Combating Hunger

On a Friday night in 1985, Joan Kutner was cleaning up after a religious school dinner at Congregation Beth Israel in San Diego when a fellow congregant burst into the kitchen in tears. A young woman, the congregant said, was picking out chicken and challah from the dumpster to feed her three children. Kutner hurried to see for herself.

Kutner vowed not to turn her back on the hunger and desperation she witnessed. Six months later, her synagogue had raised $35,000, enough to kick off the CBI Hunger Project in partnership with St. Vincent de Paul Village. Run by volunteers, the grassroots project has now served more than 900,000 meals, feeding 700 people every Sunday morning. Kutner, a psychiatric nurse who was raised on a farm in Western Pennsylvania, says sharing food was always a way of life. “I contribute to international organizations, but my big goal is still to take care of those at home,” says Kutner. “I was able to get people of all ages and walks of life involved in the common goal of helping.”

For Diane Fisher, dedicating her personal and professional efforts to anti-hunger education, advocacy and direct service projects is her version of tikkun olam. “The whole food system is broken in a fundamental way,” says Fisher, 57, director of the Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of the Silicon Valley. “Food is a basic human right, but there is no equal access.” The JCRC is part of a community-wide interfaith coalition dedicated to cutting local poverty in half in 10 years. It has sponsored experiential events, including Oxfam Hunger Banquets (guests receive different dinners—filling, simple or sparse—based on randomly assigned income levels), Food Stamp Challenges (participants live on the average food stamp benefit of $31.50 a week), and screenings of a documentary called Food Stamped.

Fisher has been inspired by the anti-hunger work of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which is spearheading efforts to put poverty back on top of the Jewish communal agenda. Together with MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, the JCPA has organized Passover seders for the past four years that have translated the message of freedom into an opportunity to end the oppression of hunger in America. This year, the “Hunger Seders” will create awareness and activism in support of the federal food stamp program, SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), which is the target of massive cuts. A national seder will be held March 29 at the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center with administration officials and members of Congress. A special Haggadah for community seders and a one-page supplementary reading for family seders are available at hungerseder.org.

According to Elyssa Koidin, 30, JCPA senior policy associate, “Hunger affects every other aspect of your life. If you’re without food, it’s hard to carry out all other needs.” Koidin’s personal commitment is backed up by Torah and the deep Jewish tradition of taking care of people in need. “Passover is the prime season to think about hunger,” she notes, “but it’s important every day.”