Culture, Justice

Rabbiing on Food Stamps

R. Daniel Isaak is the rabbi of Congregation Neveh Shalom in Portland, Oregon. He decided to join Oregon’s governor Ted Kulongoski on the “food stamp challenge” of eating on only $3/day to raise hunger awareness and protest the paltry federal allocations to families in need.
R. Isaak’s daughter, Myrrh, posted some of his reactions on her blog. A few snippets:

“Should we invite someone for Shabbat?” I innocently asked Carol.
“How exactly do you propose we do that on our $3/person/day food allowance this week?” she responded.
“Oh, yeah.” In that moment it had skipped my mind.
1) When availability of food is an issue, it literally consumes our every thought. Eating is so central to our being that when the budget is so constrained, we can think of nothing else, but what will I do for the next meal.
2) We did a lot of planning. On such a tight budget where every penny counts, it is absolutely necessary to plan meals days in advance and shop with extreme care, watching for sales, coupons and how to cut corners wherever possible. We can’t afford to make a mistake, buying something that might spoil or that our households will be unwilling to eat.
3) No “gourmet” foods or alcohol, and treats must be severely limited. We are daily bombarded with advertising telling us what we “deserve” and basic to all these themes is food, not necessarily for nutrition, but because we are somehow entitled. It’s a challenge.
4) In order to live on such a budget, it is imperative to know how to cook. Prepared foods are much too expensive for a $3/day budget. Unfortunately from much that we know, many dependent on food stamps are products of our fast food generation and either do not know how to cook nutritious meals or live in circumstances where they do not have proper kitchens, making cooking extremely difficult.
5) We had to be creative. Most sources of protein, such as meat and fish, cannot be included. Most fresh fruits and vegetables are also largely unaffordable as are most cheeses. Eggs are cheap, but have the added concern of raising cholesterol to dangerous levels. (One vegetarian Neveh Shalom family suggested that we increase our legume consumption. Another wrote that a bowl of cheerios and milk only costs about $0.35.)
6) Shopping inexpensively can be expensive. Carol’s first stop to plan for the week was at Winco Foods, where she bought some inexpensive staples and canned goods. She talked with our son Misha about how she was going about this project. “And how much did you spend on gas to get to Winco?” he inquired. “Figure that in your limited budget as well,” he suggested. “Poor people have to.” Added to that we know that in the neighborhoods where poor people live there often are no super markets and people only have access to much more expensive 7/11’s or small neighborhood grocery stores.
6) Dropping in to Starbucks for a coffee is clearly not in the cards. You could spend your entire day’s food budget on a simple latte! For that matter going out to eat anywhere at any time is beyond the realm of available options.
7) All this assumes consumers who are not required to be on special diets or eat various kinds of more expensive ethnic foods. The options become fewer and fewer for those who are lactose intolerant or must avoid various grains or suffer with diabetes or are determined to maintain a Kosher diet, etc.
Carol went to book group this week with a couple of slices of bread, her discount peanut butter and jam for her lunch. It prompted conversation among the ladies and they had the opportunity to take a few minutes to think about the issue of food insecurity and what it means not to either have a full refrigerator that one can resort to at any time or the option of going to the local deli to pick up a sandwich.
Thank you, Governor Kulongoski. I think your challenge is a very Jewish exercise. Many reasons are given as to why we fast on Yom Kippur. Among them is to remind us as we stand before God on this most solemn day in the Jewish calendar of those who have nothing to eat. And then when our stomachs begin to growl just after noon on Yom Kippur we read the words of Isaiah that I quoted two weeks ago calling on us to “Share your bread with the hungry, Take the wretched poor into your home, When you see the naked, clothe him, And not ignore your own kin.” Similarly we sit in the Sukkah in order to remind us of the innumerable people who do not have proper shelter and are exposed to the elements. On Passover we begin the Seder with an invitation to those who are hungry to join us in our celebration.

Full post here.

11 thoughts on “Rabbiing on Food Stamps

  1. I don’t seem to understand the whole thing. Clearly, nobody actually thinks $3 a day for food is enough for a nutritious diet. So when the governor (not a protester) does this kind of thing, what is he saying? That if you want to, you can? That ethnic food, or an occasional cup of coffee, or a drink of schnapps are luxuries the taxpayers shouldn’t be providing to the underprivileged? What point does this prove, and why wouldn’t lobbying for better social security in the US, one that gives money to poor people to allow them to eat and feed their children, be better than attempting to follow the ludicrous regime of $3 for food per person a day, and pretending that if you try hard enough you can make it strech?

  2. I believe the point is to show that it isn’t easy. The point is that a powerful man choose to do this and he isn’t a protester. Protesters make noise and then move on to the next hot issue. He is the governor of the state and his choice to do this made front page headlines. It is both noble and smart to show that food stamps need protection.

  3. I agree that is is very difficult to eat on $3 a day and those in need should have more but instead of allocating more money, they need to reform the system so people in need actually get more money. I work with a woman who gets tons of government assistance but still had the money to buy a flat panel HDTV and own two new cars. She lives with one of her children’s father who is a manager here and makes plenty of money. She signs up for government assistance as a single mother and gets everything they need (including $180 of diaper cream a month {three tubes of prescription – one tube lasts me two months}) and the boyfriend pays for everything they want.
    We can’t just keep funneling money into these programs rife with fraud. That $3 a day could easily be $10 if those who don’t need it aren’t allowed to take it. I guess a it’s a little off suject, but I think the assistance is already there, it just needs to be better managed.

  4. It is both noble and smart to show that food stamps need protection.
    Food stamps are not noble nor smart. All welfare states don’t do degrading things like hand out foodstamps – they give people welfare money and unemployment and universal health care. Food stamps are a symptom of capialist injustice, not a way to remedy it.

  5. Johnny says: I work with a woman who gets tons of government assistance but still had the money to buy a flat panel HDTV and own two new cars. She lives with one of her children’s father who is a manager here and makes plenty of money. She signs up for government assistance as a single mother and gets everything they need (including $180 of diaper cream a month {three tubes of prescription – one tube lasts me two months}) and the boyfriend pays for everything they want.
    Talmud Bavli, Ketubot 67b-68a (though the whole page is recommended):
    Rabbi Chanina would regularly send four zuzim to a certain poor person on the eve of every Shabbat. One day, he sent the money with his wife. When she returned she said: “The person does not need the money.” [Rabbi Chanina asked] “What did you see?” [She replied:] “I heard him being asked “Do you want to dine on the gold or silver linens?” [Rabbi Chanina] said: It is as Rabbi Eliezer said: “Be thankful for frauds, for without them we would be sinners every day. As it is says (Deuteronomy 15:9): [If you don’t give to your needy kinsperson] “He will cry out to God against you, and you will incur guilt.”
    øáé çðéðà, äåä ääåà òðéà ãäåä øâéì ìùãåøé ìéä àøáòä æåæé ëì îòìé ùáúà. éåîà çã ùãøéðäå ðéäìéä áéã ãáéúäå, àúàé àîøä ìéä: ìà öøéê. îàé çæéú? ùîòé ãäåä ÷àîøé ìéä: áîä àúä ñåòã, áèìé ëñó àå áèìé æäá? àîø, äééðå ãàîø øáé àìòæø: áåàå åðçæé÷ èåáä ìøîàéï, ùàìîìà äï äééðå çåèàéï áëì éåí, ùðàîø: +ãáøéí è”Ã¥+ å÷øà òìéê àì ä’ åäéä áê çèà
    Vayikra Rabbah 34:10 explains why we would be sinners ever day if not for the imposters:
    R. Abbahu said in the name of R. Eliezer: We ought to be grateful to the imposters, since were it not for the imposters among the poor, if any of them asked for money from a person and he (the person) turned him (the beggar) away, the person would immediately incur the penalty of death. As it says: “And he shall cry unto the Lord against you” and it further says, “The person who sins shall die.” (Ezekiel 18:4). R. Yohanan and Reish Lakish went down to bathe in the public baths at Tiberias. A poor man met them and said “Give me alms.” [Lit: “Merit through me.”] They replied: “When we come out we shall acquire merit through you.” [i.e., “On the way out.”] When they came out they found that he had died. They said: “Since we did not attend to him in his lifetime, let us attend to him in his death.” As they were washing him they found a bag containing six hundred dinars [i.e., a huge amount of money] suspended from his neck. They exclaimed: “Blessed is the One who has chosen the wise and their words! Did not R. Abbahu say in the name of R. Eliezer: “We ought to be grateful to the imposters, etc.?”
    øáé àáäå áùí ø”à àîø öøéëéï àðå ìäçæé÷ èåáä ìøîàéï ùáäí ùàìåìé äøîàéí ùáäí ëéåï ùäéä àçã îäí úåáò áéãé àãí åäåà îçæéøå îéã ðòðù ìîéúä ùðàîø å÷øà òìéê àì ä’ åâå’ åëúéá )ùí /éçæ÷àì/ éç( äðôù äçåèàú äéà úîåú, ø”é åø”ì ðçúéï ìîñçé áäãéï ãéîåñéï ãèáøéà ôâò áäåï çã îñëï àîø ìåï æëåï áé àîøå ìéä ëé ðô÷åï àðï æëééï áê ðô÷éï åàùëçåðéä îàéú àîøéï äåàéì åìà àèôìåï áéä áçééå ðèôì áéä áîåúå òã ãàéðåï îñçéï ìéä àùëçéï çãà ëéñà åùéú îàä ãéðø úìà á÷ãéìéä àîøå áøåê ùáçø áçëîéí åáãáøéäí ìà ëï àîø ø’ àáäå áùí ø”à öøéëéï àðå ìäçæé÷ èåáä åëå’

  6. Facts are better than opinion. My wife and I are doing the diet this week. Follow us at:
    Please note … we’re not Jewish and thus we don’t have to check the ingredients in our food as closely as one who was concerned about following dietary laws.

  7. Facts are better than opinion. My wife and I are doing the diet this week
    Great. Now its a fad. How about eating properly and donating money to a soup kitchen? Or directly to the poor? or voting socialist? Seems like a better way to express solidarity with the poor.

  8. Thanks Danya for putting up this post. I think some of the commenters are missing the point. Gov. K put out this challenge not necessarily to defend the foodstamps program per say, but to acknowledge that the people who are trying to eat with the allocation struggle… and it is a worthwhile exercise to attempt to live, if even for a short time, like they do. Since we participate in a religion that oftentimes has us simulate another person’s life experience, Gov. K’s challenge is consistent with our ritual practice.
    Amit: I don’t think that the goal is to jump on the “fad” and then forget about it. For my parents, it has encouraged them to donate more tzedakka, to be more active in food drives and vote accordingly. It isn’t the kind of experience that is whole all by itself.

  9. Israeli hip hop is made for the love and self-expression, not the milion dollar video or the bling.
    Screening in the British Film festival is a cult UK movie that presents a warm, funny and very British take on hip hop that has shares a lot of common ground in the local scene here in terms of passion and old-skool values. This ain’t east coast. This ain’t west coast. This is South Coast… Haifa Cinemateque, Saturday 25th, 14:30.

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