For more than 35 years, MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger has been working with policymakers and engaging in broad-based advocacy to solve and fix the systemic problem of hunger in America.
MAZON was founded by Leonard “Leibel” Fein (z”l) and Irv Cramer in 1985, to build a bridge between the relative abundance of the American Jewish community and the desperate need felt by millions of hungry people.
“We work with people across the country,” says Liz Kanter Groskind, board chair of MAZON. “It’s a Jewish response to hunger, but it’s a Jewish response to everyone’s hunger.”
MAZON is working on many different efforts, including hunger among active-duty military, food-insecure veterans, LGBTQ seniors and Native American populations.
Most people don’t know that there are food pantries or food banks on or next to every major military base in this country. “It is a fact that they are not being compensated enough to support their families,” says Liz. “They include their housing allowance in their pay, which keeps them from being able to be eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).”
MAZON has been working on this issue for nearly a decade. On July 21, 2020, the U.S. House of Representatives passed its Fiscal Year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which includes a provision to address hunger among currently serving military families. The bipartisan Military Family Basic Needs Allowance, championed by MAZON, is a targeted provision that aims to eliminate common barriers to nutrition assistance for military families, including shame, stigma and fear of retribution.
Another vulnerable community MAZON works with is Native American populations, as well as those who live in rural and remote communities. MAZON is deeply concerned about access to fresh and nutritious foods in these communities, where the nearest grocery store could be an hour away.
But there is a new cause of hunger in America – the pandemic. Food banks provide the immediate need of food, but the number of people they serve has doubled and tripled, depending on the area, as a result of COVID-19.
“The hardest thing isn’t the mechanism or process of doing our work – we know what we do, and we do it well – it’s that first time you saw 10,000 cars waiting hours and hours at the food bank,” says Liz. “That breaks my heart to see those folks who are food insecure who don’t need to be. If the system worked, they wouldn’t have had to do that.”
MAZON is used to working on a federal level, but they have begun to work with individual states since it’s up to the governors to request additional SNAP benefits.
SNAP is also commonly referred to as food stamps. “Most people are on food stamps only a short time, not more than 3-6 months,” says Liz. “This federal program was set up to be a food safety net, but unfortunately, often times the people who need it can’t get it.” During the pandemic, it has been difficult for people to sign up for help because the agencies have been closed and not everyone has computer access to sign up online.
Another vital facet of the SNAP program is that it stimulates the economy. The latest COVID-19 relief bill to pass did not include critical improvements to SNAP.
“For congress to boost the benefits is proven to be one of the quickest ways to stimulate the economy,” states Liz. “The statistic we’ve heard time and again, especially during a recession, every SNAP dollar generates between $1.50 and $1.80 in economic activity.”
People get the funds on an EBT card and often spend it right away for dinner that night. It would help people put food on their table immediately, and with a sense of dignity, but it would also help stimulate local economies.
“One of the first things we did with COVID was create a directory,” says Liz. “So that we could refer anybody to our home page where there’s a directory to refer them to local service providers.”
MAZON also works directly with anti-hunger partners around the country, some of which also operate food pantries, as well as Jewish community partners who are committed to the cause of ending hunger.
“I refer to it as MAZON in a box,” says Liz. “Where we offer our staff time and knowledge to these nonprofits that are first and direct response folks.”
MAZON has developed partnerships with 900-1,000 different synagogues around the country. They have a national synagogue organizer who works to build local coalitions in communities around the country and educates leaders about the circumstances that lead hunger to persist in this country.
There are also educational resources and opportunities for bar/bat mitzvah projects and other simchas on MAZON’S website.
“About four years ago, we commissioned a photojournalist to go across America,” says Liz. “We wanted people to see what the face of hunger looks like.”
The result of this project was “This Is Hunger.” It was a traveling, interactive exhibit that featured first-person accounts of individuals touched by hunger. Housed inside a 53-foot-long travel trailer, “This Is Hunger” stopped at synagogues and Jewish institutions on a 16-month, 50 city tour in 2016.
After the tour, “This Is Hunger” found a permanent home in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley where the space provides a gathering place for social justice organizations to meet, plan or host events (pre-pandemic).
Currently, “This Is Hunger” is being offered as an immersive digital experience, exploring who struggles with hunger in America and why.
“Camps and Jewish educators use it as a virtual field trip,” says Liza Lieberman,
director of communications with MAZON. There are also companion materials, including a facilitation guide, wrap-around activities and additional resources.
MAZON has also established a COVID-19 Response Fund. “Donations to this fund support MAZON’s efforts to ensure that all Americans can feed themselves and their families with dignity,” says Liza.
For more information, visit mazon.org.