All who are hungry, come and eat
OpinionGuest columnist

All who are hungry, come and eat

The responsibility falls on all of us, regardless of faith or religion, to speak up for our friends, our neighbors and ourselves.

Squirrel Hill Food Pantry shelves. Photo provided by Allie Reefer.
Squirrel Hill Food Pantry shelves. Photo provided by Allie Reefer.

As the new director of the JFCS Squirrel Hill Food Pantry, I was somewhat surprised to learn the extent of preparations that go into making sure the Jewish families we serve have the food they need for Passover.

Our staff started preparing in January to ensure we would have all the foods our clients need to celebrate the seder with their families, including reaching out to local rabbis to determine how many families in their congregations may need food for Passover.

As an outsider to Judaism, I discovered that the details of the preparations are much more involved than I imagined. The elimination of all chometz from a household and replacement of these items with unleavened alternatives is a massive undertaking: There’s the logistical task of searching for items containing chometz and removing them from one’s pantry but also the financial hardship that results for many Jewish families — to discard or give away foods that they might otherwise have used after Passover.

This, of course, is a central idea of the celebration, a reminder of the hardships faced by Moses and the Israelites as they fled Egypt — the stark realities of how quickly they had to prepare and the challenges they would face in the desert. But it is worth looking at what those hardships mean in today’s world, as well — and to think about what we can all do to ensure our friends, our neighbors and our family members have the food that should be recognized as a universal human right.

Families who rely on food pantry services have expressed a dizzying range of emotions to our staff over time. Their appreciation and joy for the food we provide is often tinged with sadness and even shame at the fact their families need to ask for food.

The darker emotions that people feel when they receive food are misplaced. The onus belongs to society for not making food more readily accessible to everyone. While food inflation has thankfully slowed from its peak in 2022 — when food prices increased by more than 10% — the fact of the matter is that the current level of inflation among many food items (1%-2%) is added to those already steep price hikes. We never came down off that cliff; we just kept climbing.

For families who keep kosher, these costs hit home more during Passover than other times of the year. Though 40% of food in the grocery store bears a hechsher, the strict requirements of “kosher for Passover” are not a cost that most manufacturers are willing to bear. As a result, we have seen steep increases in basic staples. Even at wholesale prices, the cost of staples for a Passover celebration runs 120%-130% higher than what we saw pre-pandemic. For families struggling to make ends meet, this burden can represent the breaking point between affordability and impossibility.

Which, of course, is why places like the JFCS Squirrel Hill Food Pantry are here. And not just during Passover but the entire year. And not just for families who keep kosher but everyone: whether we are providing dates and halal meat for Muslim families to break fast during Ramadan; mangoes and pineapples for families resettling in Pittsburgh from Central and South America; or basic staples like rice, beans, cereal and fresh produce for anyone who comes in and tells us that they need food. Food insecurity is an ever-present threat to people you know, even if they don’t share their needs with you.

The responsibility falls on all of us, regardless of faith or religion, to speak up for our friends, our neighbors and ourselves. If you need food, please ask for help. We are here for you. If you can help, please do — whether preparing a meal for your neighbors, organizing a food drive, or helping us or your local food pantry keep shelves stocked with a monetary donation.

But beyond that, call out the system for its inequalities. Write to your representatives to voice support for SNAP, school meals and other efforts to feed people. Advocate for culturally appropriate options to be more widely available for everyone who needs them.

Passover is the festival of freedom. It’s a time for experiencing gratitude and for cherishing the many opportunities we sometimes take for granted. This year, let those of us who are more financially fortunate commit to helping those who are less fortunate. As the Haggadah reminds each of us to experience the holiday as if we were once slaves in Egypt, let us consider the challenges of poverty in our community as if we once experienced them ourselves. And for far too many of us, this doesn’t take much imagination.

Wishing you and your loved ones a meaningful Passover. PJC

Jesse Sharrard is the director of the JFCS Squirrel Hill Food Pantry.

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