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USDA Jewish event seeks solutions for yeshivahs, kosher pantries

The lack of available kosher food from government lists is challenging, but solvable, said attendees at the USDA's "Kosher Supply Chain and Food Insecurity Dialogue" event.

Chaim Lungar of Pomona, N.Y., serves up kosher hot dogs at Clover Stadium in Rockland County, N.Y., where the New York Boulders played the Evansville Otters on Jewish Heritage Day, July 30, 2023. Photo by Perry Bindelglass.
Chaim Lungar of Pomona, N.Y., serves up kosher hot dogs at Clover Stadium in Rockland County, N.Y., where the New York Boulders played the Evansville Otters on Jewish Heritage Day, July 30, 2023. Photo by Perry Bindelglass.

Key kosher-food industry stakeholders met on Wednesday with officials from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in an effort to unwind bureaucratic restrictions on procuring food for emergency pantries and school lunch programs.

As part of the USDA’s Jewish American Heritage Month celebrations, the “Kosher Supply Chain and Food Insecurity Dialogue” event at the USDA’s Washington, D.C., headquarters featured panel discussions on improving the coordination between the kosher industry and the Biden administration. The event comes as this year’s annual farm bill goes through revisions ahead of a vote in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The event featured remarks by USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, and participants included Jewish organizations such as the Met Council, Orthodox Union, MAZON, Jewish Farmer Network and Adamah.

Alexander Rapaport, executive director of the Masbia Soup Kitchen Network, told JNS that he had pushed for changes to the Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP).

The USDA program takes food that the government purchases from farmers for market stabilization and distributes it to soup kitchens and pantries.

Rapaport pointed to China’s increased ban in recent years on American pork. That pork ended up in TEFAP, but can’t be placed into kosher networks such as Masbia.

The “equity doctrine” currently in place provides a balance of available foods—produce, eggs, meat, fish, etc.—for participating TEFAP organizations.

Rapaport is advocating for a change.

“What I’m trying to tell them is maybe we change the equity doctrine and say, ‘I didn’t take pork, you didn’t take shellfish, you didn’t take the beef, so I can take more of the eggs’,” Rapaport told JNS, noting the relative ease with which eggs can be determined to be kosher, compared with many other food products.

“In a nutshell, it would give programs like ours more meat on the bone, so to speak,” said Rapaport, noting a change to the equity doctrine should be a relatively simple fix legislatively.

He explained that part of the problem is the lack of available kosher food in TEFAP. Until recently, only two items in the program were required to be kosher, according to the bidding process. Now, there are eight. Much of the challenge stems from the higher cost of kosher products compared with their non-kosher counterparts.

For some of the smaller kosher emergency food providers, it means that they might not be able to place a required minimum order, meaning they get nothing at all from the USDA program.

Rapaport noted the incremental progress inherent in most government programs, but added, “We’re still very far from closing the gap. The value of food is in the protein, and a pound of rice is way cheaper than a pound of chicken or fish. Kosher proteins are where most of the gap is.” 

Prices and products

Another key program discussed at the event was the availability of kosher foods in school lunch programs. Jewish schools often find themselves also having difficulty procuring kosher items.

Almost every yeshivah in New York City and many yeshivahs in New Jersey provide the lunch program. “These are very critical programs for our community,” Rabbi Avi Schnall, director of federal education affairs at Agudath Israel, told JNS. “The ability to be able to have kosher food in these programs is enormous.”

Schnall advocated for the school lunch program at the USDA event. He told JNS that each school participating in the lunch program gets the same stipend per participating student, “which makes sense.”

“But the problem with that is that we cannot necessarily afford the food everyone else is buying. A piece of chicken that’s kosher is a lot more than a non-kosher piece of chicken, or bacon for that matter,” he said, pointing to other staples, such as milk, which are required to be provided.

Another inherent numbers challenge is the small size of many participating yeshivas that don’t have the ability to purchase in bulk and enjoy a discounted price on food, making enrollment in the lunch program—with all of its time-consuming bureaucratic burdens—often not worth the effort.

Schnall said he’s pushing for a so-called carve-out similar to what was introduced in this year’s farm bill in the Senate for TEFAP, which would provide an additional $8 million for kosher pantries to be able to buy kosher foods.

“That should be the same idea when it comes to school lunches,” he said.

Schnall also noted a major issue with the “commodities” component of the school lunch program, wherein schools receive on a per-student basis about 30 to 40 cents to purchase staple foods through the government. Again, the selection of kosher products is often miniscule.

On top of that, many of the yeshivahs often have more restrictions on the hechsher (rabbinical certification) that is acceptable within their community.

“The government may look at Hebrew National hot dogs as being kosher, but 90 percent of the yeshivahs are not going to buy Hebrew National,” said Schnall.

Even basics such as kosher tuna and American cheese are difficult to come by in the USDA’s available basket.

He noted that the Satmar yeshivahs in the Williamsburg area of Brooklyn enroll some 12,00 students, many of them on the school lunch program, allotting that yeshivah network millions of dollars a year to purchase commodities.

But due to the Satmar community’s acceptance of a narrow range of kosher certifications, “they left on the table over $2 million in unspent commodities money,” last year, said Schnall, calling the figure “eye-opening.”

“The bottom line is we should be working with the [USDA] to figure out how we include more products. This has been an ongoing conversation for a few years,” he added.

The Biden administration, he continued, “surprisingly actually feels very motivated to get something done. Government always takes time. That’s the nature of the beast.” 

Part of the challenge is keeping the issue “on the front burner,” making last week’s USDA-hosted event, including the presence of “movers and shakers” more  “impactful” for the effort, he said.

Rapaport concurred, telling JNS that Jewish staff at the USDA, along with Samantha Joseph, director of the USDA’s Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnership, “are helping to push this along.” 

While Rapaport concedes that “there was no resolution that tomorrow, this is going to happen,” coming out of last week’s event, “there’s definitely a lot of optimism of willingness to move forward.”

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