Bills introduced last week by U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York) and Congressman Joe Crowley (D-Queens, Bronx) would ensure a greater supply of kosher food for needy families under the federal Emergency Food Assistance Program.
The bills would require the U.S. Department of Agriculture to increase the amount of kosher food provided and establish a system to better label, direct and track the food to make sure it gets to people who can only eat kosher diets because of religious beliefs.
The USDA does purchase kosher food under existing emergency programs but does not track or label it to assure it gets to kosher-specific food pantries or those in communities with large populations of needy Jewish families.
In a joint statement issued last week, Gillibrand and Crowley estimated that there are about 244,000 Jewish households in New York City living in poverty. Gillibrand said passage would help the neediest observant families and individuals get access to kosher food.
“With food insecurity in New York reaching disturbing, historic highs, and food banks facing extreme shortages of kosher meals, many families are at risk of hunger and malnutrition,” Gillibrand said.
In Forest Hills, Cynthia Zalisky, executive director of the food pantry run by the Queens Jewish Community Council, said they were having difficulty meeting demand even before Hurricane Sandy struck last month.
“We are ecstatic,” Zalisky said Tuesday. “The need has been so great and ever since Sandy that need has only increased. This is the right bill at the right time.”
Zalisky said in the best of times the pantry has trouble meeting the need for foods high in protein, such canned tuna, salmon and other meats that are acceptable under kosher dietary laws.
She said the proposed labeling and tracking requirements would be almost as important as increasing the amount of food in the emergency program.
“If it isn’t labeled as kosher, we can’t use it at our pantry,” she said. And while a non-kosher pantry could distribute food from a kosher shipment that was misdirected, the same would not always be true if the QJCC received the wrong delivery.
“We could have a problem,” Zalisky said. “We need food that is appropriate for us in order to meet the demand.” She was pleased, but not surprised that Queens native Crowley was on top of the matter.
“Our legislation will help make it easier for these food banks to provide kosher meals and food items, helping them to better meet the needs of the communities they serve,” Crowley said.
A spokesman for Congressman Bob Turner (R-Queens, Brooklyn) said in an email on Tuesday that he has signed on to support the bill.
Crowley and William Rapfogel, CEO of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, or MET Council, confirmed that the fallout from Hurricane Sandy has made a bad situation even worse.
“The devastation brought on by Hurricane Sandy has multiplied the need for kosher emergency bulk food, particularly proteins, in our community now more than ever before,” Rapfogel said. “Jewish individuals living in or near poverty become dangerously vulnerable in times of disaster.”
Rapfogel said adding Jewish families and individuals living in near-poverty, the number living in food insecurity is about 400,000 in the city.