It is often said that Americans are overfed and undernourished when it comes to food. Supermarket shelves are lined with highly processed “food” products that contain little nutritional value when compared to the number of calories provided. While these products excel at meeting our energy requirements as cheaply as possible, one of the many hidden costs is that they leave us lacking required nutrients. In America it is difficult to starve, but easy to be malnourished.
And yet, there are still people who are hungry in this country. The USDA census on hunger estimates that in 2010, 48.8 million Americans suffered from food insecurity, meaning that nearly 50 million people in this country were not only malnourished but also hungry. That number included adults and children, and in fact households with children were more likely to be dealing with issues of food insecurity.
This time of year, as I plan my Thanksgiving feast, I struggle to reconcile that while there will be a literal feast on my table, others are struggling to have any food at all.
As the Jewish holiday season progresses from Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur toward Sukkot, each holiday has a special relationship to food that builds on the preceding holiday. Rosh Hashanah is a time of feasting: succulent apples and honey and round raisin challah, a table of sweetened abundance. Yom Kippur, in contrast, is a day of fasting, and even though we are only hungry for a day, the holiday encourages empathy for those who face hunger every day, including 1.4 million New York City residents (according to the NYC Coalition Against Hunger) and millions of people world-wide. Finally, during the harvest festival of Sukkot, we combine feasting with our obligation to feed the hungry.
Leviticus 23:22 describes the harvest commandment of peah, according to which we must leave the four corners of our field to be gleaned by the poor and the stranger. In the system of peah, leaving the corners of one’s field unharvested provides for the hungry in a way that addresses their needs while simultaneously preserving their dignity: the hungry can take produce as needed without the embarrassment or shame that could accompany receiving charity. For those of us living in an urban area, where the majority of the residents are not farmers, we can use the tradition of peah as guidance for the way we address local food insecurity.
This Sukkot, a program called Care to Share is doing just that.