October 06, 2011

Hungry 24/7: Abby Leibman and MAZON featured in the Jewish Journal

Hungry 24 7 Photo

Original article published October 6, 2011 by Susan Freudenheim, managing editor of the Jewish Journal in Los Angeles, CA. Reprinted with permission.

Are you hungry?

Chances are you’re only a short reach away from your next meal or snack. If you’re reading this on Yom Kippur, your wait is probably longer. But either way, when you say you’re hungry, you probably know where your next meal will come from.

On Yom Kippur, we fast to focus our minds. We give up food for 25 hours as a mitzvah, but it is also our choice.

That’s not the situation for more than 50 million Americans — right now, one in six Americans is living with food insecurity — which means they either are constantly at risk of being without their next meal or living with disrupted food patterns. This shocking number comes from a study just released by Feeding America, a food-relief organization. These people do not choose to be hungry.

And here are some even more stark statistics:

  • 17 million of America’s children live with food insecurity.
  • Only 10 percent of the 50 million are homeless.
  • About 36 percent of food-insecure families include one working adult.

This problem is rampant in a country that prides itself on being one of the most affluent in the world.

Just over a week ago, an episode of the TV sitcom “Modern Family” showed Cameron and Mitchell indulging in extreme dieting. Deprived, they become depraved; crazy — really crazy. Champagne problems, really, because of course eventually they go off their diet. (Never mind how.) But the picture is real: Imagine having to live without nourishment.

letter to the editor in last Saturday’s New York Times responded to a columnist who suggested that the $5 per person per day provided by the federal government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, otherwise known as food stamps) is not ideal, “but enough to survive.”

The letter writer, a food-pantry director in Harlem, noted: “To survive on food stamps — let alone prepare nourishing meals — is nearly impossible.” In her pantry, people who receive SNAP benefits cook their beans from scratch yet still can’t get through the month without help. This is just as true in Los Angeles, as Julie Gruenbaum Fax reported in a story about SOVA in these pages last week.

I was thinking about all this as I approached my Yom Kippur fast, so I called my friend Abby Leibman, who in March became president and CEO of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, the L.A.-based national nonprofit that works to prevent and alleviate hunger among all peoples. Leibman is a longtime social justice activist in the Jewish community, the one-time founding director of the Women’s Law Center and always an advocate for those who are most vulnerable. Leibman’s charge with MAZON is to increase its visibility, as well as its impact, she said. Founded in 1985, MAZON currently grants a total of about $3 million annually to 300 organizations nationally and worldwide, including food banks, food pantries, kosher programs and home-delivered programs for the food insecure. It also promotes advocacy and education related to hunger issues. Leibman said she hopes to double MAZON’s annual budget of about $5 million “so we can re-grant more money, and also do things on a systemic basis.”

The latest news about hunger in America is not news to people in her work, she said. But her own fresh eye has helped her take a sharper look at the terminology. For example, people often talk about food pantries like SOVA as part of the “emergency food system,” but it’s hardly just for emergencies anymore. For too many people, food pantries have become “the safety net that allows them to survive,” Leibman said. Since the downturn that began in 2008, we have seen a sharp rise in the number of people classified as poor, even as some in Congress are attacking the necessity of the government’s SNAP program. That SNAP needs to continue seems obvious. But, still, that’s not enough.

Many of us have picked up a bag to fill with food to bring to the synagogue sometime during this season, to contribute supplies for the local pantry. And if you’ve filled that bag already, more than likely you did so with food that travels easily and won’t spoil. Pasta, rice, cereal, canned goods. All this is sustenance, but not all that it takes to survive.

MAZON — which Charity Navigator has just raised to four stars, its highest rating for philanthropies — has just begun a promising new initiative to explore ways to distribute more fresh foods. Created in partnership with Kaiser Permanente, the program is called “Healthy Options/Healthy Meals” and is initially funding 12 food banks around the nation, helping them explore ways to make healthy and nutritious food more available to populations with specific needs, such as the elderly.

Leibman said she also wants to create an innovation fund at MAZON. After 25 years in the business, MAZON’s staff knows what works now, but they are looking for new ideas. For that, Leibman said, she needs to raise $1 million “to find and fund organizations doing something really unique. To give real seed money to get something off the ground.”

The challenge in pulling in new money like that is that, unlike some other kinds of charities, there’s nothing sexy about hunger, she said. But it’s not going away anytime soon. So it’s important to remember, “There are people who face life challenges that we can’t imagine and that we haven’t had to experience,” Leibman said. One in six Americans does.

And without knowing where that next meal is coming from, it’s hard to imagine how to move on. “I believe nobody can improve their life if they’re hungry,” Leibman said.

“It’s not brand new, but just think what it must be like to be living with it.”