During Chanukah, Shining a Light on Hunger

December 20, 2022

This piece originally appeared in San Diego Jewish World on December 20, 2022.

For Jews across America, Chanukah offers an opportunity to rededicate ourselves to our highest Jewish ideals. Amid eight days of joyous celebration, shared meals of latkes and sufganiyot, and gift exchanges, the miracle of the Maccabees — a group of Jews lacking resources to survive who prospered against all odds — reminds us that Chanukah is also a time to create a more just future for those without abundance. For many, the fifth night of Chanukah has become a night to give back, encouraging children to share their gifts with those less fortunate; for MAZON, Chanukah shines a metaphorical light on an often-overlooked crisis in our society: hunger and food insecurity. The painful, shameful truth is that widespread hunger persists in America.

So many Americans find themselves without food, struggling every day to feed themselves and their families: 13.5 million households — more than 10 percent of Americans — struggle with food insecurity. A shocking 30 percent of single mothers and their children live in poverty; nearly 25 percent of indigenous households confront the realities of hunger daily. And across our nation, children suffer every day, unable to focus on learning at school because they lack adequate nutritious food.

Unlike in the Chanukah story, where one night’s oil miraculously lasted for eight days, there will be no miracle to end hunger in this country. But there can be real, tangible solutions — public policies that we know will make a meaningful difference and give families the dignity they deserve to put food on the table.

We need the political will of our nation’s leaders to pursue robustly funded national policies that feed the hungry while strategically addressing the systemic social inequities rooted in hunger, including those born of systemic racism and sexism.

While our Jewish history offers guidance, instilling the values and ideals that shape our vision of ending hunger, our American history also offers important lessons we must heed. Food insecurity is part of our American history, and so are solutions to it.

In 1969, the first White House Conference on Food, Nutrition and Health led to the expansion of federal food programs that to this day provide a critical safety net for the most vulnerable among us. Programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps), the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), and free school meals all made unprecedented progress against hunger and malnutrition.

Sadly, the 1980s reversed that progress. Draconian policies of federal aid cutbacks, fueled by racist and sexist welfare queen tropes, the introduction of “work-fare,” low-wage jobs and corporate takeovers of our food and farming industries propelled a rise in people unable to regularly access nutritious food. Financial crises like the 2008 housing market collapse and the more recent global pandemic and spiking inflation have only pushed more people to the brink amid widening income inequality.

Yet this fall, the Biden-Harris administration took a big step forward by holding the second-ever White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health. Advocates pushed those in the highest seats of government to understand the social safety net more holistically — noting that people’s lives are interconnected, as are their needs. For instance, if single mothers struggle to put food on the table because of childcare challenges, being stuck in low-paying jobs and losing their housing as domestic violence victims, should not our solutions to the problems impoverishing them also be connected? But we are keenly mindful that a one-day conference and big promises are just the beginning.

Now, the critical work of examining the root causes of hunger must begin, as we ask the challenging questions that identify — and address — the underlying causes of hunger in America. During the pandemic, we all saw compelling photos and news reports of lines at over-burdened food pantries, with many Americans finding themselves food insecure for the first time. Our robust charitable sector supports such on-the-ground triage in the war on hunger in moments of crisis, but it is not built for long-term support. Rather, we have the swiftly enacted federal expansions of SNAP, WIC, and other key federal aid to thank for keeping millions more Americans from the brink, and for stabilizing rates of food insecurity at a time when they so quickly nearly skyrocketed.

Overwhelming data, reports, and stories of hunger in America show that not only is the problem pervasive, but that our leaders know it. The good news is that it doesn’t require a miracle to fix this problem.

In the new year, Congress will start the process of reauthorizing our nations’ food programs under the next Farm Bill. On the heels of the second national forum on hunger, this legislation will provide a critical opportunity to advance and institutionalize the serious, comprehensive policies needed to end hunger.

As we shift our focus to solutions in the Farm Bill, we are also mindful of our past, and the lessons we must remember to move ahead. In early 2023, MAZON will open the doors to their groundbreaking virtual Hunger Museum, which will take people on a powerful journey into the cultural, political, and social forces that shape hunger in America. Through artifacts, videos, photos, and more, the museum will also illustrate the way toward a more equitable and just future.

As we light the candles on the menorah and shine a light into the winter darkness, we look forward to a new era when the vulnerable among us find prosperity, and our nation finally enacts the systemic change to turn one night of oil — the crisis of hunger — into a lifetime of support.