The Jewish Response to Food Insecurity

1970645_10152291157248464_1097974329_nby Liam Hoare

A new crisis has befallen Europe: the crisis of food insecurity. In spite of the fact that the European Union is the largest economy in the world, a number of concurrent economic trends including stubbornly high rates of unemployment, stagnant wages, decreased government spending on welfare, and rising prices of food and fuel have begat fallen standards of living. Eurostat, a project of the European Commission, calculates that 24.8% of citizens of the European Union – almost 125 million people – are at risk of poverty or social exclusion.

When it comes to relieving the effects of poverty, the work of Jewish charitable organisations has traditionally centred on the most vulnerable groups within the community. In central and eastern Europe, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and World Jewish Relief (WJR) among others have provided and continue to provide assistance in terms of food, winter fuel, and medical care to children and the elderly, including survivors of the Holocaust.

That has had to evolve. In Bulgaria, for example, 49.3% of the general population are deemed to be at risk. Pensions and salaries have failed to keep up with the cost of living while for the middle class, the struggle is in finding work and retaining it. The work of the JDC, not only in Bulgaria but the Baltic states, Hungary, and Romania, now encompasses a programme which offers job training and placement services, career counselling, and small business development aid through a network of job centres.

But the point of this crisis is that it is not confined to Europe’s developing east – food insecurity and the threat of poverty and social exclusion is a grave matter across the continent. 11 percent of Europeans are having to forgo a meal with meat, chicken, or fish every other day, while the European Federation of Food Banks is currently operating 256 food banks in 21 countries. In the United Kingdom, where 24.1% of people are deemed at risk, 913,138 people received three days worth of emergency food from food banks run by the Trussell Trust in 2013-14, compared to 346,992 in 2012-13.

Jewish charities in the UK have been operating food banks, albeit on a smaller scale than the Trussell Trust. Give It Forward Today (GIFT), part of the Jewish Social Action Forum (JSAF), places boxes outside of kosher shops and takes in surplus food from supermarkets and bakeries. It is able to distribute food on a weekly basis to almost 2,000 people. In Manchester, L’Chaim-Chabad currently distributes food to over 70 families on a daily basis, while a food bank provides emergency, short term supplies to individuals and families in moments of urgent need.

Now, with food insecurity a burgeoning, national problem, Jewish religious and charitable groups in the UK are beginning to ask what their larger response ought to be. “We have to ensure that we are giving a voice to the values which underpin our religion,” Rabbi Miriam Berger of the Finchley Reform Synagogue recently wrote. “We cannot simply quote Torah about protecting the ‘stranger, the orphan and the widow.’”

At the end of March, the Global Siach Shmita Summit was convened at JHub in London, in order to discuss and debate how the ancient biblical concept of Shmita – that in agriculture, after six years of working the land, “the seventh year thou shalt let it rest and lie still; that the poor of thy people may eat” – can be applied in our contemporary situation and could lead to social action. The summit included a dialogue between the Trussell Trust – a Christian organisation – and rabbis from across the denominations.

Shmita requires us to reflect on how we consume and to think about those who struggle to meet their basic needs,” Claire Nacamuli, social action coordinator at JHub, later wrote in an op-ed for London’s Jewish News. “Supporting food banks, we can learn about the growing gap between rich and poor in the UK. Hearing from organisations such as the Trussell Trust, working with different faith leaders can provide the Jewish community with more opportunities to join the public debate.”

Out of the summit, a decision was made by Jewish leaders from the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the Movement for Reform Judaism, the United Synagogue, Liberal Judaism and Masorti Judaism to author a letter to the Prime Minister, “recognising the rise of nutritional poverty across the UK” and calling for “action to provide a safety net for every hungry family and individual.” In part, it appealed:

“We have seen this growing need first hand in synagogues, and in the Jewish welfare organisations. We awaken to the knocks of parents at our door, reduced to seeking basic provisions to feed their children, and we are instructing our synagogues to provide more wholesome food at communal events, so that those too ashamed to admit they have nothing at home may eat with dignity. But faith groups cannot defeat food poverty alone.”

Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner, Senior Rabbi to the Movement for Reform Judaism, also represented the British Jewish community at a rally organised by End Hunger Fast, a campaign focused on food insecurity. Speaking in the middle of the Passover holiday, Janner-Klausner said, “we know that an increasing number of Jews are among those who rely on food banks now. As Jews, we must deliver on our Passover promise – we must enable everyone to eat with dignity.”

Charities and synagogues have always made sure that the vulnerable within the community are able to eat with dignity. But the new crisis of food insecurity demands a broader, cross-communal practical response, perhaps in cooperation either faith-based or non-sectarian groups, in the absence of government action. Letters and speeches must therefore manifest as charity.