While Passover is a time for families to gather at happy and plentiful seders, Matthew Bolton sees a more distressing side to the holiday.
The new director of the Squirrel Hill Community Food Pantry (SHCFP) said he’s coping with a significant uptick in the need for Passover groceries in Jewish Pittsburgh — 20 to 30 percent over the previous year.
“Its very frightening,” said Bolton, who has been on the job for three months, “and that’s across the board nationally as well.”
He knows the need is rising because more people are signing up for supplemental food assistance, and not the kind of people you may think.
“We’re signing up more families; we’re seeing a lot more professionals and the working poor,” Bolton said. “I would say that is one of the highest groups that is signing up recently — the working poor. These are families and individuals who are working full-time jobs, and they still cannot make ends meet.”
Generally, the pantry has seen an 85 percent increase in clients served over the past five years, and a 30 percent increase last year alone.
Squirrel Hill Community Food Pantry is a program of the Jewish Family & Children’s Service. In addition to supplementing its clients’ foods needs with donations and groceries from its distributors, it also makes available a social worker and career development specialist.
On a tour of the Greenfield-based pantry last week, Bolton pointed out a special display area for Passover groceries, which included staples such as matzo, macaroons, horseradish, gefilte fish, tuna, grape juice, matzo ball mix, cake mix and applesauce.
Some items are in short supply, such as protein foods — meats and chicken.
“That’s one of our biggest needs,” said Bolton who noted the cost of kosher meat is on the rise.
“Unfortunately, it will continue,” he said. “It makes it challenging to sustain what we offer.”
In keeping with the holidays, the display area will be closed during the festival days of Passover (the chagim) and open during the interim days (chol hamoed).
Hungry families pose a persistent, though not so obvious problem in Jewish Pittsburgh, according to Bolton.
“Hunger is hidden, you can’t see hunger in people’s eyes unfortunately,” he said, “and we are seeing a lot more need during Passover as well as just in general.
“When a family is not making enough money to support itself the first thing that gets cut is the most flexible bill that you have,” he continued. “You can’t downsize right away, you can’t get rid of your car right away [or] a mortgage … so what’s the first thing that gets cut? The most flexible is your grocery bill.”
That’s especially true during Passover.
“When it comes to purchasing traditional food items — for instance, Passover — it can be very costly for many, we observe, and especially for individuals and families that are food insecure in our community,” Bolton said. “It’s very important to us to offer these things to them so they can have a proper Passover.”
The problem isn’t confined to Pittsburgh.
Kosher Today, an e-magazine covering the kosher food and beverage industry, reported last week that a record 55,000 Jewish households in the New York area will require assistance this Passover
And in Israel, one in three children lives below the poverty line, according to the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews. “The dilemma is made worse as Passover approaches,” said an IFCJ statement “and there’s no money to buy special kosher foods.”
Bolton said the pantry makes it possible for many families to properly observe the holiday.
If the pantry weren’t here, he warned, “they may do without. … If we weren’t here, a certain percentage of the population who practices Passover would not be able to follow the traditions with the food.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at email@example.com.)