Richmond synagogue feeds hungry school kids on break

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Dozens of needy families in western Contra Costa County didn’t go hungry during spring break this week because of an interfaith effort sparked in part by Temple Beth Hillel in Richmond.

For years, Beth Hillel, through its Food For Thought program, has been involved in helping feed local schoolchildren from low-income families during winter breaks. Usually those kids rely on the free and low-cost lunches they get at school, but when school is out, they’re out of luck.

That’s where Beth Hillel and other benevolent organizations have stepped in — and how the idea came about for a food giveaway during spring break, as well.

“There is no dearth of families in need,” said Beth Hillel member Michael Nye, alluding to residents in cities such as Richmond, El Sobrante and San Pablo. “There are 15 elementary schools in West Contra Costa County with 100 percent participation in low- or no-cost meals programs, plus another 15 schools with 60 to 90 percent participation. It’s quite shocking. And if there’s no school [in session], there’s no food for those kids.”

Jane Kassa, Temple Beth Hillel volunteer, helps pack boxes with produce. photo/mindy pines

Nye said 90 families at four schools received food baskets in time for spring break, which began April 6 — a day after Easter and in the middle of the weeklong celebration of Passover. Those baskets were to help feed approximately 600 to 700 people, Nye said.

“And that’s just scratching the surface,” he added.

The expansion into spring break resulted from a series of happy coincidences, said Cindy Jaconette, co-founder of the year-old interfaith organization Let’s Feed the Kids.

One day she heard a radio report about the Beth Hillel’s winter break food program.

“I was driving at the time and didn’t [catch the name of the synagogue], so I started looking for them, asking everyone if they knew which synagogue it was, because we had funding but didn’t know how to organize such an effort,” Jaconette said. Soon afterward, Jaconette was attending a food security task force meeting run by the Interfaith Council of Contra Costa County when she heard a man seated nearby explaining how that very winter break food program worked.

“I turned around and said, ‘I’ve been looking for you,’ ” she said. “It was a beautiful moment in time.”

Boxes for the winter food program in 2012 photo/courtesy temple beth hillel

The spring break program worked though the cooperative efforts of several entities besides Beth Hillel, Jaconette said. Temple Isaiah of Lafayette, Congregation B’nai Tikvah of Walnut Creek and three local churches all contributed in some way, either with volunteers or donations or both. In addition, White Pony Express, a food donation and distribution service with roots in the Sufism community, donated enough bread, plus other food, for 90 families.

Much of the food was bought through the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano, with additional items obtained at reduced rates from various markets, Jaconette said. On March 29, volunteers spent three hours at the Beth Hillel assembling some 200 boxes that had been donated. Two days later, another three hours went into packing approximately 1,500 pounds of food into the boxes, and a day after that, the boxes of food were delivered to West Contra Costa Unified School District schools, where low-income families were able to pick them up.

“The most beautiful story I’ve heard is that people pull wagons to the school because they don’t have cars, and there is a parade of wagons going up the street,” Jaconette said. “That image in my mind is so powerful.”

Boxes being packed for distribution photo/mindy pines

Jeff Romm, chairman of Beth Hillel’s social action committee and the Food for Thought program, said he’s struck by that same image.

“Cars are rare. The people come with wagons and strollers, and some of them just carry home the boxes in their arms,” he said. “It is real. This is a real problem. The people who come in are in need and are devoted to the well-being of their kids. And though they do the best they can in such a challenging environment, they never feel they’re doing enough.”

Organizers said the boxes included enough food for a week’s worth of meals, with items such as frozen chicken meat, pastas, peanut butter, cans of tuna, and a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables.

They also said they’d like to expand the program to serve more schools and additional districts, and to include other school vacation periods.

“Some of these families are immigrants,” Romm said. “Some are historically inner-city people — it varies by school. It makes me angry that kids are going hungry and our society isn’t doing anything, and it’s excruciating that it’s worse during the holidays. Once you get involved, there’s no going back.” 

Rachel Raskin-Zrihen
Rachel Raskin-Zrihen

Rachel Raskin-Zrihen is a longtime Bay Area journalist and co-author of the book "Jewish Community of Solano County." She is a wife and mother of two grown sons and grandmother of three.