It was enough to bring Yiddishe mamas out in protest: Though scheduled for lunch time, there was no food offered at the “lunch panel” held at the Cooperman JCC in West Orange on Sept. 14.
The speakers — participants in the one-week Food Stamp Challenge — were “brown-bagging” it, to uphold their commitment to live on $4.20 a day, like the average recipient of help under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or what used to be known as food stamps.
Some came with oranges, others with peanut butter sandwiches or tuna and crackers, and all were dreaming of Sunday night, the end of the challenge, just two and a half days away.
“I’ve realized I have a sugar problem,” said Assemblywoman L. Grace Spencer (D-Dist. 29), “but on Sunday night, the first thing I’m going to have is cake.”
Eighteen NJ legislators and 35 Jewish community leaders took part in the Sept. 8-14 challenge, sponsored by the Community Relations Committee of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, Jewish Family Service of MetroWest, and Jewish Family Service of Central NJ.
Their goals: to experience first-hand how it feels to struggle with food insecurity, to boost bipartisan efforts to restore state and federal cuts to SNAP funding, and to find ways to end hunger.
The challenge was part of the CRC’s year-long End Hunger campaign, with other events planned for the coming months.
The panelists were joined by representatives from two other organizations dealing with the food assistance crisis, Community FoodBank of NJ, and Jewish Council for Public Affairs.
As speakers pointed out, more than one million people in New Jersey suffer from food insecurity, including close to 400,000 children. Cuts to funding combined with price increases have made a tough situation even harder for SNAP recipients.
“Every time we cut this program, more people come pouring into the food bank,” said Diane Riley, Community FoodBank’s director of advocacy. She urged those present to help end the use of the federal government’s “thrifty food plan” — its very lowest benefit scale — as the basis for SNAP.
Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Dist. 20), who with Sen. Tom Kean Jr. (R-Dist. 21) was one of the legislative sponsors of the challenge, was the first to admit that he bust his budget to buy coffee. “I lasted half a day,” Lesniak said. “I couldn’t do it; I was barking even more than usual.”
Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Dist. 29) said she had “the worst taste in my mouth. And because I’m not getting what I want to eat, I don’t feel satisfied.”
Searching for affordable, nutritious food also cut into her time. “What usually takes us 35 minutes at the supermarket took an hour and 20 minutes,” she said. “I was so exhausted but I had to be alert, to work out what I could afford.”
Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz (R-Dist. 21) is a nurse and the mother of five grown children, and knows how to budget, but even she was caught by surprise at how tough the week had been.
She wanted to buy a cooked rotisserie chicken at her supermarket that cost less than a raw one, but SNAP rules forbid using funds for prepared foods. “We have to get that rule changed,” she said.
JFS of Central NJ executive director Tom Beck said he was just too tired to keep up his usual daily exercise routine. “I’ve cut it to about 25 percent,” he said. On the food he was restricted to buying, he said, “I just don’t have the energy to do my usual workouts.”
Panelist Rabbi Steve Gutow, president and CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, reminded participants that their hardships were short-term. “It isn’t really walking in the shoes of the poor,” he said. Nevertheless, he urged all those taking part to talk about their experience and to make a Rosh Hashana resolution to help the poor.
“And don’t kid yourself,” he said. “This affects our community as well as the rest of the state.”