The other day I ventured out of the house to our local supermarket in Greenfield to restock the essentials — one of the only occasions upon which I go anywhere these days. As I was checking out, I overheard the manager speaking to an assistant manager and two employees. They were discussing something that took place earlier in the day: “Another” shoplifter had been caught stuffing food items into a backpack.
I immediately recalled a moment at the same supermarket just a year earlier — as I was coming in, a gaunt and tired looking woman was being placed in handcuffs in a Pittsburgh Police squad car. Inside, the manager and assistant manager were quietly explaining to a police officer that the individual in question had been stealing items from the store, and that it was not her first time.
It is becoming readily apparent that these are not isolated incidents. Food theft is the symptom of a much greater problem of an America in crisis — a crisis exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, but that was around long before it as well.
According to the Jewish hunger organization Mazon, one in eight Americans struggle with hunger. That’s 41.2 million people, including 12.9 million children and 4.9 million seniors. Those numbers are from before the pandemic.
Now, with the travel and hospitality sectors of our economy frozen, unemployment has grown. And, as we know, the effects of the pandemic-related recession have hit lower-income folks harder. Their jobs were the first to go. Their savings were small or nonexistent, and their debts greater to begin with. Mazon now estimates that approximately 80 million Americans now face hunger or food insecurity.
We live in an America with the largest and most expensive military on earth; a nation that counts eight of the 10 richest people on earth amongst its citizens. And yet millions of people go to bed hungry every night. In our own city of Pittsburgh, we have seen food bank lines that stretch for miles. And, as I have seen with my own eyes, some of my neighbors have even reduced themselves to stealing.
This is unacceptable. We must do better — as individuals and as a nation. Our Torah tells us “Olam Chesed Yibaneh” — a world of lovingkindness must be built. In the hashkiveinu prayer we recite every single night, we ask for God to “Shield us, and remove from us, pestilence, sword, famine and sorrow.” God has provided for us ample food and wealth such that every person in our country could be fed adequately, if only we could distribute it to all. And yet, here in the 21st century, we still fail at this most basic task of humanity. The simplest thing we can do as a society is to ensure that everyone has enough food to eat. And that assurance ought to be given unconditionally.
In Parshat Vayigash, we reach the conclusion of the story of Joseph and his brothers. Joseph has read Pharaoh’s dreams of seven fat cows and seven skinny cows and devised a plan — to feed all of Egypt in a time of great famine. So insightful was Joseph’s vision that Pharoah made him grand vizier of all.
So complete was the famine that it stretched all the way to Canaan, forcing Joseph’s estranged brothers to come to Egypt, hands out, begging for food. “Our father said Go and procure food for us” (Gen. 44:25).
And Joseph cares for his estranged brothers as he has provided for all the rest of Egypt, saying, “I will provide for you — for there are yet five years of famine to come — that you and your household and all that is yours may not suffer want” (Gen. 45:11).
We are not powerless. We can do the same.
We can give and volunteer locally at the JFCS Squirrel Hill Food Pantry and Great Pittsburgh Food Pantry. And we should, if we can, give generously. But that is not enough. We must work to create an America in which having enough to eat is considered a right, and not a privilege, as it was in Joseph’s time. To do that, we need food advocacy — to work within the state and national framework to advocate that a just a loving nation feeds all who are hungry, reducing none to desperation or theft. That takes more than local pantries — it takes a national effort.
A good start would be the expansion of SNAP, the USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. For every one meal provided by a food bank, SNAP provides nine meals. The best way to defeat hunger in America is with food advocacy — changing the way our food distribution system works, and making it work for everybody. These are the things that the Jewish organization Mazon is dedicated to. Mazon is our modern-day Joseph.
The Torah tells us we will always have poverty: “For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land.” But it also tells us that the response to this reality is that we must “open our hand to the poor and needy fellow in your land” (Deut. 15:11).
Hunger is a crisis. But it doesn’t have to be. Indifference to hunger is the real crisis. If we can overcome our indifference as a nation, we can overcome hunger, too. PJC
Rabbi Mark Asher Goodman is the rabbi of Brith Sholom Jewish Center in Erie, Pennsylvania. He lives in Pittsburgh. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.