Today is “a damp, drizzly November in my soul” … well, actually in my neighborhood. My own soul feels pretty good. But here in New York City, the weather is just as Melville describes on the first page of Moby Dick. And especially for my most vulnerable neighbors, November has been colder and more challenging, since the federal budget cut $5 billion in annual food stamp [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP] benefits, beginning with this month.
You may know that – along with several Ansche Chesed members and Upper West Side clergy – I took the SNAP challenge, and lived for a brief week on the budget of a typical food stamp recipient. I’ve written about this previously, and you can see more at our communal blog.
This Sunday, the eight UWS SNAP challenge communities gathered in a public meeting at our synagogue, Ansche Chesed, to consider steps for further activism. Our new Manhattan Borough President-elect Gale Brewer joined our conversation, with helpful comments about supporting universal free meals for all public school students. You can learn more about this idea here and here. Already Boston, Chicago and LA have some version of universal school meals. Among NYC organizations favoring the plan is the UJA-Federation of New York, the Children’s Defense Fund, the United Federation of Teachers, and a number of churches and synagogues, including our own Ansche Chesed.
Most notable was the talk given by Joel Berg of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger. Joel is always an amazing speaker, unbelievably energetic and informed. He’s been working on this issue since his days in the Clinton Administration. His main message: only increased wages and food benefits can wipe out hunger in this rich nation. Community gardens and nutrition education are great, he said. But we have to have perspective on hunger in America and the realistic scope of relief efforts.
Taken together, all the food pantries and all the soup kitchens in America distribute $5 billion annually. The November 1 cuts cancelled $5 billion in annual aid. In other words, the cuts just wiped out all the work of every food pantry in America. The House of Representatives’ favored a farm bill that would cut an additional $39 billion over 10 more years, while the Senate would trim “only” $4.1 billion more. I don’t discount the need to get the budget deficit under control. But this cannot come on the backs of America’s most vulnerable.
Joel’s suggestions for responsible public change focus mainly on pressing elected officials to support policies that help the poor. Call your Senators and House Reps. To those of us in NYC, he urges us to write to Mayor-elect DiBlasio – who has always said all the right things – to use his new office for good, especially to institute universal school meals. You can write the transition team here.