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Op-Ed: Take the Food Stamp Challenge

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WASHINGTON (JTA) — We have decided to take a journey. We will take the Food Stamp Challenge and live for one week on an average SNAP (food stamp) benefit of $31.50 per week. We are organizing and encouraging others to join us.

Yet we hear one question again and again: Why?

We have heard the statistics. Poverty rates are climbing and millions of people are out of work, out of food or without homes. To be more specific, 45.2 million Americans in July alone filed for SNAP benefits; more than half were children. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has reported that more than 48 million Americans struggle to find adequate food and experience the bitter reality of hunger. Looking at the devastating numbers alone can be dehumanizing.

We are taking the Challenge to experience and remind ourselves of what hunger feels like in our nation of plenty.

Studies and reports describe the pervasiveness of hunger in America, but they don’t convey the humanity of those caught in its wake. Hungry children suffer from impaired development and poor performance in school. Tens of thousands of adults, possibly millions, endure illnesses caused by the vestiges of hunger and malnutrition. Some who struggle with hunger resemble the iconic young man crouched in the corner of a subway portal with a simple sign: "No food, no job, no home." Others suffer from hunger out of sight of the outside world. They are our neighbors and members of our own Jewish communities who have fallen on hard times. They have been caught and protected by the most vital of our national safety net — one that provides food. The average SNAP benefit for these families, children and seniors is just $31.50 per week per person — roughly $1.50 per meal.

Hunger is an urgent challenge for millions of Americans, and before Congress considers cutting SNAP benefits, we are asking citizens across this nation to go further than knowing the statistics. We are asking them to understand the realities of hunger. We urge you to join us on our journey.  Visit www.foodstampchallenge.com to learn more about the Food Stamp Challenge and register to join us.

The Food Stamp Challenge has attracted support from religious, political and community leaders from across the country. But this is not just a Jewish effort. We are being joined by a number of leaders from the wider faith community. They are bearing witness to the growing number of Americans facing hunger in our towns and on our streets. Members of Congress and other statewide and local civic leaders also will be taking the Challenge. This is a nationwide effort to raise awareness and break through the sterile statistics.

As Jews, we have just finished the High Holy Days with the powerfully poetic closing of the gates of Heaven and our fates sealed by God. But Yom Kippur is a beginning not an end. Our work to better ourselves and our world is begun anew each year, and to prepare ourselves mentally and spiritually we fast. We are warned by Isaiah on Yom Kippur, however, that the fast is not “a day for men to starve their bodies” or "to lie in sackcloth and ashes." Rather, the fast is about "sharing our bread with the hungry and satisfying the famished creature."

The Food Stamp Challenge, like the fast on Yom Kippur, is meant to teach us to feed hungry people and to imbue ourselves with a more complete understanding of the quality of life of those in need.

Hunger in America is not just about numbers. It is living without security or energy. It is living on the edge. These  truths about hunger are not gleaned from statistics. And they are truths we need to share with each other, and importantly, our leaders. We are living in a political world. We will need to put all the pressure we can on members of Congress and the administration to show the "derech eretz" to do the right thing.

(Dr. Conrad Giles and Rabbi Steve Gutow are the chair and president, respectively, of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.)

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