I’ve worked here at MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger for two years now. In that time, I’ve learned much about hunger, nutrition, health & policy, and our mission statement, “to provide for people who are hungry while at the same time advocating for other ways to end hunger and its causes,” has become deeply ingrained in my life in and outside the office.
We receive many calls & letters from people & corporations offering food donations; many more thank us for personally feeding the hungry. I hope nobody is disappointed by the revelation that our M.O. is a little different. We’re a small office building, populated by a small team of dedicated workers. Direct food service is impossible for us. It’s an important foundation to ending hunger, and many of our admired grantees are food banks and soup kitchens, but it’s an approach that only goes partway towards stopping hunger forever. To use an ancient adage, there’s giving fish (short-term direct service), and there’s teaching to fish (long-term solutions).
The first thing I learned about hunger is that you can’t survive on fish alone. You must also teach others to bake bread, harvest fresh fruits & vegetables, milk cows/goats/soy – it’s a fine balance. I used to think hunger was merely an issue of calories & fuel – but obesity rates are highest amongst the poor, which taught me that the real issue of hunger isn’t one of starvation but of nutrition. This was reinforced at a health & nutrition policy conference co-sponsored by MAZON & The California Endowment earlier this year. Panels put on and attended by our California grantees spoke of the importance & problems maintaining an accessible, nutritious diet.
The problem is that a healthy, nutritious diet is out of reach for many people. Supermarkets are reluctant to build in low-income neighborhoods – although there’s plenty of fast food. Why trudge through traffic to a grocery store miles away, then spend a half hour washing, cutting & preparing salads & meals, when there’s a fatty $1 menu down the street? In Los Angeles, Councilwoman Jan Perry led the City Council to place a moratorium on new fast food businesses in South L.A., a region where over 45% of the eateries belong to fast food chains. It’s an important first step, but until liquor stores, corner markets & supermarkets join together and bring nutrition in all neighborhoods, it’s just that.
This problem affects children even more than adults. The National School Lunch Program provides low/no-cost meals to millions of students a day. For many, this will be their only meal of the day, a meal that will disappear when school’s out for summer. Vital supplements like the Summer Food Service Program & the WIC Program (Women, Infants & Children) will expire this September if Congress doesn’t renew the Child Nutrition & WIC Reauthorization Act of 2004. If our kids can’t eat, they can’t learn. If our kids can’t learn, we won’t grow.
When I first moved to L.A., I worked at a theater & had to smuggle popcorn & leftover pretzels because I couldn’t afford to pay my rent & buy food at a minimum wage. Thankfully, those hard times are over, but I was reminded of them last year when I participated in MAZON’s Food Stamp Challenge (I know, I talk about it all the time, but try it some time – it’s really meaningful). I felt miserable, tired, sluggish – and this was only after a week. I can’t imagine how awful it must be to feel that way for an extended time. No one should.
But let’s end this on a positive note. This is what MAZON means to me. It means that everyone can find healthy food in their neighborhood. It means every child can have a healthy meal at school. It means that wherever you work, and whatever you make, you can feed your family.
Let’s fish, bake & harvest together.
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