Food Stamp Challenge raises Tucsonans’ consciousness

Brenda Landau, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona, signs up for the Food Stamp Challenge at the JCRC annual meeting Oct. 27. Waiting their turn are Dani Bregman and Carlos Araujo. (Rebecca Goodman/JFSA)

Jose Miranda, 23, was one of 90 people attending the Jewish Community Relations Council Annual Meeting and Food Stamp Challenge Kick-Off on Oct. 27 at Temple Emanu-El. While listening to stories and statistics on hunger in the United States, “I decided to put myself in the shoes of young families with children, especially in these difficult times,” says Miranda, who signed up to spend no more than $31.50 on food for a week, the average allotment of a food stamp recipient in the United States.

The JCRC event, “Working Together to End Hunger,” featured Robert Morris, a sustainable technology entrepreneur. “He was a remarkable speaker,” Miranda told the AJP. Morris grew up in Tucson, where he learned about the importance of fresh vegetables from a Jewish peddler. At the JCRC event he spoke of the need for the public, private and nonprofit sectors to work together to reduce malnutrition in the United States.

Miranda, a senior at the University of Arizona majoring in water and environmental economics and an outreach representative for Rep. Raul M. Grijalva, says, “I realized what a lot of families go through in this nation at the JCRC event. It was eye-opening.”

In supporting the Food Stamp Challenge, the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona’s JCRC joined the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and Fighting Poverty with Faith, a nationwide movement of interfaith organizations working to cut domestic poverty in half by 2020. Thirteen members of Congress, along with many national civic and religious leaders, participated in the Food Stamp Challenge this year.

For some Tucsonans who signed up for the challenge, it became a personal effort to look at their own lives. “I, too, have struggled with a food budget, making responsible choices for my daughter, Logan, and me, after going through a difficult financial period after my divorce,” says Lori Riegel, now the religious and cultural education coordinator at Handmaker Jewish Services for the Aging. “I wanted an awareness of the choices I make about food,” she says. “I want to eat to live, not live to eat.

“I’m a very thrifty shopper, so I had no problem spending $63 for Logan [now a teen] and me,” says Riegel. “I used only $49.90 through Nov. 1. I have $13.10 left and I’m not going to spend anymore.”

One problem for Riegel was not being able to stock up on Honeycrisp apples, which were on sale at a local supermarket.

Normally, adds Riegel, if you’re on a limited food budget “you go to every free meal and take home food.” At the Federation’s Oct. 30 LGBT Jewish Inclusion Project Rainbow Keshet dinner, she notes, “there was plenty of food left over. I didn’t want to see it wasted, but I couldn’t take it home” because she was sticking to the rules of the challenge.

But Riegel admits, “The hardest part of the challenge was not being able to go to Starbucks.”

Monitoring exactly how much they spent on food was odd even for the frugal. “I’ve never had a food problem. I grew up with all fresh food — sides of beef, fresh vegetables that my mother canned,” says Jane Scott, the JCRC’s administrative assistant, who took the food challenge. “I ate what I usually did but I had to pay more attention to prices.”

Marlyne Freedman, JFSA senior vice president, “wanted to understand in a deeper way what I try to do for others through my job at the Federation.” Hearing Holocaust survivor Regina Spiegel speak at a JFSA Coalition for Jewish Education event in the middle of the Food Stamp Challenge on Oct. 30, “it hit me in the face,” she told the AJP. “I’m just touching hunger for a week. She lived it.”

But by the end of the challenge week, Freedman admitted, when she ate soup, “I searched for every drop in the bowl.”

Several local rabbis and other Tucson Jewish community members took part in the Food Stamp Challenge, along with representatives of the Catholic Diocese, First Christian Church, Community Food Bank, Primavera Foundation, and the offices of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and City Council Ward Six.

Current U.S. hunger statistics illuminate the seriousness of hunger and poverty: 3.9 million Americans are kept out of poverty by food stamps; 47 percent of food stamps benefit children; one in six American households are struggling against hunger.

“The reason people are hungry is not because we don’t have enough food, it’s because people don’t have occupations,” says Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon of Temple Emanu-El, who committed to the challenge. “Having the Rabbi’s Pantry for 13 years for people needing food it’s interesting to have a tiny experience of it, but we must address the core issues behind hunger.

“There’s a great need for societal resources to address hunger,” he says. “We need a serious jobs program in place.”

Following this social action experiment, “where do we go from here?” asks Brenda Landau, JFSA director of women’s philanthropy and community relations. “Some people just like a challenge. The real challenge is to commit to the cause of making a difference in people’s lives,” she says. “We always need volunteers for the JCRC Homer Davis Project,” whether it’s working in the elementary school’s community garden or packing food backpacks for children to take home on the weekends and during school vacations.

On the national level, the Farm Bill of 2008 — the umbrella bill under which the food stamps program is authorized — is scheduled to be reauthorized in 2012.

Meanwhile, members of Congress have proposed major cuts in the food stamp program. “These cuts would severely restrict many families’ access to healthy food and could also limit spending, impeding economic growth,” according to JCPA. “[Proposed] block granting the food stamp program would greatly restrict its flexibility, which could prove traumatic for many families in the event of another economic recession or economic disaster.”

Currently in Tucson, “many of the folks we serve are in financial crisis,” says Karen MacDonald, a United Church of Christ minister and faith community engagement manager at Interfaith Community Services. “I’ve always been in awe of how people manage. Sometimes they have to choose between buying food or paying rent.”

MacDonald, who considers herself a frugal person, says taking the food stamp challenge for the first time “was an education to try to live on the average weekly food stamp allotment.”

ICS maintains two sites for the Tucson Community Food Bank, adding its own supplemental provisions through private donations. On Oct. 31, ICS opened a new, larger food bank at 2820 W. Ina Road. The organization also has an east side location, staffed with a case worker, at the New Spirit Lutheran Church, which is located at Camino Seco and Old Spanish Trail.

“My personal view is that it’s a moral problem when so many people are struggling to put enough food on the table, particularly in this country,” says MacDonald. “ICS helps people stay afloat but it’s only temporary. Who would want to live from a food bank for the rest of their lives? The most systematic solution would be job creation both locally and nationally.”

To volunteer for the Homer Davis Project, contact Mary Ellen Loebl at 577-9393, ext. 138. For more information on Interfaith Community Services, contact Curt Balko at cbalko@icstucson.org. To read about the Food Stamp Challenge Kick-Off, go to azjewishpost.com/2011/ending-hunger-goal-of-jcrc-annual-meeting-food-stamp-challenge/.