Hunger exhibit heads across country to Trump, urges SNAP stays in farm bill
LOS ANGELES — Donald Trump hasn’t said anything about hunger during the presidential campaign.
But the Republican president-elect and critics of federal nutrition programs — including House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis. — should be aware that an 18-wheeler rig will travel across the country in the coming months to raise awareness of the problem and gather signatures on a petition to Trump to protect the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, and keep it in the farm bill.
“Hungry people’s lives are often talked about but rarely witnessed. They are real people,” Abby Leibman, president and CEO of MAZON: a Jewish Response to Hunger, said here last Wednesday at a gala unveiling of the exhibit at Smashbox Studios in Culver City.
“This is Hunger,” housed in a 53-foot trailer, features audio, video and social media elements to “take the experience of learning people’s stories to a deeper level than what news articles or standard photo gallery exhibitions can usually accomplish,” Leibman said.
People who visit the exhibit will be asked to take action to maintain federal nutrition programs by signing the petition or by asking a member of Congress to maintain the programs and increase benefits.
After a series of stops in California in December, the exhibit — pulled by the same type of truck that food companies use to move their products across the country — will move on to Arizona in early January and travel across the country through next July. The exhibit will be in the Washington, D.C., area February 8-21.
MAZON, which is based in Los Angeles, is aligned with other nutrition groups and farm groups in trying to keep the farm and nutrition programs together in one bill. Both farm and nutrition advocates have said that separating the two could make it impossible to get Congress to vote for either program.
“MAZON remains committed to protecting and strengthening SNAP so that it reaches even more people in need and provides a more adequate benefit to enable them to purchase nutritious food,” said Josh Protas, MAZON’s Washington-based vice president for public policy. “We will fight against efforts to block-grant and gut funding for the program as well as attempts to try to strip the nutrition title out of the farm bill. Such proposals would cause great harm for vulnerable populations and would add to the problem of hunger, not diminish it.”
In addition to these “big picture” priorities, Protas added, MAZON remains “committed to addressing food insecurity challenges for populations that don’t get as much public attention, including currently serving military families, veterans, people in rural and remote communities, Native Americans, and LGBT seniors.”
The “This is Hunger” traveling exhibition is not a response to the 2016 election. MAZON has been preparing “This is Hunger” for three years and takes the view that all politicians, Democrats and Republicans, need to be more aware that 42 million Americans (more than one in eight people of all ethnicities and ages and 13 percent of households) had difficulty at some point in the last year in providing enough food for their families.
But at the launch, Leibman said, “We know our government will be markedly different in January.” If the new administration and Congress ignore the needs of the hungry, they need to be informed that “this is not America,” she said.
“We need the truck out there on the road,” Leibman added, as she asked attendees to pledge money beyond the $180 to $3,600 gala tickets to pay to keep the exhibit, which cost $1.3 million to create, on the road.
“Congress needs to hear from you over and over again,” Leibman said.
“Faces of hunger must be brought out of the shadows,” added Shirley Davidoff, a Dallas nurse practitioner who chairs MAZON.
The traveling truck may also raise the profile of MAZON, which is a 30-year-old national anti-hunger organization, but not as well known as other groups, perhaps because it is based in Los Angeles. MAZON is noted in Washington for its Passover anti-hunger Seder on Capitol Hill that attracts officeholders from both parties.
MAZON was founded after Leonard Fein, a Jewish writer and activist, wrote in 1985 that Jews should “set aside a portion of our joy to feed the hungry.”
Fein was drawing on a Jewish tradition that a simchah (Hebrew for celebration) should include the poor. In its early days, MAZON (which means food or sustenance) raised money by convincing Jewish families to give the organization 3 percent of the budget for a wedding, bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah to fight hunger.
Fein saw “a lot of lavish food and decorations” at these Jewish family events, Leibman said, and he wanted to refocus families on “the meaning behind the events” such as marriage or coming of age, not just the party.
Today, MAZON also raises money through direct mail and appeals to donors. It has a 501(c)(3) status with the Internal Revenue Service, and donations to it are tax deductible. It has an annual budget of $8 million per year, which Leibman said makes it a small but national organization.
What distinguishes MAZON from other anti-hunger groups is that it does not feed people directly, but has always been an advocate for improving federal, state and local programs. While much of its focus is on federal programs, it played a role in broadening free school lunch in Minnesota.
“We are exclusively focused on addressing this issue through public policy change, civic engagement, public education,” said Mia Hubbard, vice president of programs at MAZON.
MAZON doesn’t have state chapters, but it has a network of synagogue support throughout the country that identifies needs that should be addressed.
It is also known for taking up causes that bigger, national groups have ignored, such as the hunger on Indian reservations and among military families. It has also in recent years encouraged food banks to stock healthier foods.
MAZON has also won the respect of other anti-hunger advocates.
“MAZON has been a stalwart national anti-hunger force for decades, making grants supporting advocacy around the country and mobilizing communities to raise awareness of hunger and the solutions to end it,” said Jim Weill, president of the Food Research & Action Center.
Eric Kessler, a Washington-based consultant who advises philanthropists on food and hunger issues, said that grassroots organizations such as MAZON “play a critical role in elevating the voice of the hungry and pointing to real solutions. Now more than ever, MAZON’s faith-based voice is critical to progress in reducing hunger in America.”
When exactly will MAZON petition Trump and the Congress?
That depends on how the Trump administration and the Republican-led Congress treat nutrition programs in the coming months and years.
MAZON’s leaders remain “outraged” that neither presidential campaign “discussed poor Americans at all,” but were relieved that fighting hunger did not become a partisan issue, Leibman said.
Because Trump has been silent on the issue, MAZON is focused on congressional Republicans’ previous proposals to take SNAP out of the farm bill and Ryan’s proposals to turn the program into a limited block grant to the states.
The invitation to sign the petition on an iPad in the exhibit says, “The magnitude of the SNAP cuts and reforms likely to be introduced early in the Trump administration would dramatically increase hunger and poverty. Please join MAZON in urging the new administration to protect the SNAP program and the millions of Americans who cannot feed their families without it. Your voice will be heard by the president and administration leaders.”
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In response to the severe drought conditions in the West and Great Plains, the Agriculture Department this week announced that plans to help cover the cost of transporting feed for livestock that rely on grazing.