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Poor get passed over on Passover

Dave Gordon - Tuesday, 3 April, 2012
From Jewish Tribune
(2074 views, Comment on this article)

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 Walking through the supermarket this time of year can be particularly daunting for the kosher consumer. The prices of non-kosher items at times can be half the price of the Passover items.

For some items, not only does the cost go up, but they stay up after the holiday. There is a palatable sense of frustration for many, who feel the pinch in their pocket books, including those who can least afford it.

What makes these Passover food prices so high in the first place? Are there hidden costs, increased production costs or do supermarkets use the holiday as an excuse to jack up prices?

Moreover, what about those who simply cannot afford to eat kosher for Passover?

One manager at a supermarket in one of Toronto’s heavily populated Jewish areas shrugged when asked why the prices creep upwards for ordinary year-round foods, but the source also cited the extensive shelving change-around the store had to make for Passover – and its associated costs.

He would neither give his name nor allow his store to be mentioned.

Passover foods, in general, are costlier to produce, according to Richard Rabkin, director of marketing and business development of COR – one of Canada’s largest kosher supervisory councils.

The inspection rates are the same for Passover production, he said, but there’s simply more of it to do. The assumption is that the production company has to recoup the cost by passing it down to the consumer.

For regular kosher foods, an inspector may only need to visit the facility some six times a year, to “verify the ingredients are what they [the manufacturers] say they are.”

As for Passover foods – even ones kosher for Passover year-round with a more nuanced and complex line of laws – “that means supervisors can’t pop in now and then. He has to be there the entire time, to make sure the ingredients are in conformance with the laws of Passover; and to make sure the assembly line is koshered.”

He is quick to point out that COR is hands off when it comes to the production company’s decision on what to charge for its food.

“COR doesn’t get involved in people’s business,” he said.

Some items, though, can be used without certification, says Rabkin. “That requires a lot of research.

“We’ve hired a rabbi on staff just for this…time, and he can answer questions, and that requires out of pocket expense just to look after those very questions as a service to the community. We want to see that costs are managed over pesach.”

He added that a certain sugar company and a certain honey maker have been in talks with COR to make those products kosher for Passover and year-round, requiring only a change of labels and little more.

Another example of a cost the production facility may have to bear is when a kosher certifying agency changes its logo or label, as COR did a few years ago.

There is, on the other hand, a workaround some have found to pay a little less for Passover food. Shopping at the nearest US city brings with it fewer costs – but also a wealth of American hecksharim (kosher symbols.)

Rabkin explained that the latter isn’t a problem, so long as the consumer is careful.

A growing issue is the complexity of food manufacturing.

Recently, at the BAYT shul in Thornhill, Rabbi Moshe Elefant, chief operating officer of OU Kosher, spoke about overseas production.

With 25 years experience in the kosher supervision field, he remarked that there are constant changes in kosher food manufacture. Items that in the past were considered kosher with no certification are now in fact not kosher and vice versa.

He elaborated on the tremendous growth recently of kosher supervised foods being manufactured in China.

For example, he said, a large facility in China may manufacture cookies with kosher ingredients in one area and then use non-kosher ingredients in the vicinity – or even share equipment. This causes cross contamination and kashrut issues.

Since many food products may contain ingredients that originated in China directly or indirectly, he said, kosher inspection becomes more important. And with that, of course, more time on the inspector’s part and more costs for the company.

But with the costs of Passover so high, what about the poor, who find it difficult to afford Passover food?

The haggadah states: “Let those who are hungry come and eat” – and some local organizations are actively involved in fulfilling this imperative.

In Montreal, the B’nai Brith holiday food program provides about 2,000 families with a food hamper for the entire Pesach holiday. Hundreds of volunteers pack and deliver the food baskets.

A Toronto synagogue, Shomrei Shabbos, has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars, said Rabkin, to fulfill the mitzvah of Ma’ot Chittin (Gifts to the Poor).

Also in Toronto, for its 29th year the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) had set up in late March a Passover food drive, delivering food to some 2,500 addresses, benefitting some 10,000 people. Karen Fenwick, co-chair of National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) – Toronto section’s Passover Food Drive, said that the number of recipients has held steady this year – perhaps from people finding jobs or those passing away – but it had been going up 10 per cent each year.

Recipients include those living in poverty, recent immigrants and those with disabilities, referred from various synagogues and agencies, among others.

Each box contains such items as matzah, a haggadah, gefilte fish, canned fruit, a soup mix – as well as a Passover greeting personally signed by the person who packed it. More than 1,500 volunteers show up to sort, pack and deliver.

Students from across the GTA, The Annex Shul, among others, also lent their support.

“A nice aspect of it is that it’s a concrete way of extending your hand to somebody,” Fenwick said. “It’s also important to note that it’s inclusive of all kinds of people.”

According to Fenwick, statistics say 11-13 per cent of the Jewish population is estimated to be affected by poverty. If there are assumed to be some 400,000 Jews in Canada, more than 40,000 fall into what she refers to as “low-income cut off,” living on under $1,000 a month. “It is prohibitive for them to get kosher for Passover food.”

Two kosher food banks in Toronto – located at Pride of Israel synagogue and another at Beth Sholom – operate all year around, she said, but also supply for Passover. Some supplies from NCJW were shared with Pride of Israel.

Sadly, this year saw a “severe decrease in donated funds, specific to the Passover food drive,” she said – a dip of about 20 per cent, or some $25,000 less than last year. This is even with cost-cutting measures, such as some 90 per cent of the goods bought in advance wholesale.

For next year, in addition to donations, she has another item on her wish-list.

“If we had manufacturers’ coupons to put in our box, that would be wonderful.”

In Calgary, the Jewish community centre operates an Operation Sustenance program. Holiday assistance is part of that, said Shaune Thompson, business manager, Jewish Family Service of Calgary.

“We’re pretty fortunate to raise about $30,000 on average,” she said. Usually, they prepare 140 delivered bags – but this year it grew to 180, out of a population of 8,000 Jews in Calgary.

“Volunteers spend the entire day, pack up the food and deliver it to those such as isolated seniors, the poor.”

These programs are not an exhaustive list, but an indicator that Jewish organizations are keenly aware of the imminent need to help those less fortunate cover the extra costs of Passover.

Yet there is far to go, if the statistics are correct when tens of thousands of Jews are still struggling to eat this Passover.


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