Russian Community Gives And Receives At Choice Food Program

Victor Gavin is a familiar and friendly face to the staff and clients of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s Choice Food Program at the Klein JCC in Northeast Philadelphia.  He volunteers five days a week, stocking shelves, packing food orders, helping load packages, recycling cans and plastic containers—-anything and everything that’s necessary to keep this innovative food program open and fully-functioning.

The program, which opened its doors in April, 2013, was created in response to the results of the 2009 Jewish Population Study.  This study, which was commissioned by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, showed that the greatest concentration of Jewish families experiencing food insecurity lived in Far Northeast Philadelphia, where the Klein JCC has served as a community fixture.

For Gavin, who came to Philadelphia in July, 2012 from Voronezh, Russia with his wife, volunteering is the only way that he can “pay the program back” for the nutritious food items like meat, fish, produce, dairy, frozen and canned goods that he receives each month—food that is essential to the couple’s health and well-being.

Gavin, who spent more than 30 years as an officer in the Russian army, is accustomed to being productive and self-sufficient.  It is difficult for him to accept financial support from his daughter and son-in-law, who are paying virtually all of the couple’s living expenses.  “The groceries we receive from the Choice Food Program allow us to live more independently,” he said, with deep gratitude.

“The Gavins are among the more than 800 families and 1,500 individuals on average that we serve each month through the Choice Food Program,” said Sabina Dopiro, site manager for the program. “Some 75% of the clients we see are living at or below the poverty line, she emphasized, adding, “Sadly, we have a current waiting list of 150 families.”

Dopiro, who herself came to the United States from the former Soviet Union in 1992, shared that a full 45% of the clients they see are from the burgeoning Russian community in Northeast Philadelphia.  “To better meet their needs, we advise these men and women to schedule their appointments at any time on Wednesdays or on Thursday mornings, when my colleague, Yana Bril and I-who speaks Russian fluently- are available to help them navigate the touch screen computer ordering system and make certain that they are using the points they are allotted, based on the size of their families, to make healthy eating choices,” she explained

Dopiro explained that the program’s emphasis on empowering individuals to make nutritious food choices is what distinguishes it from the traditional food pantry model where clients receive pre-packaged bags of non-perishable canned, boxed and jarred food items.  “Here, volunteers sit down with clients at computer terminals where they can “spend” their points on a wide variety of items from a large, and continually updated inventory of items,” Dopiro said. Clients find that their points go farther when they opt for produce, whole grains, lean meats and other nutritious selections.  Those with dietary restrictions can select from low-sodium and reduced sugar items,” she added.

Eva Khaitman is happy to help Russian clients successfully navigate the computer inventory because she has walked in their shoes.  She arrived in Philadelphia in 1977 from Odessa with her husband and their three year old daughter.  “Jewish Family and Children’s Service sponsored us, paid for one-year of rent on an apartment and arranged for child care and vocational training,” said Khaitman, who worked as a teacher in her homeland.   Although she was indebted to the Jewish community for its outpouring of support, she vowed to become self-sufficient as quickly as possible.

She took courses to become fluent in English, a language she had studied in the Ukrainian university she attended, then began working in retail.  She switched over to travel sales and became Gil Travel’s very first Russian speaking travel agent.  Khaitman has fully enjoyed one industry perk-deeply discounted travel.  “I have traveled all over the world including five trips to Israel,” she said, adding that “this was a freedom that was not afforded Russian Jews of my era.”

Although she retired in 2003, she retains her sense of adventure.  Between vacations, Khaitman keeps busy attending continuing education classes at Temple University, participating in exercise classes at the Klein JCC and-most importantly-by volunteering two days a week at the Choice Food Program.  “This is my way of giving back to the community, “she said, adding that the food she and her husband receive help to stretch their retirement income.

“Volunteers like Victor and Eva are essential to the success of this program,” said Dopiro, explaining that they free up staff to focus on helping clients receive all of the benefits that they are eligible for, securing donations of both kosher and kosher-style food items and making certain that the food inventory is up to date.

To volunteer, call Susan Yitzhak at 215-832-0624 or syitzhak@jfgp.org.

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