The news is out: Nearly 1 million people in Los Angeles County live under threat of hunger, one-third of California's entire food-insecure population. This, according to a new report issued by a long-time MAZON grantee, the Los Angeles Regional Foodbank. What does the report reveal as the real scandal behind these appalling statistics? That hunger in Southern California and beyond is fully preventable.
We have long known this to be the case. Statistics show that while hunger and food insecurity are on the rise, so is our ability to deal with the problem. Through a combination of emergency feeding agencies (like the Foodbank) and impactful government programs (like food stamps and reduced-price school breakfasts), we have the capacity to end hunger for good.
The Foodbank report did reveal one bit of promising news: The percentage of its client households receiving food stamps increased from 15 percent to 25 percent from 2001 to 2005. And yet, these numbers show that we are barely scratching the surface in terms of the need. Why are 75 percent of eligible low-income households not accessing federal benefits available to them? Why do children and seniors make up more than 40 percent of clients forced to seek emergency food assistance? How can we, in good conscience, ignore the most vulnerable members of our society?
These questions do not have easy answers. But what is increasingly clear across the Southland is the Jewish community's resolve to find a solution. Whether through MAZON, their synagogues, their youth groups or other charitable endeavors, Southern California's Jews are recognizing the role they play in spreading social justice throughout the region.
Consider several examples. University Synagogue in Irvine has been a trailblazer when it comes to supporting anti-hunger activities. Groups of concerned congregants have long raised money for emergency feeding and long-term hunger relief, but their amazing efforts have recently reached new heights. In addition to large numbers of b'nai mitzvah students and engaged couples seeking to include hungry families in their simchas, synagogue havurot are now adopting hunger as the focus of their charitable activism. These efforts have combined to make University Synagogue an extraordinary MAZON partner not only in terms of raising funds but also in elevating anti-hunger consciousness.
Leo Baeck Temple in Los Angeles is another innovator in the fight against hunger. A long-time booster of MAZON's annual anti-hunger appeals at Yom Kippur and Passover, Rabbi Ken Chasen has steadily expanded his support to encompass the entire calendar year. Among Leo Baeck's consistently creative efforts is its recent "Stay-Awake-a-thon," a program that challenged high school students to endure a night of sleeplessness as a means of raising money for hungry families across Los Angeles.
At Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, Rabbi David Wolpe spreads the message to even younger congregants. From as early as preschool, Sinai Akiba Academy students engage in social justice activities aimed at providing food for the hungry. This is the synagogue's way of inculcating the next generation with strong values that set the stage for a lifelong commitment to assisting those in need.
The L.A. Regional Foodbank report shows us that contributions like these are both critically important and ultimately insufficient. We can and must do more, as individuals and as a community. We must support local feeding programs, encourage the businesses we patronize to take an interest in the wellbeing of their communities (after all, healthy and prosperous citizens are potential customers!), and let our elected representatives know that government must bear part of this burden.
As the Foodbank report asserts, everyone can do something to fight hunger. We Jews know that this goes even further: Everyone must do something to fight hunger. Our tradition demands nothing less.
Rabbi Arnold Rachlis is the rabbi at University Synagogue in Irvine and the board chair of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger. Dr. H. Eric Schockman is president of MAZON.