On Friday night, Jewish people, loved ones, and friends around the world will join together for Passover seders. And while no two seders are exactly alike, certain rituals, traditions, and words are common in almost every seder: The four questions. Looking for the afikomen. The profound statement “Let all who are hungry come and eat.” Undoubtedly, this sentence comprised of eight direct and powerful words would be overwhelming if taken literally. And, like any words said over and over, the sentence can lose its meaning. In the spirit of Passover and of asking questions, let’s step back and ask ourselves what are we actually doing so that all who are hungry can come and eat—not just at our seders, but every day of the year.
Hunger in the U.S. is one of the most urgent issues today. $218 billion is spent per year on “the growing, processing, transporting, and disposing of food that is never eaten,” yet 1/7 Americans still go hungry. 15 million U.S. households were food insecure at some time during 2017. Passover, the great story of slavery to freedom, with a ritual and elaborate meal, can be a call to action in response. By calling us to bring in all who are hungry, the Haggadah tells us to create change at the seder. How many of us bring in all who are hungry to our tables? How many of us heed the essence of that call– to feed those who are hungry– every day?
At Repair the World, we try to address food insecurity and food injustice on the grassroots, local level by partnering with community leaders who are experts in this work. We do it through service with others, in relationship with those impacted by hunger.
One of Repair the World Pittsburgh’s local partners, 412 Food Rescue, takes surplus food from retailers, restaurants, and elsewhere and matches it to non-profits that serve people who are food insecure. The organization utilizes technology similar to Uber to mobilize a network of volunteer drivers to transport the food from one location to another. The scale of these efforts is staggering: 11,000 people downloaded 412 Food Rescue’s app to be drivers; they recover 6 million lbs. of food annually; 500 retailers and 600 non-profits are part of this work. As 412’s co-founder and CEO Leah Lizarondo says, “We are working to fix a broken food system with a solution that involves everyone. If a volunteer is already driving in a certain direction, we make it easy for them to pick up food and drop it off. There are minimal barriers to being in service and to being a part of the solution here.”
A partner of Repair in Detroit, Gleaners Community Food Bank, distributes more than 43 million pounds of food per year and serves more than 430,000 struggling neighbors. In recent years, through programs such as Healthy Food Home Delivery and social impact initiatives, Gleaners has changed the conversation about hunger; they are committed to not just feeding the line of people needing food, but to ending the line.
“We are focused on bringing more stability, health, and empowerment to families through food,” says Stacy Averill, Senior Director of Marketing at Gleaners. “When families get enough high-quality, healthy food, they can focus on other important aspects in their lives such as paying down utility bills, paying the rent, or reducing credit card debt. Food-secure families have children who do better in school and adults who are employed longer, make more money, and have lower health care costs.”
And in New York, one of Repair’s local partners, Hunger Free America (HFA), works to build a non-partisan, grass roots membership movement to enact the policies and programs needed to end domestic hunger. A particularly committed group of its volunteers make up its Food Action Boards (FABs), which seek to help low-income individuals develop the abilities and skills necessary to effectively advocate for themselves and their communities. FAB members come from the neighborhoods they serve and help to spread correct information, correct misinformation and engage their neighbors in the fight against hunger.
“We are trying to educate and motivate the next generation of young advocates addressing food justice issues, working with student groups on strategic community canvassing events and civic engagement presentations and activities,” says Stephanie Wu Winter, Director of Strategic Volunteer Initiatives at HFA.
All of these partners work within their communities, mobilizing a network of staff and volunteers to serve and to repair their local food systems. This approach has a clear purpose. Proximity to those people most impacted by an issue, as Founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative Bryan Stevenson notes, gives us deeper empathy and deeper understanding of the issue—and the knowledge to help us be a part of the solution. In fact, people are moved to create change if they know someone personally impacted by a challenge. Service is a powerful vehicle through which we get to know people impacted by food insecurity. Through service we can move from understanding hunger as a statistic to understanding the human connection and story. It brings us proximate to the issue, which drives further action and also informs strong solutions.
For me personally, spending time volunteering in Brooklyn’s food pantries changed the way I understand hunger. Many of the clients I’ve volunteered with have regular work, but still aren’t able to make ends meet. Jewish tradition calls me to feed the hungry, but in doing so, I’ve also gained a deeper understanding of how our systems need to change and evolve to alleviate hunger. It was through service that I came to understand the importance of providing workers with a living wage.
Authentic service will address pressing local needs, such as hunger, while work is done to change systems. This Passover, as we invite all who are hungry to come and eat—let’s use that statement as a starting point for service. Begin by understanding what causes the systemic issue of hunger. Understand where and how this manifests itself in your community. Repair’s #MySederServes offers information and a framework for building one’s understanding and empathy about hunger and food insecurity. We hope it also sparks an authentic desire to serve alongside those in need. Participate in change through service, exemplified by the actions of our partners, 412 Food Rescue, Gleaners Community Food Bank, Hunger Free America, and others. To serve is a central message of Judaism and Passover. Together, let’s answer the call.
Cindy Greenberg is Interim CEO of Repair the World