The Cost of Kosher
Rabbi S. and his wife, who live on food stamps, disability payments and some income from part-time work, rarely splurge on treats like fruit and macaroons. But despite their no-frills budget, they have to buy more expensive kosher meat, cheese and vegetables. It’s a requirement of their Jewish faith.
“Eating non-kosher is a sin,” said the 66-year-old rabbi who asked not to be identified to protect his family’s privacy. “We have no other option.”
To supplement their budget, the couple have been coming to the kosher food pantry at the Jewish Community Council of the Rockaway Peninsula ever since they moved to Far Rockaway three years ago, after the rabbi lost his job at a Long Island synagogue and suffered complications from an illness. Around Passover and other holidays, “our needs are especially great,” he said.
The average number of clients who visit the pantry each month has climbed from 400 before 2012—when Superstorm Sandy devastated Far Rockaway—to 2,000, said Nathan Krasnovsky, executive director of the organization. He estimates about 25 percent of them are Jewish and struggling to pay for kosher food—mainly young families with many children and seniors on Social Security benefits.
“Before Sandy hit, you just had the neediest of the community relying on us,” Krasnovsky said. “But now you have the middle class relying on us as well.”
In the New York City area, more than 500,000 people living in Jewish households are impacted by poverty—and by extension food insecurity—according to the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty. Of this group, the majority are Russian-speaking seniors who live alone, followed by people living in Orthodox households and non-Russian-speaking seniors.
A study conducted by the organization in 2011 found that Jewish poverty in the New York area has grown by about 50 percent since 2002, a trend that mirrors broader patterns across the state and nation.
“Food insecurity is a very serious problem in the Jewish community,” said Alan Schoor, CEO of the Met Council, which supplies food to 33 kosher pantries throughout the five boroughs—including the one in Far Rockaway. “The cost of kosher food is a particular challenge.”
Estimates of how much more expensive kosher food is than non-kosher food range from 20 percent more expensive to nearly twice as expensive. The added cost has to do with the preparation and packaging of meat, dairy products and even some vegetables.
Kosher chicken or beef is more expensive because the slaughter of the animal, draining of the blood and deveining of the meat has to be supervised by a certified rabbi, said Rabbi Binyomin Lisbon, CFO of Kosher Supervision of America in Los Angeles, the country’s largest certifier of kosher foods. Cheese preparation has a different set of requirements because the enzyme used in fermentation has to be kosher—in this case meaning not an animal byproduct. And because kosher regulations prohibit the eating of insects, lettuce and other vegetables have to be thoroughly rinsed before they are packaged.
Researchers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that food insecurity has not yet returned to pre-recession levels, even though the economy has improved and unemployment has gone down. According to the agency’s study, one reason food insecurity remains relatively high nationwide is the fact that food costs have increased in recent years.
To keep up with the rising costs in New York, last year the city’s Department for the Aging increased funding to organizations that deliver meals to seniors, among them the Jewish Association Serving the Aging. The organization, which reaches 43,000 people in the New York area every year, served 440,000 hot kosher meals to seniors in New York City in 2014 (out of a total of about 1.2 million meals).
“Food-insecure seniors are at risk for health conditions,” said Leah Ferster, chief services officer at JASA, adding that clients who are 85 and older are the fastest-growing group it serves. “Our goal is really to make sure people stay healthy in the community.”
This year, the city increased funding to the Emergency Food Assistance Program by more than 20 percent, said Mark Levine, chairman of the City Council’s Jewish Caucus. He said lawmakers are also working on an initiative that would add kosher and halal meals to the Department of Education’s free breakfast and lunch program available at schools and libraries.
Many in the city’s Jewish community “are facing difficult choices,” Levine said, having to decide whether to pay for food, rent or medicine. “It’s a challenge.”
In Far Rockaway’s tightly knit Jewish community, Krasnovsky said pride sometimes prevents people in need from reaching out to the Jewish Community Council for help. “They don’t want to be seen in those lines” outside the building, he said. But more often than not, food is an entry point for many clients.
“When it comes to the point where they can’t eat, they’ll come in,” Krasnovsky said, and that’s when social workers will connect them with other services such as health care or employment resources. “If they’re struggling with food, there’s a lot more going on in that household.”
Before they celebrated Passover with their children and grandchildren in April, Rabbi S. and his wife prepared by taking a trip to the “client choice” food pantry at the Jewish Community Council, where they picked out chicken, fish, vegetables and a few other items. They said having the kosher food pantry—where they knew they would be able to find the culturally appropriate food they needed—eliminated their worries about whether they could afford to host their family for a holiday meal.
“I could say to a grandchild, ‘Do you want a macaroon?’” the rabbi remembered.
“Having a couple of treats here and there and some fruit,” his wife added, “it was a pleasure.”