Two women in the South Hills are fighting hunger and misconceptions. Stacey Reibach and Sheryl Cohen are co-chairing Food For Thought, a social action initiative currently underway at Beth El Congregation of the South Hills.
“We were approached right around the high holidays by Steve Hecht, executive director of Beth El, who wanted to create a social action program to energize the community and congregation,” said Cohen.
“He wanted to do something that’s bigger than Beth El,” said Reibach. “We had the overall concept of doing something good and big, and [Cohen] came up with the food insecurity concept, and we’ve kind of just run with it.”
According to Reibach and Cohen, despite beliefs that the South Hills is immune to economic issues and food insecurity, suburban poverty is on the rise. According to the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, one in seven people (14.4 percent) in Allegheny County are food insecure, and just slightly less (13.4 percent) are impoverished.
As governmental workers and South Hills residents, Reibach and Cohen have observed increased local requests for assistance.
“Quite honestly, in my job we have seen people who are applying for benefits, food and housing,” said Cohen, legislative assistant for State Representative Dan Miller.
“I talked to someone yesterday who is on food stamps, and they will never get to go to a restaurant; you can spend their entire money for one day on Starbucks,” said Reibach, community outreach coordinator for Sen. Guy Reschenthaler. “Toilet paper and toothpaste are not covered by SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). They have to come up with that money, and those things are essential in life.”
“We’ve seen the need growing in the South Hills and it’s made us aware of the issue of suburban poverty,” added Cohen.
Attuned to local increased need, Reibach and Cohen developed Food for Thought, an initiative intended to raise awareness and combat food insecurity in the South Hills.
In order to achieve both goals, Reibach and Cohen have developed a self-described “menu of projects” interested participants can join.
One project is a SNAP Challenge, where participants are asked to spend a week experiencing the difficulty of avoiding hunger, affording nutritious meals and remaining healthy while relying upon SNAP benefits. Cohen explained that during the challenge week participants will be permitted to spend only $4 per person per day on food (food consumed that was already at home must be accounted for within the $4 per day allotment). By reducing food expenses to $4 per day, the issue of poverty will be illumined to participants, maintained Cohen.
But while the challenge achieves awareness, there is another goal in mind.
“From the awareness comes action,” said Reibach.
In taking the SNAP Challenge further, participants are asked to donate the difference in dollars between what they typically spend on food per day and the $4 per day allotted by the SNAP Challenge. For example, if a participant typically spends $20 per day on food, but through the SNAP Challenge only spends $4 per day on food, Cohen suggests that the extra $16 could be donated to local food pantries.
Reibach and Cohen said that they will work with the South Hills Interfaith Ministries and all eight food pantries in the South Hills. Additionally, while the program has only been promoted internally through Beth El’s website, emails and on Facebook, Reibach and Cohen welcome all members of the community to join the initiative.
“The ultimate goal is to involve the community as a whole; hunger is not just a Jewish issue,” said Cohen.
Food for Thought is in its infancy, however several events have already been scheduled. Following an initial committee meeting on Jan. 10, Beth El will hold a Social Action Shabbat on Jan. 30 with Ken Regal, executive director of Just Harvest, a nonprofit with a self-described mission to educate, empower and mobilize “people to eliminate hunger, poverty and economic injustice in our communities by influencing public policy, engaging in advocacy and connecting people to public benefits.” The social-action Shabbat is intended to bring further awareness of suburban poverty and hunger injustice, said Cohen.
Shortly following the social action Shabbat, on Feb. 1, participants will begin the SNAP Challenge. Then on Feb. 28, Beth El is hosting an Empty Bowls event. For a small donation, participants will be served soup and bread, said Reibach. At the event’s conclusion, participants will receive a pottery soup bowl painted by a South Hills resident. Proceeds from the Empty Bowls event will go to the Greater Pittsburgh Food Bank. (Rodef Shalom has been holding an Empty Bowls event for 20 years.)
Although Food for Thought has just begun, Reibach and Cohen are pleased with the responses.
“People are excited,” said Cohen, “We are getting people talking to us about the Food for Thought initiative who haven’t been active in Beth El in the past, which is part of the goal.”
“This is striking a nerve with people who aren’t typical volunteers,” agreed Reibach. “People deal with [hunger] daily. It’s a daily challenge for individuals, seniors.”
Reibach called the initiative “universally appealing” and encouraged more people to join the cause.
“We welcome people from outside the Beth El community,” she said. “If this is a topic that people are interested in, we would be happy to have them participate. They can contact us through Beth El at 412-561-1168 or online at bethelcong.org/food-thought-save-dates.”
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.