Two weeks before Pesach last year, Dan* lost his job. He and his wife, Sarah,* had a house with a mortgage, two cars, and three young children—and no resources to make Pesach. Sarah was trying to build a home business, but the timing was difficult. With heavy hearts and no other options, the couple reached out to Ezras Cholim in Phoenix, which runs the Arizona Kosher Pantry.
Dan and Sarah were grateful to receive staples such as baby food, matzah, and grape juice for Pesach, thanks in large part to the OU’s unprecedented 2019 Maot Chitim program.
Launched just six weeks before Pesach, the program had $200,000 to work with—donated entirely by generous individuals who gave their traditional pre-Pesach Maot Chitim contributions to this national campaign. Ultimately, the program provided free Pesach products for 53 kosher food agencies around the country.
The OU allocated grants to the organizations to buy select items
from its partner, Kedem Foods. Thanks to this large-scale purchasing power the items were bought at a significant discount, which meant more food for people in need. In total, the program was able to help local agencies distribute 150,000 lbs. of food to 18,048 families in time for Pesach.
“[Dan and Sarah] are just one example of families we help on a daily basis at the Arizona Kosher Pantry,” said Julia Almoslino, volunteer food director at Ezras Cholim. “Pesach can be a stressful holiday. There is the cleaning, the planning and most of all, the shopping. The shopping is daunting for all of us, but for families that are experiencing financial difficulties, it is a hardship that is even more difficult to endure.”
A GROWING DEMAND
Food pantries serving the general population are struggling to keep up with demand in recent years, with 11.1 percent of U.S. households experiencing food insecurity at least some time during the year, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). By all accounts, kosher food agencies are feeling similarly stretched—perhaps more so, due to the higher costs of kosher food.
For the approximately 225 kosher feeding organizations across 24 states, Pesach is an especially challenging time. While these nonprofits can normally take advantage of free food distributed by the USDA and other national agencies, at Pesach time this resource disappears entirely. The usual pantry staples—rice, beans, pasta—are mostly off-limits for kosher clientele, and there is literally nothing provided from those sources that is certified kosher for Pesach.
This is one reason some organizations had never offered food distribution for Pesach in the past. “With the assistance of the OU, we did a major Tomchei Shabbos give-out last year for the first time,” said Channie Goldstein, director of operations at Detroit Chesed. “The feedback we received was so overwhelming.
One lady burst into tears when I explained to her that we would be providing food. She explained that her husband recently lost his job and they had no resources for making yom tov. The number of heartfelt thank yous we received was humbling.”
The 2019 Maot Chitim program was the inaugural project of the OU’s new Kosher Food Lifeline (KFL). As a national organization with deeply rooted connections within the food industry, the OU is uniquely positioned to address kosher food access.
RISING TO THE CHALLENGE
“We serve different population groups, from families to elderly Holocaust survivors,” explains Dovie Katz, president of Tomchei Shabbos of Florida. “Sometimes we see them through a difficult period, like a job loss, and sometimes we help people who are chronically struggling.”
Katz’s organization assists approximately 60 households each week; that number jumps to 150 for Pesach. “The people we work with don’t want to have to take help,” he says. “Many of them can somehow manage to get by from week to week, but with additional expenses at Pesach, they can’t make it.”
The OU’s KFL is hoping to stretch the dollars raised by the OU’s Maot Chitim campaign even further this year. By negotiating lower costs for chicken and meat provided to agencies, they will be able to distribute those yom tov staples to more people. At the same time, however, we have received many more requests for help this year from organizations and kosher pantries trying to meet the needs of their communities.
As a community, we strive to help one another in times of need. There is arguably no more tangible form of chessed than making sure there’s food on a family’s yom tov table.
The dedicated staff and volunteers at the many worthy organizations across the country and the individuals who contribute Maot Chitimcan take pride in the part they have and will play in helping people in our communities get through tough times.
“For families experiencing food insecurities, along with all that Pesach entails, just knowing that we are here to help them makes all the difference,” noted Almoslino, of Ezras Cholim of Phoenix. “We’re all trying to make everyone’s Pesach as beautiful and kosher as we can.”
*Names have been changed to protect privacy.
KOSHER FOOD LIFELINE (KFL)
was created as a national resource to help existing kosher pantries, Tomchei Shabbos groups, bikur cholimassociations, and other social service agencies provide nutritious kosher food to those in need. We offer assistance with procurement, grant writing, networking, and logistical support to improve their ability to meet the needs of their communities.
Prior to this effort, each local agency worked independently, with little to no communication between them. Especially in smaller Jewish communities, organizations couldn’t take advantage of bulk purchasing to lower the prices they paid for food. In practical terms, this meant they were using their limited budgets to pay retail or warehouse prices for much of the kosher products they distributed. The OU recognized the need for a central address—literally, a Kosher Food Lifeline—that could help organizations come together
to leverage their collective buying power.
Allison Deal is the founding director of Kosher Food Lifeline.