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  • A Consideration of Food Stamps for Shavuot

    Posted on April 30th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments
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    -by Ruth Abusch-Magder

    A grapefruit.

    Usually it is candy that is the source of friction between children and parents at the grocery checkout. This time it was a grapefruit. Not even a good looking one at that. It was a somewhat wrinkled grapefruit that had come from the seconds bin. It had been part of the basket of goods the mother had gathered, but now paying for the groceries, she had put the sad grapefruit aside.

     

    The child pleaded, the cashier looked pained, so did the mother. But there was no room for giving in. The family had reached capacity on their food stamps.

     

    This scene, which I witnessed nearly twenty years ago, has been playing on a loop in my head lately. As I prepare for Shavuot, I have been thinking about leket, peyah, and shichicha, our obligations to leave the gleanings, the corners and the forgot fruits of our fields. That grapefruit in its sad wrinkly state would definitely have fallen into the category of a forgotten fruit, and yet there it was holding out promise for this child.

     

    On that day, I did not know what to do. I could have easily have spared something from my own heavy basket for the child, or paid for the grapefruit. After all the Mishna on Pe’ah (1:2) says that a sixtieth of the field is the minimum amount and as a portion of my purchases it would not have much more than that. But I hesitated and did not act; worried my interference would have caused shame or embarrassment. The following Shabbat I dined at the home of friends and when the girl and her mother showed up, I was even less sure what the right course of action ought to have been.

     

    According to Rashi, the concept of Pe’ah, the practice of leaving the corners of your field uncut, is really about placing part of your harvest in every corner of every field. Building on the Sifra (Kedoshim 1:10) Rashi stresses that we cannot choose who gets the support that is given in the form of Pe’ah, it must be available to everyone so they can reach it with ease it should be placed where it is most easily accessed on the corners.

     

    Food stamps, it strikes me, are our modern American form of the ancient agrarian Jewish traditions for caring for the poor. In line with Rashi’s stress on access, in recent years, policies by the Bush and Obama governments have made it easier for people to qualify for food stamps. But there is also greater need. 1 out of 7 Americans, 43 million people, rely on the program each month.

     

    But it is likely that the extravagance of a sad grapefruit would still be out of reach for most food stamp recipients. The average payout of the benefit is $133/month. This stands in comparison to the USDA assessment that the average family of four spends between $771 and $916/month on food. There is now talk in Washington of cutting significantly reducing the eligibility and benefits of the food stamp program. Not only would that mean the end of grapefruits, but for many the rest of the shopping basket all together.

     

    If there is meaning in the confluence of the two strands of Shavuot, that of the harvest holiday and the celebration of revelation, it may be found in the link between the equality of revelation and the need to share our bounty with everyone.

     

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