Twenty-eight years ago, Yad Ezra, Michigan’s only kosher food pantry, opened its doors to provide free supplemental groceries to low-income Jewish families living in southeast Michigan. At that time, it was difficult to convince people in our community that there were Jewish families who were so vulnerable they couldn’t provide the most basic of necessities for themselves.
If there were hungry Jewish families, didn’t the U.S. government provide them with food through the food stamp program (now known as SNAP — Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program)? When researched, it was discovered that the monthly SNAP benefit realistically lasted one week per family, if lucky; and, more often, not even that long.
Fortunately, the founders of Yad Ezra persevered; volunteers and supporters became engaged, and the food pantry started on its path of providing groceries, toiletries and household cleaning items to families in need.
“It is amazing how quickly Yad Ezra became institutionalized in the Detroit Jewish community, and how much of a resource it has been continuously to the most vulnerable people in our area over the past 28 years,” said Gary Dembs, one of Yad Ezra’s founders and first president. “The human need will always be there, and our volunteers will always step up to help their neighbors.”
Michael Eizelman, another Yad Ezra founder and past president, said, “From humble beginnings in a basement office/warehouse/distribution space of a few hundred square feet, a diverse Jewish community came together to address a hunger issue in a dignified, caring and generous fashion.
“Our tradition teaches that there will always be needy in our community and that we are commanded to help those in need. Now distributing over 1 million pounds of groceries a year, the staff and volunteers of Yad Ezra, operating out of a 16,000-square-foot space, are truly guardians of this sacred tradition.”
This month, we distributed our 20 millionth pound of food. Thousands of families have been helped by our community’s generous support of Yad Ezra over the years and, yet, the need continues. In Michigan alone, 583,884 individuals, representing 14.7 percent of Michigan’s population, are food insecure (i.e. they are not confident of having their next meal).
Congress addresses hunger through rotating legislation including the Farm Bill, which comes up every five years and includes funding for SNAP, Child Nutrition Reauthorization (which also comes up for a vote every five years and provides funding for school breakfast and lunch programs, snack programs and federal grants for WIC [women, infants and children]) and Appropriation Bills that include TEFAP [the emergency food assistance program], a supplemental food program, tax credits and the Commodity Supplemental Food Program for the elderly. And yet, 42.2 million Americans (12.7 percent of American households or more than 1 in 8 people) are food insecure. In the Metro Detroit Jewish community, 1,300 families are food insecure, representing 3,000 individuals. The average annual income of Yad Ezra’s client families is currently less than $14,000, most of which comes from social security benefits.
“We started many years ago addressing the simple truth that no one should ever go hungry and every person deserves wholesome food,” said a founder and former Yad Ezra president Howard Zoller. “We were confident in the knowledge that our community is so very generous … mixed in scores of dedicated volunteers and an amazing staff … and the result …Yad Ezra.”
While Yad Ezra’s leadership is proud of the fact that we have been able to distribute 20 million pounds of free groceries over the past 28 years, it is humbling to realize that it is not enough.
Over the years, Yad Ezra has embarked on a number of efforts to raise awareness about the issue of hunger through partnerships with other agencies, letter and paper plate campaigns, events and programs. While we continue to provide an increasingly large variety of healthy proteins, produce, whole wheat carbs and other items every month, we can’t rest on our laurels.
As an emergency food provider, we have made a moral commitment to our client families that they can continue to rely on us for food for as long as they need our help. To that end, efforts to help educate the community and provide a better understanding of food insecurity is important to Yad Ezra’s leadership.
The Department of Human Services in Michigan states that the average food stamp allocation per person is $4.20 per day. Yad Ezra volunteers and staff who have helped clients register online for SNAP since 2007 prove otherwise; we have seen an average allocation of only $16 per month.
Take The Food Stamp Challenge
On May 23, we are hosting a 24-Hour Food Stamp Diet Challenge that begins at 7:30 p.m. at the Meijer on Telegraph and 12 Mile Road. Participants will meet at the store armed with $4.20 that they will use to buy food to feed themselves for 24 hours. To fully experience the plight of someone relying on SNAP, no other food should be consumed other than the SNAP allocation for the 24-hour period.
As the Farm Bill will soon again be up for Congress to determine dollars allocated for SNAP for impoverished families in the U.S., it is important for us to understand the impact and reliance on SNAP benefits for those living in poverty.
While Yad Ezra is prepared to continue providing free groceries to vulnerable families for as long as it is necessary, it is our hope that our government will continue to provide and improve its partnership with us in our efforts to ensure that no one suffer from hunger.
“Yad Ezra has a proud history of serving our community, which started with the vision of our founders,” Jeffrey Supowit, Yad Ezra’s current president, said. “We never stop thinking about how to better serve our community and, God willing, distribute the next 20 million pounds.”
Lea Luger is executive director of Yad Ezra.