You’re Not Yourself When You’re Hungry
I’m going to begin with a quick survey of the congregation with a show of hands. I’ll begin with the kids. Who tried to skip breakfast this morning? So, it’s about 9:15 am. Who is already hungry? And for the adults . . . raise your hand if you can already feel that caffeine headache kicking in?
Yeah, me too. Even just skipping breakfast throws us off our daily routines and that lethargic, cranky, hungry feeling begins. When I feel this way I’m reminded of the recent campaign for Snicker’s candy bars. In a popular commercial we see comedian Robin Williams coaching a football team. He is coaching his players to “Kill em with kindness!” and to “go make balloon animals on the field!” His team looks at him, perplexed, and then realizes . . . oh, he’s hungry! So Williams eats a Snicker’s bar and returns to his real self – a serious, competent (and much larger) football coach. At the end of this commercial, we are all reminded, you’re not yourself when you’re hungry!
Today, most of us will be hungry. But why do we put ourselves though this pain? Why do we, a people who don’t believe in ascetic suffering, put aside what we need most to connect with God, our tradition, and our community? Now, I’m not going to offer any further insight from a Snicker’s commercial, but I will agree that hunger has the potential to change us. It is more than just a physical state. It is deeper than a stomach growl and holds more meaning than a headache. Hunger can be a political, social, and even a spiritual state. And our fast on Yom Kippur is not about hunger, but about these greater meanings. Although skipping three meals today won’t solve the challenges I’m going to describe to you this morning, today’s fast is a call to justice. It is the same heed that our prophet, Isaiah, preached to our Israelite ancestors when he called for them to worship God for the sake of compassion and not for the sake of their own faith. He preached, “Is this the fast I desire? A day for people to starve their bodies? Is it bowing one’s head over like reeds and lying in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call that a fast, and a day that is acceptable to Adonai?” (Isaiah 58:5)
Isaiah 58, a text adapted for our Yom Kippur liturgy, underscores a model of worship with social dimensions that are absolutely necessary if we are to call ourselves authentic observers of Reform Judaism. It reminds us that if all we are doing is fasting, it is not enough. God doesn’t want us to starve our bodies, but wants us to focus on the challenges among our own people.
One of those challenges is hunger. In 2009, during the economic downturn, a temporary boost known as the Recovery Act was given to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, more commonly known as SNAP, or the Food Stamp Program. These additional benefits are scheduled to end on November 1, 2013, resulting in an assistance cut for every SNAP household. For families of three, the cut will be $29 a month — a total of $319 for the fiscal year.i That’s a serious loss, especially in light of the very low amount of basic SNAP benefits. Without the Recovery Act’s boost, SNAP benefits will average less than $1.40 per person, per meal in 2014. Additionally, this summer, a proposed 40 billion dollar cut from the food stamp program threatens a complete farm bill before agriculture programs expire on September 30.ii
Health Impact Project, a Washington research group, found that 5.1 million people would lose their benefits under the previously proposed cuts in the House bill including nearly a half million food stamp recipients who already struggle to get enough food.
The food stamp program was designed to help low income families buy food so they wouldn’t have to make tough choices between eating and other necessities like paying for electricity, or addressing health care needs. It is truly the safety net for our nation’s hungry. But for many of us, it is difficult to imagine what it is like to rely on the program and experience true hunger, even on a fast day. And our responsibility to feed the hungry comes not only from our assistance programs, but from our Torah:
We learn, “When you reap the harvest in your field and overlook a sheaf, do not turn back to get it; it shall go to the stranger, the orphan, and the widow . . . When you beat down the fruit of your olive trees, do not go over them again; that shall go to the stranger, the orphan, and the widow. And when you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not pick it over again; that shall go to the stranger, the orphan, and the widow. (Deut. 24:19-22). This stranger, orphan, and widow of the Torah can be thought of our nation’s elderly, our working poor, and our hungry children. Hunger is an issue that easily goes unseen and while most of us assume it is the people on the streets who are most in need, it is often children in school, immobile senior citizens, returned veterans, and adults who work hard to feed their families, even with struggles.
Take for instance, Thomas. After losing his wife, he was left raising their seven year old daughter Lily on his own. He makes a living wage, yet still lives paycheck to paycheck. SNAP assistance helps him send his daughter to school with breakfast because he understands hunger goes hand in hand with education. “If Lily is hungry at school, she isn’t going to learn and retain information.” I can’t afford to send her on field trips, or buy her class picture, but I can make sure she can learn well.”iii
Sadly, cuts to the SNAP program are not new conversations in our nation’s capital and I’ve heard sermons on the importance of this program before.iv On a past Yom Kippur, the rabbi of my home synagogue, Billy Dreskin, spoke of something called the Food Stamp Challenge and encouraged our congregation to participate. In order to raise awareness of the difficulties facing food stamp recipients and to demonstrate support for the Food Stamp Program’s vital role in providing nutrition assistance to low-income families, he urged us to eat all of our meals within the budget of $1.40 per meal that individuals receiving SNAP benefits receive. So for the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I went on a diet of $4.20 a day.
Before I begin sharing some of the insights I learned over that week, I will admit to you all that I’m not all that great at budget living. In 30 years, I’ve never had to worry about a meal. In fact, most of my concerns about food involve eating too much, or eating too decadently. So when I had to go to the supermarket with only $14 to spend, I walked up and down aisles I had never even seen before, picking up cans of beans, bags of rice, packaged bologna, and store brand white bread. The hope that fresh fruits and vegetables fit into this budget were quickly crushed and even the frozen meat was out of my price range. Yet it wasn’t the food or even lack of nutrition that got to me during my 10 day experiment; the entire routine of my life was altered. Things I did normally like study in a coffee shop suddenly became someplace where I wasn’t welcomed. Most Starbucks don’t want you sitting around if you don’t buy a coffee. And at $1.75 for a tall cup, it cost more than my allotted budget for a whole meal.
The most interesting part of the diet was not actually what I ate, but the conversations and insights that came out when sharing with others what I was doing. Because I wanted to keep up some semblance of a social life, I ended up at a party where lots of nice cheeses, wines, and desserts were laid out on tables for the taking. Many of the people gathered knew I was watching the cost of my food and thought a party offering ample free food was just what I needed. “So why aren’t you eating?” I was asked again and again. To which I responded, “This isn’t the kind of free food we usually donate to the hungry. And I don’t see many hungry people at this party.” It is amazing to realize how much free food is at meetings and affairs – if you’re lucky enough to be invited.
On the last day of my food stamp diet I allowed myself to purchase a meal off of the dollar menu at McDonald’s. Fast food is often what low income families eat to save on expenses, at the cost of eating foods which are high in fat instead of nutritious. But admittedly, Big Macs have always been one of my guilty pleasures. The burger, soda, and fries (which I just couldn’t resist) came out to over three dollars after tax and I happily over spent. It was at that moment when I wondered how truly poor Americans feel when they’ve spent money that was supposed to provide their children with something nutritious to eat. In the way the system currently operates, SNAP benefits, adjusted for income, are loaded monthly onto a government-issued debit card. Recipients say the money typically lasts a little more than two weeks. In a recent New York Times article about the Food Stamp Debate, Tarnisha Adams, who left a working class job when she fell ill, feeds herself and three sons on her SNAP benefits.
“We don’t splurge,” Ms. Adams said, “and it doesn’t last.”
She shops at Save-A-Lot and cooks frequently with pasta, because it is filling. One recent evening, she baked a tray of ziti, with meat and cheese. She had hoped it would last for two meals, but after her growing boys ate, she had none herself.
“You hate to tell your child, ‘You can’t eat until you’re full; You have to save it for another day,’” she said. And while she knows it isn’t healthy for her to skip meals, she feels she has no choice.v
Another family quoted in the article hangs a calendar in their fridge that is simply marked with the word, FOOD! to indicate the day of the month on which their card is refilled. By then, it is always empty.
Which makes our heed even more important. Around our community, there are places like Second Harvest Food Bank and Samaritan House which accept nonperishable, healthy food items that often supplement people who live on SNAP benefits. They also accept monetary donations. 85 cents on every dollar goes directly to providing meals, groceries, and assistance with the overwhelming and bureaucratic process of enrolling in the SNAP program. Every dollar we donate equates to $7 worth of food, making our donations go even further. There is a long legacy and linkage between our membership and the leadership of these organizations, including PTBE member, Jay Strauss, who introduced me to much of the work these organizations do.
Our Sunday Sandwich Hevre here at temple also works religiously to make and donate balanced meals that go to Samaritan House. All of the food that we are collecting over the High Holy Days are going to our SSH project. Did you forget to fill your bag? No worries, there may be some sweet irony in swinging by the supermarket just before neilah to pick something up on our holiest fast day. Just avoid those Snickers bars near the checkout.
Although my short experiment cannot really represent the choices or lifestyle of a real food stamp recipient, it enlightened me to the dire situation that many people live with daily. I hope that sharing my experiences with you this morning will encourage you all to write to your representatives in support of increased food stamp vouchers, to pass the farm bill without sacrificing our nation’s hungry, and to help to encourage a more nutritious diet for food stamp recipients. And on a local level, we must continue to think of creative and meaningful ways to fight hunger. Perhaps try making your coffee at home for a week and donate what you would have spent to an organization like Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger. Or plan a dinner party with a twist – asking guests to bring, not side dishes, but donations that can go to Second Harvest. And kids – play with your food! Invite friends on a play date to SSH where you can make sandwiches together. Or attend a Garden Service Day at the PJCC where their Gan Tzedek grows vegetables that go to the residents at InnVision Shelter Network. These small changes on our part can have a big impact for someone who needs that extra food.
The text of Isaiah 58 offers us a rigorously moral understanding that places the one who is dedicated to God on same side as the one who reaches out to help and empower those suffering injustice and those denied their fair share. Ultimately from the Isaiah text we come to understand that our fasting is only a symbolic representation of what is truly important to God and our world. We read,
“This is the fast I desire: To unlock the fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke to let the oppressed go free . . . It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to ignore your own kin."
This year, let the cry of the shofar enter the depth of our souls and demand a reawakening. Let it call to us as the prophet Isaiah called to the Israelites. Let it shake us from our complacency and awaken us to justice. Let us feed the stranger, the orphan, and the widow so that we can re-dedicate ourselves to God. And as we think about our own inscription in the Book of Life, we can help make the life of someone around us better. May you have a good inscription and an easy fast. Amen.
i“SNAP Basics” www.cbpp.org