By Liz Kanter Groskind
Just a few weeks ago, Jews around the world celebrated Passover in new and creative ways. At least one Passover tradition stayed the same as ever: asking questions. As Jews, on Passover and throughout the year, we ask questions of ourselves and of our leaders.
Today, this proud Jewish tradition is more important than ever as we face the staggering inequalities laid bare by COVID-19.
The pandemic has spawned a number of crises, each of which requires bold and urgent action. Each day, more and more people around the country are facing “food insecurity,” which means they do not know where they will get food for their next meal or for their family’s next meal. Charities cannot fix this problem alone, nor should they be relied upon to do so. Food banks and pantries simply do not have the capacity or infrastructure to meet the need, and they were never designed to, which has caused the immense problems we are seeing today.
I am reminded that the word “tzedakah” translates to “justice” — not simply “charity.” This central tenet of Judaism is a value that Jews have internalized and acted upon for centuries. Social justice is not merely a concept; it is a calling to repair our imperfect world.
As board chair of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, I am keenly aware that only our federal government has the resources and infrastructure to address the growing hunger crisis in the wake of COVID-19. Most urgently, our policymakers must strengthen the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) to promote the health, safety, wellbeing, and dignity of all.
SNAP is the cornerstone of our country’s nutrition safety net. It is one of the most effective federal assistance programs, but the current benefit level is insufficient at just about $1.39 per person per meal. Therefore, our government leaders must improve access to SNAP, increase the benefit amount, and allow SNAP to be used for online grocery orders.
Doing this will not only help millions of Americans who are struggling to put food on the table — it will also stimulate the economy and contribute to a faster national recovery. Economists estimate that during a recession, every SNAP dollar generates between $1.50 and $1.80 in economic activity.
Earlier this month, MAZON and our partners at the National Council of Jewish Women delivered a petition to governors — with more than 1,500 signers in nearly every state — calling for an expansion of SNAP and other federal nutrition programs in the wake of COVID-19. We were thrilled that last week the National Governors Association sent a bipartisan letter urging Congress to expand SNAP benefits, relax work requirements, and increase administrative funding to handle the growing needs.
But it’s not enough. Our leaders in Congress — and particularly Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — must take immediate action to prioritize strengthening SNAP in the next COVID-19 response legislation. We are facing an urgent and growing crisis, and many of our policymakers are looking the other way.
So, naturally, I have some questions. Here are a few:
Why are we forcing vulnerable people to line up for hours to receive vital nutrition assistance?
Why are we allowing food to rot in farmers’ fields?
Why are some government leaders hesitating to use every tool available to solve these problems?
Before COVID-19, there were nearly 40 million people facing food insecurity. Now we expect that more than 60 million people are at risk of hunger. We at MAZON are deeply concerned about several populations and communities that have long been overlooked and ignored — including veterans, Native Americans, seniors, single mothers, college students, and those in rural and remote communities. These populations often face unique barriers to food insecurity, and we are already seeing that COVID-19 is exacerbating their hunger and hardship.
There will surely be more suffering from food insecurity in the weeks and months to come.
Our nation’s leaders must work to alleviate that suffering by expanding SNAP. This is the work of the federal government.
May we all find strength and empowerment in our teachings, like Pirkei Avot 2:21 — “It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” Please join MAZON in our fight for justice. Together, as a community, we will get through this.
Liz Kanter Groskind is board chair of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger.