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Food insecurity growing in U.S., says Mazon speaker

By Leon Cohen

November 1st, 2012

         Not many organizations proclaim that their long-term goal is “to put ourselves out of business.” But Neil E. Salowitz said that is the ultimate aim of Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger.

Neil E. Salowitz

Neil E. Salowitz

         Salowitz is a retired Des Moines attorney who is now a member of Mazon’s board of directors, co-chair of its government affairs and public policy committee, and a member of its grants advisory and finance committees.

         He told an audience of about 20 at Congregation Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun on Oct. 25, “We long for the day when our services … are not needed.”

         Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be going to happen soon. Salowitz spoke about “Isaiah’s Charge: The Shame of Hunger in America and What You Can Do to End It,” and he presented abundant data to demonstrate this.

         He cited statistics from the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), the U.S. Census Bureau, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. These show “the magnitude of the problem,” he said:

         • In 2011, 46.2 million people, or 15 percent of all Americans, lived in poverty.

         • The number of people living in “food insecure” households — that is, “those households which had difficulty at some time during the year providing enough food for all their members due to a lack of resources” — grew from 48.8 million in 2010 to more than 50 million in 2011.

         • Of those more than 50 million, 33.5 million are adults, or 14.5 percent of all U.S. adults; and 16.6 million are children, 22.4 percent of all U.S. children.

         • Almost 17 million people in the U.S. live in households with “very low food security” — that is, “one or more people in the household were hungry over the course of the year because of inability to afford enough food.” This number is about double that of the year 2000.

         • Rates of food insecurity were “higher than the national average” for several groups: All households with children; households with children under age six; households with children headed by a single person, woman or man; black non-Hispanic households; and Hispanic households.

More than numbers

         Salowitz also spoke about the three largest U.S. government food assistance programs: Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or food stamps; the National School Lunch Program, and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC).

         He said a recent FRAC study found that 57 percent of food insecure households reported that they had participated in one or more of these programs in the previous month.

         Salowitz spent most time on SNAP, a program that appears to be in particular danger. He said SNAP provided benefits to 44.7 million people, 14 percent of the U.S. population, giving them an average of $134 per person per month.

         “That’s a little more than $4 a day” for food, he said. Living on that “is just not possible.”

         Yet this program, which costs more than $75 billion, is in danger of being cut in the current Farm Bill in Congress, Salowitz said. However, Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) has not brought the House version to the floor there because there aren’t enough votes to pass it; and the reasons for that are that some opponents say the cuts are too drastic, and others want to abolish the program completely.

         “The federal budget is more than numbers on a page” or “a tool to allocate our tax dollars,” Salowitz said. “The federal budget is a document that speaks to who we are as a nation and as a people. In a sense, the priorities set by the budget define us as a nation.

         “What do we favor? Are tax subsidies to oil companies more important than caring for the least among us? The Fiscal Year 2012 defense budget is over $925 billion. Is military spending such a priority that we can’t find $16 billion to maintain SNAP funding at its current level?”

         Salowitz spoke about ways people and individuals and groups can work to combat the problem of hunger:

         • Give monetary contributions to organizations such as Mazon.

         • Educate oneself about the issue.

         • Talk to elected representatives. “Don’t just write a letter, because it’s too easy for them to respond with a form letter,” he said. “It’s a very, very important thing that elected representatives see and hear from their constituents. It is really true that the squeaky wheel gets the grease in Congress.”

         • Join with like-minded people in synagogue social action committees or other ways. “There really is strength in numbers,” he said.

         Based in Los Angeles, Mazon, Hebrew for food, was founded in 1985 as a non-profit organization “dedicated to alleviating hunger among people of all faiths and backgrounds,” Salowitz said. It focuses primarily on the U.S. and Israel, though has some projects in other countries.

         Originally, Mazon only gave grants to hunger-fighting organizations — Milwaukee-area recipients have included Jewish Family Services and the Hunger Task Force, whose executive director, Sherrie Tussler, gave a brief report at this event before Salowitz spoke.

         Today, Mazon also does advocacy work. In fact, this has become so important a part of its activities that it now requires grant recipients “to have an advocacy component,” Salowitz said.

         Mazon has more than 1,000 synagogue and community partners, and has awarded more than $58 million “to carefully screened organizations, representing the entire spectrum of the nation’s anti-hunger network,” Salowitz said.

         This event was sponsored by The Salinsky Program to Feed the Hungry of Congregation Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun.