On a recent chilly afternoon in Queens, two women shivered in a line of about 50 people that trailed out the door of Masbia, a kosher food pantry and soup kitchen.
The first woman, from Manhattan, wore baggy pants. The other, from Queens, was clad in a long, draping skirt.
Their outfits signaled differences in how they interpreted proper Jewish dress for religious women, but both were there for the same reason: They needed kosher groceries, which are more expensive than average, as they try to live on less since food stamp reductions last November.
“When food stamps are cut, it’s hard to buy kosher,” said one of the women, Debbie Greenbaum of Queens.
Masbia, the most robust kosher food pantry and soup kitchen network in New York, is at the forefront of filling hungry bellies — both Jewish and non-Jewish — but not without its own struggles.
Masbia saw a 200% increase in demand for food in the two months after the food stamp cuts, compared with the same period in 2012–13. The not-for-profit expects to serve up to 1.5 million meals this year — twice the number doled out in 2013. The Queens branch now stays open an extra three hours Thursdays, when food packages are distributed. Alexander Rapaport, Masbia’s executive director, said the organization is operating “hand to mouth.” With Passover coming, he’s racing against the clock to find more funding.
“The most dignified and most efficient way [to stem hunger] is to give people food stamps,” Rapaport said. “We’re not the answer. We’re not the gym — the gym is something that keeps you healthy. We’re the emergency room.” About one in four Jewish families in New York City is poor. About half of those families depend on food stamps, according to Nicole Doniger, chief programming officer of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty.
Running a kosher soup kitchen has its own set of challenges. For one, kosher meat is more expensive because it requires additional processing and religious supervision.
Jewish law stipulates a separation of meat and dairy. But to simplify cooking more than 2,500 meals a day, Masbia serves only meat. The organization cannot accept anything containing dairy, and donations from well-meaning people and city organizations are often rejected.
Some foods that are technically kosher are impractical for mass meal production. Take lettuce, which must be washed and checked thoroughly — leaf by leaf — to ensure that all bugs are gone.
While upscale kosher groceries sell pre-checked lettuce, the prices are too high for a budget-conscious charity, which is funded largely on donations from the Jewish community.
Many of the clients, though, are not concerned with whether or not the food is kosher; they’re just hungry.