December 16, 2004
The Shame of Famine Is in Not Ending It
This is a unique moment in history, when God has given us the means to dramatically reduce hunger and poverty.
The pangs of hunger can be
so painful and physiologically destructive, especially for children. Yet hunger also produces a more intangible pang -- that of stigma and shame.
Ironically, stigma is not just confined to individuals standing on the long, shaming lines at community soup kitchens. Nation states also feel a certain element of stigma in not being able to address the basic Maslovian need of proper nutrition for their populations.
Perhaps this is a lesser phenomenon in the developing world, where almost half the planet survives on less than $1 a day. But in the developed/post-modern world, the stigma of food insecurity raises fundamental questions of equity and distribution.
Both the United States and (more recently) Israel fall into this category. Food insecurity in both Israel and the United States is defined as the limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate foods, involving involuntarily cutting back on meals and food portions or not knowing the source of the next meal.
I have just returned from Israel as a delegate of an "expert exchange," part of a high-level conference and consultation on poverty and food insecurity, sponsored by the Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership -- a project of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, the municipality of Tel Aviv-Yafo, the Jewish Agency for Israel and the city of Los Angeles.
The Jewish Federation Los Angeles is a visionary on the U.S. side, seeing its role as a convener and facilitator to serve the larger common good in sharing best practices and identifying solutions that apply both locally and internationally. The municipality of Tel Aviv-Yafo is also a leader in advancing innovative strategies in an attempt to stay ahead of the poverty/hunger insecurity uptick on the local level.
Both democracies have been tracking each other on some negative indices for the past few years: poverty rates are increasing and the gap between the "haves" and "have-nots" is growing.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that 35 million Americans, including 13 million children, suffer from food insecurity or live on the edge of hunger.
According to Israel's Myers-JDC-Brookdale Institute, 22 percent of Israeli citizens (approximately 1.1 million people) are food insecure. Of those Israeli citizens who are food insecure, 60 percent are Jewish, 20 percent are Arab and 20 percent are new immigrants. The National Insurance Institute reports that nearly 30 percent of Israeli children -- approximately 690,000 -- live below the national poverty line.
So what can governments and the private nonprofit sector do to address this growing crisis?
First, our governing elected officials must overcome the stigma and acknowledge that there indeed is hunger insecurity of significant proportions (across the economic scale) in many advanced democracies. This might be perceived as having negative political implications, especially for the status quo in power.
Yet the truth is this is a shared, nonpartisan responsibility. Recognition of the depth of the problem ergo is essential to launching coherent and corrective public policies that go to the root causes of hunger.
For Jews (let alone government decision makers), this is especially important, given lessons learned from our sacred Torah. Famine was a constant threat in the ancient world.
We are taught that those who die from the sword are more fortunate than those who die from famine (Lamentations 4:9). Not only is this a "cruel death," where the body feeds upon itself, but along the way it is associated with humiliation suffered by those who cannot provide basic support for themselves (ramify this also to nations). The prophet Ezekiel calls this herpat ra'av, "the shame of famine" (Ezekiel 36:30).
Rabbi David Rosenn links the "shame of famine" with the "shame of hunger" by quoting Noble laureate Elie Wiesel:
"Why is famine alluded to as 'the shame of famine?' The hungry shouldn't be ashamed for dying of hunger. Others should be. It is the only disease for which there is a certain cure."
Second, there is a profound collective role for Jewish nonprofits to play in seeking a long-term solution. This dialogue began at the Los Angeles Jewish Federation's Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership's Conference on Poverty and Food Insecurity.
While in Israel, I also took the opportunity to visit many of MAZON's grantees involved in anti-hunger work. For many of these struggling amutot, MAZON has been a constant financial supporter and technical adviser for well over a decade.
It is their voices and the clients I met with that left me in an unsettled mode. At Be'er Sova in Be'er Sheva, I visited a soup kitchen, where mostly low-income elderly were getting their only hot, nutritious meal of the day. At Yad Ezer L'Chaver in Haifa, I saw how school-age children were fed hot lunches and provided an environment for educational enrichment via access to computers and tutoring. Friendship's Way in Jaffa is a grass-roots organization that struggles as it works with at-risk Jewish and Arab children to provide social activities, nutritious meals and education enrichment in a secure and supportive environment.
Truth be told: These are our local heroes who labor every day in the field. Yet, like the Greek myth of Sisyphus, their efforts alone will not solve the problem. What we need are more advocates to change the dialogue and summon the political will to end hunger.
What we need is a private-public partnership to align programs, laws, regulations and volunteers with the existing conditions. We must push our elected officials to overcome the stigma of denial about food insecurity and to become leaders to find solutions.
Israel and the United States can learn from each other and become the beacons of light for finding the cure for a very solvable epidemic.
H. Eric Schockman is president of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger.