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An Inside Look at the JCPA Food Stamp Challenge

Image by Deborah Lopez

For the gourmands among us in NYC, the words “food” and “crisis” are likely to refer to an inability to choose which hot new restaurant to grace for dinner. The word “hunger” can often get lost in the cacophony of “local,” “pasture-raised” and “sustainably grown.” Perhaps more so in the Jewish community, where much of our celebration is surrounded by food and we are overwhelmed by the abundance of it; the idea of Jewish values and hunger may get lost in the shuffle.

Enter: The Food Stamp Challenge.

Spearheaded by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) and co-sponsored by a number of Jewish organizations and rabbinic councils from across the spectrum, the Food Stamp Challenge creates a visceral learning opportunity about that most popular and noble of Jewish values, the pursuit of justice — specifically, food justice.

45 million people, more than half of whom are children, receive benefits from SNAP, the program formerly known as “food stamps.” Without this benefit, many of them would go hungry and run the risk of slipping further into poverty. And yet, this vital work is done at an average cost of just $1.50 per meal.

What does it mean to live on $1.50 per meal? While the SNAP program is meant to be supplemental, the real-world participants in SNAP face limits on their ability to purchase food everyday. The Food Stamp Challenge asks its participants to experience this limiting by pledging to live on just $31.50 for an entire week — $1.50 per meal.

“It is a dulling experience, stultifying … I walk through life feeling less capable of making creative decisions.” Rabbi Steve Gutow, the President and CEO of the JCPA is in his 5th day of the Food Stamp Challenge. “If I lived this way all my life I could not be a writer or a thinker or a doer.”

For those creating and participating in the Challenge, this powerfully physical and mental exercise can have an effect on how we approach the issue of hunger. “This should create an existential feeling to know what it would be like to walk in the shoes of someone who’s poor, not being able to make choices, or to have to go store to store to find the cheapest food,” says R’ Gutow.

The Food Stamp Challenge is now in its third year but 2012 is of particular importance. The Farm Bill, the massive bill under which SNAP is authorized, is up for renewal this year. Given the massive budget cuts that may be looming due to the fiscal cliff (or to prevent it), there is fear that SNAP may be drastically reduced, with tragic results to the millions of families who depend on food stamps to survive. The hope is that the Challenge will raise awareness of these issues among its participants and ripple out to those they interact with. R’ Gutow stresses that the Challenge organizers “want to make this above politics. It’s not whether you’re Republican or Democrat. This should be about taking care of poor people.”

As to what makes this endeavor a Jewish one, R’ Gutow is clear. “Our Torah and text speak consistently to make sure Jews and strangers are fed. It is part of other religions as well, and we look to Jewish sources.” The Food Stamp Challenge’s website quotes Isaiah, “If you offer your compassion to the hungry and satisfy the famished creature, then shall your light shine in darkness.” (58:10)

The Food Stamp Challenge ran from September 7 to September 13 and will run again from November 11 to November 17. If you’re not able to participate during that week, the organizers encourage you schedule any week that works for you- but they stress avoiding Thanksgiving. Perhaps they recognize that, even for a committed activist, that American bastion of over-indulgence may test the limits of, well, trying to limit.

On a related note, lest those of us trying to find some benefit beyond the moral in such an exercise believe weight loss would result from having so little to spend on food, R’ Gutow explains “You become tunneled by only having starch later in the day- and its fattening!” So this is one exercise in hunger whose sole purpose is, as they say, “l’sheim shamayim”- “for the sake of Heaven.”

Simon Feil is an actor, sushi instructor and semi-lapsed food activist. He haswritten articles in defense of kosher slaughter and stay-at-home dads.

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