IN THE NEWS: Jewish Community Takes Food-Stamp Challenge to Understand the Hungry

Lois K. Solomon

Sun-Sentinel

Nov 19, 2012

A few dozen Palm Beach County Jews found it almost impossible to eat fresh foods last week. Their diet: Peanut butter, beans, bread and eggs, pasta and sauce, tuna.

They took the Jewish Community Food Stamp Challenge, vowing to feed themselves for the week on only $31.50, the average government benefit received by individual people on food stamps. Several national Jewish charities urged members to participate in the challenge last week, including the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which rallied rabbis across the country, said Benjamin Suarato, a council spokesman.

Suarato said more than 50 communities and 150 rabbis participated this year, the challenge's fourth year.

The challenge came at the same time a new report showed the number of South Floridians on food stamps grew last month by 17,000, totaling more than 1 million, according to the state Department of Children and Families. In Palm Beach County, the number of people on food stamps has ballooned 300 percent since 2008.

Jews in South Florida have long connected with the plight of the hungry. For years, Jewish agencies have organized kosher meal services for the elderly and food banks. But some said they had never felt truly unsatisfied in their stomachs until they tried to eat on a poverty budget.

Cindy Orbach Nimhauser, development director at Ruth Rales Jewish Family Service west of Boca Raton, said she ate Cheerios, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and pasta. Fresh fruits and vegetables were mostly too expensive; she said she bought one banana for 24 cents.

"I ate it so carefully," Nimhauser said. "I was so hungry. I had to put food back at the checkout counter because I was over budget, and the cashier was not happy. I understood the shame of it."

Rabbi David Steinhardt, of B'nai Torah Congregation in Boca Raton, who took the challenge with his wife, Tobi, said he learned how few healthful foods are available on tight budgets. He said he had trouble finding unprocessed breads, peanut butter without added sugar and free-range eggs that fit his allowance.

"It's leading me to think about the food industry," Steinhardt said. "The system doesn't support healthy eating. I also realize how much I waste typically and how expensive it is to go out to eat."

Rabbi Ed Bernstein, of Temple Torah west of Boynton Beach, had to go heavy on the starch: He said he got three meals out of a box of pancake mix. He said his congregation has embraced several challenge-related activities, including a pot-luck dinner in which each dish had to cost less than $5, and a showing of the film, "Food Stamped," a documentary about a couple's attempts to eat healthfully on a food-stamp budget.

Bernstein said he faced a personal challenge last week, when he attended a circumcision celebration and was encouraged to eat. The rules of the challenge discourage eating other people's food.

"I got a renewed understanding of people who are dismissed as moochers," Bernstein said. "It's easy to laugh at people like that, but I began to see that maybe these people are food insecure."

Lsolomon@tribune.com or 561-243-6536

Ruth Rales Jewish Family Service offers help, hope and humanity through a comprehensive range of programs and services which support people of all ages and beliefs. With locations in Boca Raton and Delray Beach, JFS programs and services include food and financial assistance, senior services, counseling and mental health services and many volunteer opportunities. Visit www.rrjfs.org.

At the hub of the Jewish community, the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County serves the Boca Raton, Delray Beach and Highland Beach areas, raising and allocating millions of dollars each year to meet vital human needs locally, in Israel and 70 countries around the world. The JCRC is the public policy voice of the Federation. Visit www.jewishboca.org.

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