We Choose To Keep People Hungry. We Don’t Have To.

A d’var torah for parshat Vayigash by Abby Leibman, with Rabbi Lev Meirowitz Nelson.

There was a moment when America had the opportunity to end food insecurity.

It was the 1970s, when the landmark civil rights legislation of the 1960s was coming into full force and being implemented. An unlikely pair of Senators, George McGovern (D-SD) and Bob Dole (R-KS), reinvigorated our nation’s nutrition safety, including its flagship program, foodstamps — today known as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program).

It began, so the story goes, in 1968, when McGovern saw a documentary on CBS called Hunger in America. He not only watched, he acted on what he saw. He and Dole were moved to introduce bipartisan legislation to strengthen the foodstamp program. McGovern and Dole went on a road trip through America’s poorest regions, where they saw firsthand evidence of malnourished mothers, underweight children, and health and development repercussions of inadequate nutrition. Based on this evidence, they worked together to create the Women and Infant Children nutrition program (WIC) a remarkable and enduring federal nutrition program. While Democrats and Republicans had their differences, significant ones, there was a shared understanding that government had an obligation to the American people, that the government would be there for them in time of need. There was a humanity there — the derogative idea of the “nanny state” hadn’t entered the discourse. It was not just foodstamps or WIC alone but a web of related programs in education, vocational training, infrastructure, and investment in local government, which were available for as long as a person needed them. Furthermore, there was an understanding in Washington that some people would need them for their entire lives — and that was viewed as OK.

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Contrast that with present policy: earlier this month, for example, the Department of Agriculture tightened work restrictions for receiving SNAP, which will strip nutrition benefits from 700,000 people, including veterans, if they can’t find work within three months.

Three months to find a job or you’ll lose SNAP. The implicit assumption that hunger is a strong motivator to find a job is patently false and remarkably cruel.

And let’s also pause to appreciate the way McGovern and Dole each took in a piece of new information that didn’t conform to his expectations, believed the media that presented it to him, learned more about the problem, and enlisted a colleague across the aisle to solve it.

It’s impossible to ever actually end hunger in a country the size of the United States. There is too much flux: too many people getting sick, or having their family status change, or losing a job, or becoming incarcerated, and so on. What we aim for is stability, with equal numbers of people coming onto government benefits and rotating off, able once again to support themselves. Instead, we have about 37 million Americans experiencing food insecurity.

And that brings us to Joseph and this week’s parshah. After Joseph reunites with his brothers and brings Jacob down to live in Egypt, we read in the second half of Genesis chapter 47 how Joseph used the power of government to ration food and nurse Egypt through the devastating seven years of famine.

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I take two lessons away from this story. First, hunger creates real desperation because it is so essential to human existence. Without adequate food, we can’t survive, let alone thrive. The Egyptians, staring death in the face, were willing to give their money, their livestock, their land, and ultimately their very bodies over to Joseph in exchange for the food they needed to survive and care for their families. We can relate to them much more easily than to Joseph, who exploits their human need for government gain. Second, despite Joseph’s cruelty and hunger for power — which I find quite disturbing — he does demonstrate the value of government. There are problems that occur on such a vast scale that people can’t solve them on their own. No amount of rugged individualism and bootstraps can address widespread famine and drought. When we face such a problem, we need government to step in and mobilize the resources, coordinate the far-flung efforts, and ensure that no one is left out.

Food is not a luxury. Hunger is real. And when people suffer it consistently, it is cruel to have the wherewithal to help and to choose to withhold it.

For make no mistake — it is a choice our society is making now, to turn away from our food insecure fellow Americans, to leave them out. And that is my point in conjuring this image of the 1970s — to illustrate the range of the possible. Certainly the 1970s were not a perfect decade. Certainly the way for our country and our world to improve is to go forward to a future of as-yet-unfulfilled dreams, rather than trying to turn back the clock to some imagined, perfect past. But if we once had the political will and the sense of collective responsibility that almost let us solve hunger before, perhaps we can find our way there again.

Abby J. Leibman is the President & CEO of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, a national social benefit organization, founded on Jewish values, working to end hunger in the U.S. and Israel for people of all faiths and backgrounds.