCPA has promoted something called the “FSC,” which stands for “food stamp challenge.” The FSC signs people up to get by, for one week, on what the average SNAP recipient is allocated per week: $31.50. By now, some thousands of people have accepted the challenge, and their testimonies are both a shock and an inspiration. Other Jewish organizations have joined in, encouraging their members to participate in the FSC. These include, among others, Mazon, the Rabbinical Assembly, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Assembly, the Union for Reform Judaism, United Synagogues of Conservative Judaism, Uri L’Tzedek, the Cantors Assembly and the American Conference of Cantors.
Comes the question: If a decent diet is a right — and surely in a nation with such abundance of food as ours, it should be so regarded — does not that right merit a higher status that it is currently accorded?
Some will argue that we pay into Medicare and Social Security, and there’s no comparable participation in programs such as SNAP. But that surely misunderstands the core pay-in — to wit, our tax dollars. There’s much talk about the continuing importance of a social safety net – and if, as seems obvious, efforts to beat back hunger are part of what we mean by such a net, then it follows that SNAP should be untouchable.
But it isn’t, especially at a time when members of Congress are frenetically searching for ways to cut the nation’s deficit. That, presumably, is why Congress in 2010 passed legislation ending the increase it had approved in 2009’s Recovery Act. And that is why some people are now speaking of a “food cliff,” referring to the SNAP benefit cut scheduled to happen this coming November.
Now and then, there’s casual reference to “ending” hunger in America. Wouldn’t that be something! But it will not happen unless and until we understand that the underlying problem is not hunger at all; it is poverty. And while their sentiments are surely commendable, the fact is that the hunger agencies have their hands full dealing with the immediate food crisis of more that 50 million Americans; that is more than a sufficient challenge, and has more immediate resonance with the public at large than a call to arms to do battle with poverty.
So we are stuck, focused on symptom rather than cause. But before castigating ourselves, we should note that at least we are not insisting that the currently hungry be held hostage to far-off solutions. Still, while we ought not castigate ourselves, neither should we delude ourselves: The battle against poverty, so long delayed, cannot in conscience be indefinitely postponed. Such postponement reflects a moral deficit that is truly frightening.