Turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie. It’s what makes Thanksgiving the holiday we know and love. But the cost of holiday staples — especially a kosher turkey — makes festivities a financial stretch for families grappling with food insecurity. Which is why I'm delighted that this year the newest food pantry in our network — the first kosher food pantry in Westchester — will be distributing holiday packages with all the items listed above.
There’s a perception of Westchester as a largely affluent suburban community. But like the rest of New York, there are hidden and not-so-hidden pockets of people who can’t make ends meet. In fact, our recent Covid-19 Impact Study found that 13% of adults in Jewish households in Westchester live at or near poverty.
Whether a family is long caught in the vise of intergenerational poverty or dealing with new financial instability, food insecurity has remained a persistent issue throughout the pandemic. To contextualize the need: Met Council, our primary partner in this area — whose funding we more than doubled during these last 20 months — reports that they went from distributing five million pounds of food in 2019 to an expected 20 million pounds in 2021, a staggering increase. This year, they'll also be distributing Thanksgiving meals to 15,000 households across New York.
Against this backdrop, how this new pantry came to be is an appropriate story for a holiday about sharing our bounty — and giving thanks.
Seeds were first planted in the earliest days of the pandemic, when UJA was reaching out regularly to Jewish community leadership across New York to understand where there were gaps in services and what we could do to alleviate emerging challenges.
In Westchester, several community leaders from synagogues, day schools, and JCCs each identified a group of households in need of kosher food. Additionally, Westchester Jewish Community Services, our largest human service partner in this region, knew of potential clients, many of whom are seniors. Each institution wanted to help, but no one organization could pursue a long-term solution on its own. UJA brought them together — acting as convener and primary funder — to provide a strategic approach to the collective.
In April 2021, we helped open the Hope Community Services Kosher Food Program in partnership with Met Council and Feeding Westchester. Over the initial months of operation, nearly 70 households enrolled, including many homebound seniors who receive home-delivered food packages. The program is a lifeline, creating a much-needed sense of stability, and we’ve heard wonderfully heartfelt sentiments of gratitude from clients now being served.
On the subject of gratitude, lest we forget, last year — before vaccines — many of us had very modest Thanksgiving celebrations, some totally limited to Zoom. Just being able to sit with our loved ones around Thanksgiving tables this year is a blessing worthy of enormous thanks. And I hope that knowing how your support is allowing people to enjoy a holiday meal and a steady source of food moving forward will make your Thanksgiving (and the pumpkin pie) even sweeter.
Shabbat shalom — and wishing you a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday with family and friends