In Arizona, one in six people struggles with food insecurity, according to the Arizonans Preventing Hunger Action Plan 2017. Yecheskel Friedman, co-founder and president of Ezras Cholim of Phoenix (ECP), is quick to point out that this number includes many members of the Jewish community. This is one of the reasons ECP opened the Kosher Food Pantry last week, a kosher food bank available to the community five days a week.
Another reason for the pantry’s creation was a promise Friedman made to Baila Neuwirth, an ECP co-founder: “Baila was on her deathbed, laboring with her breathing, and I told her, ‘I’ll continue what you started, to my last breath,’ ” Friedman said.
As he recalled this story, Elchonon Gross, ECP’s executive officer, and Billy Flowers, ECP’s transportation coordinator, came into the room carrying boxes of groceries. They had just arrived from St. Mary’s Food Bank Alliance, which partners with ECP. Through St. Mary’s, the kosher pantry is a part of a national food-pantry network called Feeding America.
Friedman explained that all those in need have to do is show up, fill out some basic paperwork and then start selecting their food items. He emphasized that Jewish people of all backgrounds and denominations are welcome in the judgment-free space.
“It’s mostly for the needy, but if anybody comes down, we don’t say no,” Friedman said. He went on to explain that people are then free to select whatever food they want, with some limits placed on high-demand items.
As he unloaded loafs of Dave’s Killer Bread, Gross said St. Mary’s Food Bank added ECP as a partner agency on Jan. 25. ECP was founded in 2015.
“They were extremely happy to have a kosher pantry because they feel that there’s food insecurity in our community and it might not be getting addressed,” Gross said.
He added that the food comes from a number of different places, though most comes from direct donations and from St. Mary’s. They also work with a number of local restaurants, such as LaBella Pizzeria and Restaurant, Imperial Kosher Market & Deli, Kitchen 18 and 101 Kosher.
Friedman said he hates food waste almost as much as he hates hunger, and was happy to be able to pair up with local businesses to combat both.
Gross added that ECP runs additional programming to help “the sick and needy” throughout the community. Through the Tomchei Shabbos Zichron Baila, which was renamed in honor of Neuwirth, the group provides food to families for Shabbat. They also lend out crockpots and warming trays, so families can enjoy a warm meal while respecting the day of rest. ECP also brings professionally prepared kosher meals to hospitals and nursing homes through its Get Well Meals program.
Friedman said the food pantry and partnership with St. Mary’s is off to a strong start.
“As a matter of fact, they’re very good at setting stuff aside for us,” Friedman said. “They put away so much, we can’t take it all. This morning, we got a lot of stuff and it’s going to all be gone by the end of the weekend. On Monday morning, we’ll be going back to get more.”
ECP isn’t done expanding its services just yet, either. Gross said they are currently developing a program that would help house out-of-town medical patients and their families. They are also developing their website further with hopes of introducing a feature allowing volunteers to schedule their hours online.
Looking over the shelves and freezers stocked with food, Friedman choked up as he imagined what Neuwirth would think.
“If she walked in here now, the smile on her face would have gone from ear to ear,” Friedman said. “That’s the way she was and that’s the way we will remember her.” JN
For more information on Ezras Cholim of Phoenix, visit ezrascholim.com.