RFF#95 – For the first time in human history, more people are dying from being overfed than from being underfed

Over the last few weeks 25,000 people in Canada, the US and the UK took up the challenge to “Dine Below the Line” and raise money for anti-poverty organizations by eating on only $1.75 a day, for five consecutive days. The initiative is in its fourth year, and was born out of the belief that in order to really fight poverty, we need to try to truly understand it.

Personally, I had never heard of “Dine Below the Line” until two weeks ago, when I had the pleasure of attending a Bar Mitzvah at Holy Blossom Temple, and learned that several of the rabbis and community members were taking part. I was immediately intrigued, so for this extra special blog post, I interviewed Rabbi Jordan Helfman about his experience dining below the line.

Having spent time abroad in Thailand, China and Mexico, Rabbi Helfman had direct exposure to the interconnectedness of the food supply, the environment, human migration, and as he put it, “how all these things interplay with each other to affect the modern world we live in today.” Thus, his desire to raise awareness about these issues inspired him to “Dine Below the Line” and raise funds for Ve’ahavta, a Jewish-Canadian humanitarian and relief organization.

When it came to food selection, Rabbi Helfman consumed a diet consisting primarily of potatoes, rice and red lentils, which he bought in bulk and apportioned accordingly. He also had vegetables, canned mackerel and some displeasing tomato sauce, which he described as “a mistake” that consequently helped him see what a blessing it is to be able to afford a higher quality product. Finally, for a treat he budgeted three kiwis, one of which he ate after accompanying (and watching) some of the youth members of his synagogue eat frozen yogurt!

Much to my surprise, Rabbi Helfman said he wasn’t hungry during the experience. While he was told that he was a bit grumpier than usual, he said he didn’t feel too different.

At one point during the week, a passing ice cream truck caught the attention of his two year old son. As a result, he bought his son an ice cream for $2, which was more than his “below the line” food budget for the entire day! When reflecting on this experience, Rabbi Helfman explained how it gave him a glimpse of what it must be like for parents who can’t afford such treats, how this must upset their children, and the challenge of explaining something like this to a child. While he didn’t expect his son to finish the ice cream—and he debated whether his desire to stop him from finishing it stemmed more from his duty as a parent or his own desire for the leftovers—to his disappointment, his son ate the whole thing, leaving Rabbi Helfman with only his red lentil soup for dinner.

From a spiritual standpoint, the experience aligned nicely with some of Rabbi Helfman’s current work preparing for a study session where he was coincidentally assigned the topic of hunger in the Talmud. Rabbi Helfman explained that “when there is hunger in the world, it’s a terrible offense for someone to go back to their house and say, ‘it doesn’t affect me’ and have a huge luxurious meal.” He further explained that according to the Talmud, ignoring the plight of others separates you from the community.

Additionally, the Talmud teaches that fasting can be a form of protest, a way to “affect the world when there are things going on in (it) that you don’t like.” Furthermore, he explained that it’s as if one is saying, “I’m going to neglect myself in the hope that this will affect the world around me and gather attention so that things will get fixed.” In many ways, dining below the line aligns perfectly with these teachings.

Finally, in keeping with the rule against fasting on Shabbat (Saturday, the Jewish holy day), Rabbi Helfman planned his five consecutive days to end accordingly. And as a result, he explained how “it made Shabbat really more celebratory for me than it has been in a long time…(it) made me appreciate it a lot more, and made me think about my generations of ancestors that struggled to save for Shabbat.”

In today’s world, many of us who are privileged to have enough food to eat, consume food in excess, or simply take for granted the luxury that it is there. Sadly, the disproportionate distribution of food in our world is one of the great challenges of the 21st century…perhaps some answers can be found in the 1000 year old Talmudic teachings that still resonate today.

—Special thank you to Rabbi Jordan Helfman for graciously taking the time to share your experience and wisdom.