Thanksgiving leftovers are still in most of our refrigerators, but Benny Wechsler is already worrying about Passover.
Months before the first seder, Wechsler is usually squirreling away funding from state and city sources for his program, the Kosher Food Network of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, so that when he has to buy the holiday provisions that his program distributes to more than 50,000 families for Passover, he has the money saved up.
This year, though, for the first time, Wechsler isn’t able to put that money aside.
Instead, in what he and others who run emergency food programs are calling a crisis, food supplies for New York City’s hungry are dwindling.
Shelves in emergency food programs are empty at a time of year when they should be groaning under their contents. The Food Bank for New York City usually has close to eight million pounds of food in its Bronx warehouse. It is currently down to three million.
So today Wechsler is using the money he tries to set aside for Passover in order to buy what he needs for the 14,000 bags of food staples he provides every month to hungry Jewish families around the city.
“We’re spending the money on our regular budget,” said Wechsler, director of the Kosher Food Program. “We don’t know what will happen for Passover, but we have to feed people now.”
It is a problem besetting the entire emergency food program system; every New York City food pantry and soup kitchen is feeling the effect of dramatically diminished supplies of food from the federal government, which are distributed to the neighborhood groups by the Food Bank for New York City.
The federal program is funded through the Farm Bill, which is currently stalled in the Senate.
“[Federal money] has decreased steadily, so the amount of food we receive is 50 percent of what it was five years ago,” said Wechsler. “Just last week we were out of tuna, which is our only protein.” So he bought 12,000 cans from an importer to give out in the pantry bags that he distributes each month through 35 Jewish community centers throughout the five boroughs.
At the same time, demand is growing.
Nationwide there are approximately 737,000 poor Jews, according to research by the Met Council. Nearly half are in New York City alone — 348,000 — 25 percent of the 1.4 million Jews in the five boroughs, Long Island and Westchester.
No one knows exactly how many Jews access emergency food programs, but of the approximately 1,000 food pantries and soup kitchens to which the Food Bank for New York City provides provisions, 188 serve kosher food. That’s double the number that there were three years ago, said Ashley Baughman, research manager at the Food Bank.
“There’s this dichotomy in the marketplace of emergency food programs. As they have an increase in clients needing resources, they’re experiencing a lesser degree of supply. They’re coming to a head at once,” said Leslie Gordon, director of agency relations for City Harvest, the program that gathers donated food from wholesalers, distributors, retailers and caterers, and then sends it out to about 600 community emergency food programs.
“Everybody is feeling it. I’m feeling it terribly right now,” said Pe’er Deutsch who, with her husband, runs an organization called Oneg Shabbos (Joy of the Sabbath) out of their Borough Park synagogue.
“We just get so many requests. Every month it’s just more and more,” says Deutsch, who with her husband, Rabbi Shaul Shimon Deutsch, established Oneg Shabbos a dozen years ago when six families came to them needing money to buy food for Shabbat. Today they distribute boxes of food to nearly 1,000 families — feeding 4,000 people — each week. They do not turn anyone away.
While this confluence of reduced food supplies and growing need is affecting all emergency food programs in New York City, it is particularly acute for kosher programs.
They are able to accept less donated food from the big suppliers because the meat and poultry, as well as prepared foods, are generally not kosher.
This leaves fewer things for those who provide the food to the Jewish hungry to pick.
The Food Bank for New York City, from which Deutsch gets part of what her 150 volunteers fan out to distribute on Thursday nights, “used to have pages and pages of donated stuff” from which she would order online. “There used to be 10 items on each of 15 pages to choose from. This week there were just four or five items all together. I don’t get as much as I need,” said Deutsch.
“Kosher food pantry programs are such a minute part of the entire program, there isn’t special consideration within the government for kosher foods. Because the free donated food to food banks is not kosher, consequently kosher programs have to purchase” what they need, Wechsler said. “That’s a lot more money we’ve got to put into it.”
“We are running on fumes in terms of giving out food,” says William Rapfogel, Met Council’s chief executive officer. “The situation as it relates to food pantries in general and in particular kosher ones, is desperate. We have to redouble our efforts as a community to make sure people in the Jewish community, kosher or not, have opportunities to get food.”
Part of the problem is the perception that there are not as many hungry people in the Jewish community as there are in others.
“Unfortunately some people within government and other programs feel that Jewish poverty doesn’t exist, that we’re just milking the system and that our problem is not as severe as anyone else’s. Consequently we’re tolerated” rather than focused on, says one veteran working in the field. “The proportion of poor among Jews is just the same as any other group.”
Every third year the Food Bank analyzes hunger in New York City. The 2007 report was published last month, and found that in the last three years the number of people going to emergency food programs has risen 24 percent.
“We are seeing an increased number of people with higher education, more people who are working full time coming in. More people who would normally be considered to have more means are having more difficulty,” said the Food Bank’s Baughman.
“Costs are going up for food, rent, utilities. Most of our participants rent, and they spend on average 59 percent of income monthly on rent. You can’t not pay the rent or not go to the doctor, but you can cut down on food or go to a food pantry. And as rents go up, it’s harder for them,” she said.
Alexander Rapaport sees it firsthand. Every night he’s at Masbia, the “restaurant without a cash register,” as he calls the soup kitchen he established in April of 2005 in Borough Park.
A member of a chasidic community there, Rapaport noticed many men making dinner out of the snacks put out in the basement of the 24-hour synagogue in the neighborhood. He realized that there must be as many women and children as there were men who were hungry, but knew that they wouldn’t be coming to shul in the rigorously sex-segregated community.
So he, with a partner, started Masbia (Hebrew for “satiated”). On their first night they served eight meals. Today he serves at least 160 dinners, purchased from a local caterer, each night Sunday through Thursday, to men, women and children. But some nights, when people are standing at the entrance because every seat in the small “restaurant” is taken, he sometimes runs out for chicken and side dishes from a local store. In all, he serves 50,000 dinners a year financed entirely with private donations.
“I do think poverty is getting worse. Five dollars can’t buy a loaf of bread and milk anymore,” says Rapaport, a 29-year-old father of five young children, who by day works in marketing. “Right after the holidays people seemed very desperate. I see more people here picking through supermarket Dumpsters. Frum people, bearded people, sheitel women.”
The Levys walked into Masbia’s storefront space one recent evening and quietly sat down at one of the wooden tables. A waiter brought them each a hot chicken dinner, from soup to fruit compote. Cold seltzer and cups were already on the table, next to condiments.
The Levys — they declined to give their first names — come to Masbia “quite often,” they said, because they cannot afford to eat as well on their own. Their 10-year-old daughter, who attends one of the Orthodox schools in the neighborhood, doesn’t like to come and is embarrassed to be seen there.
“I don’t make much money, and whatever I make goes to rent,” says Mrs. Levy, 50, who tutors people in Hebrew and English. Mr. Levy, 61, and missing a front tooth, worked as a handyman but hasn’t been able to since falling ill from tumors on a kidney, he says.
“A few years ago, it was better. But now…” Mrs. Levy trails off. “Thank God for this place. It’s a big help. A really big help.”