Thought for food: Should UJC do an emergency food campaign?

Food banks, both Jewish and non-Jewish, are in a state of crisis as the cost of food rises and the number of people in need of their services grows daily. (See JTA’s story on the Jewish food bank crisis here, and a New York Times story about the crisis here).

As I reported out this story, one question lingered: Should the Jewish federation system step up with an emergency relief effort?

While the federation umbrella organization, the United Jewish Communities, has its critics, it has proven extremely effective at raising money during times of crisis.

In the aftermath Israel’s war with Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006, the UJC and the federations were able to raise some $360 million in aid through an Israel Emergency Campaign to help rebuild Israel’s north. During the early years of the second intifada, the UJC raised more than $300 million for aid to Israel. After the tsunami in Southeast Asia, the federations and UJC raised some $10 million to give to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee for relief efforts.

On the domestic front, the UJC raised $28.5 million for aid in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Now, a domestic emergency is brewing as the economy tanks, Americans lose their homes and jobs, and the government cuts its spending on social welfare projects. The burden falls on charities to help people slipping through the cracks, and the social service agencies the federation system supports are simply having trouble keeping up.

Individual organizations, such as local Jewish Family Services offices and local food banks, are left to fend for themselves – a difficult proposition, as many can’t just turn for help to small- and mid-sized federations that are watching their campaign dollars shrink (big-city federations report having fewer fund-raising problems).

“I hear frequently from execs that this is an issue that they don’t know how to deal with,” the president and CEO of the Association of Jewish Family and Children’s Agencies, Bert Goldberg, told me.

If the federation system is truly a system, could a system-wide emergency domestic campaign to help with domestic needs work? The idea would be that large and small federations raise money and pool it for redistribution based on need throughout the system. It might be difficult to figure out how to redistribute that money fairly, but isn’t it worth a try?

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