MAZON CEO Abby Leibman seizing the moment on hunger policy

Helen Chernikoff
April 15, 2021

This article was originally published in eJewish Philanthropy. 

Abby J. Leibman has worked in policy and direct service for more than 30 years, spending the last decade as president and CEO of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger. Yet she says this moment is unique in her career, in part because the Biden administration is broadening the role of government in a way that she says is helpful to the work MAZON does as a policy advocate and a grantmaker on the issue of food insecurity broadly and also among veterans, Native Americans and LGBTQ seniors. “The Biden administration is a radical departure from its predecessors, including that of other Democrats, and this is where the comparisons to FDR come up,” she told eJewishPhilanthropy in an interview, referring to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, architect of the New Deal, the programs, projects and reforms he enacted in response to the Great Depression. “It’s the idea that the government is there to help people, that it is a solution, a partner and a support.”

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Helen Chernikoff: If you were sitting and talking to a friend over coffee about what’s new at MAZON, what would you say?

Abby J. Leibman: We have two new advocacy priorities: single mothers and Puerto Rico. When MAZON adopts one of these new priorities, the first thing we do is research the issues and then create awareness that there are food insecurity challenges that are unique for these populations.

Single moms are an area in which I had both experience and an interest due to the work I did as head of the California Women’s Law Center. When you look at who the essential workers are, and who’s in poverty in this country, those categories are overlapping. These are women, and many of them are single mothers, and many of them are women of color. The pandemic is a moment of awareness, and we want to take advantage of that moment.

The issue of Puerto Rico came up in the last six to eight months. [The Puerto Rican people] need to be able to get the same kind of food assistance that every other American has access to, but they have different rules. They don’t have SNAP [the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program], for example; they have a different program. During the pandemic, when we could see how critical food insecurity was in this country, it was evident that people in Puerto Rico were struggling in ways that they shouldn’t have to.

HC: How do you define “food insecurity?”

AJL: It means a person doesn’t know where their next meal is coming from. Parents might skip meals so that their children can eat. That term might lack the emotional impact that speaking about “hunger” has. I think people are sophisticated enough consumers of both policy and rhetoric to understand that when we talk about the tens of millions of Americans who are hungry we don’t mean that they haven’t had lunch yet, we mean that they may never have lunch. I don’t balk at using the term “hunger,” but “food insecurity” is the technical term. The new secretary of agriculture, Tom Vilsack, is making a further rhetorical change to talk about “nutrition insecurity” because he is concerned about the quality of food and nutrition as well.

HC: Faith-based groups have encountered ambivalence from big national foundations, but the Biden administration has reestablished the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. What’s your experience of these different attitudes?

AJL: We do encounter that friction. Take the work we do on hunger in the military: We pioneered doing this on the national level, and it’s very unusual for any policymaker to ask us why a Jewish organization is concerned with this. It’s happened, but it’s rare. When we ask for support from organized philanthropy, they will ask us those questions. Maybe it’s not that direct, but there’s a suggestion of confusion. If we were handing out sandwiches to members of the military, it would be different. But because we are trying to champion a systemic change that will be lasting to millions of people, not just the 25 people we can give a sandwich to, we get those questions.

People ask me, what is more important to you as a leader, being a woman or being a Jewish person, and I have no idea of how to answer that question. It’s the same for us as an organization. We are driven by our values, and they come from the Jewish tradition and the American tradition, because we are an American-Jewish organization.

HC: What gives you hope right now?

AJL: The awareness of hunger in America has reached a permeating point that there is no turning back from. There’s an understanding of it that I haven’t seen before that was wrought out of the struggle of the charitable sector to keep up with the need during the pandemic. The importance of the federal government in this space can’t be overstated in providing a safety net. It’s our job to help create lasting policy change that takes advantage of this moment. There’s a reason we have a federal government: There is no other way to address our broad systemic challenges. It is not superfluous. It is not an also-ran.

HC: Given that you have spoken about some systemic change that you view as positive, what still worries you?

AJL: When you are the CEO of any kind of nonprofit organization, you always have these dual concerns of fulfilling the mission and supporting the longevity of the organization itself. The responsibility that I feel for the organization, for the staff, for the work itself — that can keep me up at night, especially at a time like this where I can’t see people in person and I feel the isolation. I feel it myself, and I feel theirs. How to create the best work culture I can when I’m not comfortable with it either, I struggle with that. Since last March, we’ve started a practice where everybody sends me a text message at the beginning of the week. It’s become an amazing way to build relationships. They send me photos of things they’ve baked, of their small children doing things around the house, ideas for a project. It’s helped people connect with me in a way that is more human, and I see a lot of value in that.

HC: What does philanthropy need to work on as a sector?

AJL: We’ve always had long and very close relationships with those organizations we fund. We’ve built a lot of trust with them. Early on in the pandemic, we gave our partners an additional grant. It was outside the scope of our normal funding but we could do it because we trusted them. The philanthropic community needs to think more about what it would mean to trust your grantees. The work that we engage in — the policy work, the social change work — it’s as important as some of the direct service work. There’s a need for both. We need to be trusted that this is an important part of the work that we’re doing.

HC: How are you thinking about the next phase of pandemic-era professional life?

AJL: We have staff in Israel, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles. When we used to have staff meetings, most people would be in the same room. Now we do them on Zoom. Everybody is just a little square, so it’s a great equalizer. We might want to continue that. Determining when, and let alone how, we’ll move back into an office is still an open question for us. We’re learning from colleagues and reading about foundations and large corporations who are in a position to move back into some kind of hybrid setup.

HC: How do you take care of yourself?

AJL: I have a very close and pretty big circle of friends. My children are adults and they’re very good at noticing if I’m having challenges and checking in. I try not to judge myself too harshly around any of the responses I’m having and that’s work. One of the places I’m trying not to judge myself is the snacks I choose. I consider dark chocolate to be one of the essential food groups. If it makes you smile, then that’s what you should do. And I indulge in reading material that is really not evolved. I read mysteries pretty voraciously. I love Charles Todd and cozy British mysteries.

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