OU leads policy changes after kosher-food insecurity study

Groundbreaking research focuses on the experience of food insecurity among kosher consumers in New York City.

An empty bowl. Credit: Aris Subowo/Pixabay.
An empty bowl. Credit: Aris Subowo/Pixabay.

While their friends and neighbors are feverishly shopping and cooking for Pesach, thousands of kashrut-observant Jews in New York’s five boroughs who live with food insecurity can only dream of the luxury of a carefree supermarket run, devoid of financial constraints.

Thanks to a groundbreaking study on the experience of food insecurity commissioned by Gemiluth Chessed of Greater New York (GCGNY), organizations that support these individuals are gaining a greater understanding of their clients’ unique needs and preferences in an effort to make the experience of receiving food assistance more dignified and efficient.

GCGNY supports seniors’ health and wellbeing by funding a range of community, social, food and health organizations, including the Orthodox Union, the Food Bank for New York City, and City Harvest.

“We commissioned this research to better understand the needs of the population that we and many others are serving across the New York City area,” says GCGNY president Rabbi Dr. Peter Kahn. “While significant amounts of money are provided to support those in need of food assistance, we noted a real demand to validate and understand basic assumptions that were made regarding food preferences, choices and nutritional needs. This survey allowed us to gain a more nuanced understanding of these needs to best direct policy, funding, and volunteer efforts.”

Desired changes kosher consumers would like to see at food pantries and community kitchens, responses are not mutually exclusive. Courtesy: Gemiluth Chessed of Greater New York and the Orthodox Union.

The study was conducted by Baltimore’s Jewish Nonprofit Planning and Research Institute (JNPRI), which employs best practices and proven research methods to assist Jewish organizations and communities with organizational planning and program evaluation, with the objective of helping them to make data-informed decisions.

Guided by the study’s findings, the Orthodox Union’s Department of Community Projects and Partnerships is taking the lead in supporting people living with food insecurity, through its platform and food supplier connections forged by OU Kosher.

“Through our relief work, we realized the OU has a critical role to play when it comes to tackling food insecurity,” says OU Department of Community Projects and Partnerships national director Rabbi Simon Taylor.

“In working closely with both GCGNY and JNPRI, we are excited to be a leader in data-driven policy changes and are carefully considering how to best employ these findings to enhance our support,” he says.

Over a three month period beginning in January 2024, JNPRI surveyed 492 individuals who observe kosher at home and face food insecurity. Questions in English and Russian touched upon household demographics, eating and shopping habits, and the food support resources and organizations respondents find most helpful.

Michelle Shain is JNPRI’s director of research and the study’s author. She says the goal was to highlight the different needs and experiences across New York City and in households with different social and demographic characteristics, and to use those demographic differences to understand where some of the challenges originate.

In 2021, UJA Federation of New York conducted a Covid-19 Impact Study and collected information from a representative sample of 4,400 New York area adults who are Jewish, or live with one or more Jewish adults, to learn more about the pandemic’s effect on their livelihoods. Nine percent of participants reported experiencing food insecurity over the course of the pandemic. UJA gathered more data on food insecurity in a comprehensive Jewish community study in 2023, which will be available to the public later this year.

“There is also data on the quantity of food distributed from the various food pantries and community kitchens,” says Shain. “What was unknown up until the JNPRI study was the experience of insecurity inside households — how are the primary food shoppers making decisions? What are their greatest challenges? How are they using their resources? Which food assistance organizations do they value? Which are not helpful to them? What are they missing?”

JNPRI study participants spanned the five boroughs, and 46% of households included children, 11% were headed by a single parent and 28% of respondents were seniors living alone. According to Shain, the situation that a majority of respondents face — where a one-size-fits-all pantry box often does not work for their families — reflects general academic findings around food insecurity.

“People’s diets are fairly inelastic, highly individual, and idiosyncratic, meaning their eating habits stay about the same, regardless of what foods are easily available to them,” she notes.

She points to the following data acquired from the JNPRI study: there was no single type of chicken, meat or fish that was a staple protein for all respondents; more than half of participants relayed that they are unwilling to eat unfamiliar foods in order to save money, suggesting that when resources are scarce, other priorities get shortchanged; and finally, one third of respondents live with someone who has a dietary restriction, like lactose intolerance.

“One of the study’s big takeaways is that a one-size-fits-all model really doesn’t work for many people,” she said. “There’s a lot of waste, and it’s less helpful to them. Sixty-one percent of participants said they would feel more comfortable going to a food pantry or community kitchen if there were more foods that meet their preferences or dietary needs.”

Respondents value forms of food assistance that allow them to purchase foods that meet their individual preferences and dietary restrictions. Survey respondents were 66% more likely to say grocery gift cards were “essential” in ensuring that they have enough to eat every month than to say that food pantries were essential. These include the government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which offers monthly debit cards and grocery gift cards.

“When asked what the Jewish community could do to better support them, one third requested more grocery gift cards,” notes Shain. “Beyond enabling them to make their own choices, using gift cards in retail stores feels more dignified than visiting food banks or community kitchens, and alleviates people’s sense of shame around needing food assistance.”

Another critical takeaway of the report was that time and mobility constraints prevent some from accessing both low-cost retail food as well as food banks and community kitchens. Whereas only half of those who are food insecure choose their primary grocery store because of pricing, the rest select stores based on their location’s accessibility, hours, and convenience — whether they are one-stop-shops, or delivery is offered, for example.

About half of the respondents also maintain they’d be more comfortable visiting a food pantry or community kitchen if it had extended hours, shorter lines or were situated in more convenient and discrete locations.

“The report is not meant to be prescriptive,” Shain stresses. “Our objective was to raise questions for community leaders to start considering, including whether food pantries can adopt a client-choice model, and how it might work. Could they implement an online ordering system and offer delivery to increase clients’ access and protect their privacy? What are the advantages and disadvantages of grocery gift cards?

“Another consideration is the provision of kosher protein,” she continues. “You would think that dark meat chicken would help 90% of households, but that is not the case. A variety of fresh protein must be available. There are slews of implications and considerations resulting from this study.”

The OU’s Department of Community Projects and Partnerships is currently working on piloting different solutions based on the data, including kosher protein distribution and advocacy efforts to get more kosher protein from government programs.

“As the cost of living in kosher observant homes continues to skyrocket, ensuring that people have food is absolutely critical and the OU is committed to making a difference,” says Taylor.

That commitment is highlighted by the OU’s annual Maot Chitim Passover Food Campaign which distributes funds to over 75 relief organizations to help defray recipients’ expenses around Pesach.

In February, the OU hosted a convention of communal chessed organizations that provide food to the needy at its headquarters in New York. Topics included “Case Studies from the Field – Best Practices and Unique Programming,” “Accessing National Resources on the Local Level,” and “Food Initiatives: Providing Food vs. Providing Money.”

An OU-initiated partnership with GCGNY, Empire Chicken and City Harvest that was launched in December has enabled the ongoing distribution of 26,000 pounds of kosher chicken at a subsidized cost to New Yorkers struggling to afford kosher meat.

“Tackling food insecurity, especially among older adults and those with specific dietary observances, is crucial,” says GCGNY’s Kahn. “We’re proud to be part of a coalition that’s not just supplying food but is also understanding and addressing the root of the need.”

CONTACT: Rabbi Simon Taylor, senior director, national director Community Projects & Partnerships, (617) 762-8329, staylor@ou.org.

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Founded in 1898, the Orthodox Union (OU), or Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, serves as the voice of American Orthodox Jewry, with over 400 congregations in its synagogue network. As the umbrella organization for American Orthodox Jewry, the OU is at the forefront of advocacy work on both state and federal levels, outreach to Jewish teens and young professionals through NCSY, Israel Free Spirit Birthright, Yachad and OU Press, among many other divisions and programs.
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