It is very surprising to me that even in our affluent suburban community the local food pantry provides meals to over 125 families each month to Westfield residents. That is a startling statistic and really got me thinking about food, philanthropy and the responsibility our community has to help those who are needy. In a town of 30,000 residents, 125 families might represent almost 2% of Westfield’s population. Wow.
It’s been on my mind in particular this week. Three organizations have appealed to my sensibilities and promise to bring food to the hungry who live in our community. I am compelled to discuss hunger when it is not by choice. Eating, dining out, cooking and writing about it are all acts I take for granted on a daily basis. Let me take a moment to discuss those in need, rather than write about something indulgent like a restaurant meal or gourmet product. Suddenly it all seems so unimportant.
On Friday night, as the sun sunk below pink clouds, I prepared to fast for the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur. I cooked up a roast chicken with grilled vegetables, basmati rice and soup. I ate a generous portion, so that I wouldn’t be too hungry during the Rabbi’s sermon or on the drive to my in-laws to break the fast on Saturday at sundown. I chose when to stop eating and when to resume, and when I was ready, there was more food than you could imagine. Not everyone is as fortunate. I started to think about those who don’t have the choice of when to stop eating, or when to start. I questioned why as Jews we even fast in the first place, and what it all means.
On Yom Kippur each fall, Jews around the world fast for 25 hours. Fasting means refraining from food and beverage from the time the sun sets to the sign of the first star the following night. This is difficult to do, but we are expected to focus on prayer and atonement for wrongdoings throughout the year rather than on satisfying our carnal wants and desires. In researching why we fast, I came across this information in a random google search. “On Yom Kippur, so exclusive is the emphasis on one's inner life that there are five prohibitions designed to help reduce the focus on physical needs and thereby shift the spotlight to spiritual pursuits, including eating and drinking, bathing, anointing (applying creams and lotions), sexual relations and wearing leather shoes.”
This is news to me! I had no idea about any prohibitions beyond food and drink. I wore my favorite black suede high-heeled boots to temple and showered and lathered up as usual. It was necessary after having Yom Kippur relations – the mother of all make-up sex. As for fasting, I did my best. I had a small nosh before driving to my in-laws 100 miles away, and then made it until we broke the fast. At any rate, I absolutely reflected upon my inner life and had more than enough opportunity to consider how I could have had a better year. So I smelled good, looked good and felt good, and I did drive two hours to Philadelphia with 3-dozen hot bagels (including my own designer bagel from Clark Bagels – the whole wheat sesame) in the back without even looking at them. I’m satisfied with that. We broke the fast with roasted Brussels sprouts, homemade gravlax, Jersey bagels and a spicy poached chicken Asian salad.
If you were at – or drove by - Temple Emanu-El in Westfield on Saturday morning, you most likely noticed men and women carrying brown paper shopping bags. These bags were filled with canned and boxed food items to donate to the Westfield Food Pantry at Holy Trinity. A true community effort, they are “open five mornings a week with volunteers from Holy Trinity, United Methodist Church, Temple Emanu-El, the Westfield Service League, St. Helen’s Church and Redeemer Lutheran Church sorting, stocking shelves and packing food orders.” A program by Westfield residents for Westfield residents, locals help those less fortunate to feed their families.
The next day, on Sunday, October 9, I volunteered to help staff a table at the Paul Jackson Fund 5K in Clark at Oak Ridge Park. It was a beautiful morning, sunny and 80 degrees, as over 400 runners raced around the former golf course to help the nonprofit organization. As heart wrenching as not being able to feed your family, the fund honors the life of Paul Jackson, an athlete and father whose spinal cord tumor left him paralyzed and whose medical bills overwhelmed his family. Determined to prevent other families from suffering as similar plight, the fund was established and the very successful race fundraiser is in its second year. Our table was part of a sponsorship package that I suggested to my editor at Jersey Bites, who recently created the daily deals program 3SquareDeals to alleviate hunger in NJ.
Deborah Smith started Jersey Bites about four years ago, but felt a need to take her commitment to food to the next level. Her plan is to introduce the 3SquareDeals program in January. She is working with restaurants, nutritionists, cooking event organizers, gourmet food professionals and others to offer discounts to customers – such as pay $10 and get $20 credit at xyz restaurant. In turn, 3SquareDeals will give a percentage of every purchase to the Community Food Bank of New Jersey and to other local hunger relief programs throughout the state.
“Since the birth of Jersey Bites, I have always felt it was our duty to not only talk about the sexy side of food and dining out, but to also talk about the serious side of food; its safety, its purity and its scarcity. I believe we as “foodies” or “food enthusiasts” or whatever you like to call yourself, should have a heightened awareness regarding those who can’t enjoy our passion, or even the comfort of staples in the fridge,” Deborah Smith elaborates. I was honored to be in the same room, I mean park, with her!
You may be wondering what is the difference between a food bank and a food pantry. Food banks collect food and distribute it to pantries, soup kitchens, shelters, etc. These organizations then directly serve individuals in need. Then, there are other programs that operate independently and have a different distribution channel to feed the hungry.
Such a program is run by my daughter’s elementary school. Jefferson Elementary School in Westfield has a program they call “Tuesday Lunches.” Every Tuesday Jefferson will donate lunches to the needy of St. Joseph's parish in Elizabeth, NJ, packed by students and their families. Last year Jefferson donated more than 3,000 lunches, and since the start of this program the school has donated nearly 15,000 meals to hungry people. Beginning on Tuesday, October 18 the program will resume for this academic year. The school’s PTO is asking school families to pack an extra lunch on Tuesdays. Lunches should include a sandwich, a drink, healthy snack and a treat, and can also include a small toy or a handwritten note. You don’t have to be a Jefferson student or family to make a donation – lunches and drivers are welcome!
Between learning about the many hungry families in Westfield, and fasting and volunteering, I really appreciate the opportunity I have to purchase food and eat what I want, when I want. I cannot take this privilege for granted. It could be any of us on line at the food pantry next time around. Please consider these organizations when deciding to donate or volunteer. It will make a huge difference in someone’s life – someone who may be your neighbor, friend or colleague.