MAZON’s Abby J. Leibman: Food Insecurity, Sustenance & Recipe for Pizza in a Pot

Taste Buds with Deb - Episode 15
July 27, 2023

“[Food is] part of the culture of many human beings,” Abby J. Leibman, President and CEO of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, told the Journal. “It is not just a moment of fueling your body so you can keep going. It’s also a moment of fueling your soul.”

Food speaks to people in terms of their culture, history and family.

“This is something that many of us get to take for granted; people who are struggling cannot,” she said. “Nobody’s tradition is to eat an apple and some saltines, and call that dinner. That’s reprehensible. But it does happen.”

MAZON, which is almost 40 years old, was founded by visionary leaders in the Jewish community who felt that it wasn’t enough to simply talk about how important it was to feed people.

“It was a moral imperative to take our Jewish values and work to change what those circumstances are that drive people into food insecurity and poverty, and really try to make a difference,” Leibman said.

For decades MAZON has been engaging in policy work, through communities, synagogues and directly with elected officials.

“[We’re] not only [trying to] lift the awareness of this issue and how pervasive it is in the United States, but also to say that there is a possibility of ending hunger in this country,” Leibman said. “We almost did it once. And we can do it again.”

The MAZON website has a ton of information and resources, including their Virtual Hunger Museum and ways people can take action.

Leibman, who has been at MAZON for 12 years, has spent her career in the social justice space. A lawyer by training, she worked for a legal service organization in Los Angeles. Then, with two friends, Leibman co-founded the California Women’s Law Center, which she ran for 12 years.

“The opportunity to work with MAZON came up at a time when I really wasn’t looking,” said Leibman, who was doing consulting work and teaching at the time.

The more she learned about MAZON, and the more people kept reaching out to her, she started to realize why. Leibman gave the board a tentative “yes,” and went in to meet the staff before making a commitment.

After arriving at the office and introducing herself to the COO Barb Green, she was led into the conference room, where there was a giant table with fruit, bagels, coffee, everything.

“I said, ‘I didn’t know if I should bring something, I didn’t even know if you guys eat, I don’t know if you were kosher,’” Leibman recalled. “And [Barb] said. ‘Abby, are you kidding? We’re an anti-hunger organization. All we do all day is talk about food, so all we do is eat.’”

At that point, Leibman knew this was a fit.

When people say to Leibman that they feel guilty eating in front of her, she thinks that’s ridiculous.

“You use your resources as you have them,” she said. “You don’t squander them, but you also recognize that other people may not have the privilege that you do.”

She adds, “Then what you do, apart from enjoying yourself, is to say, this inspires me to want to make sure other people can have this kind of positive experience with food.”

A big foodie, Leibman loves eating in restaurants, although she admits she’s a little “over” cooking since the lockdown of the pandemic. She does, however, find baking a Zen experience.

The idea that food and the preparation of food is itself a ritual that is both calming and really uplifting in some really important ways,” she said.

For instance, baking is chemistry. You have to be really focused or you’re going to mess it up.

“It’s ‘follow the measurements and mix things at the appropriate times and for the appropriate time,’” she said. “I find that if I think about anything else, it distracts me, and the recipe is not a success.”

During the conversation, Leibman shared her family brownie recipe as well as her favorite easy meal: Pizza in a Pot.

The brownies are her “go-to when I suddenly realize I’m supposed to bring dessert to something, and I forgot,” she said. “The ingredients for brownies are pretty much in your pantry; certainly in my house where chocolate is an obsession.”

Pizza in a Pot, which was born out of an improvisation, became a staple when Leibman worked long hours at the California Women’s Law Center, and had to prepare dinner for her kids after a long day. It’s egg noodles, tomato sauce, vegetables and mozzarella cheese.

“It’s kind of a bowl of yum,” she said. “It’s very balanced, and if you use a jarred sauce, this is ready in like 10 minutes.”

The next time you are sharing a meal with your family, and want to know what you can do to help food insecurity, remember, your community is larger than you think.

In the United States, your community is about 335 million people. Nearly 40 million people face food insecurity.

“It isn’t possible for me to invite everybody who’s food insecure in my neighborhood, let alone in Los Angeles into my kitchen,” she said. “What I can do is press our board of supervisors to make sure that they are doing everything they can to facilitate people accessing programs that give them nutrition [and] support.”

Leibman adds, “Our mission [at MAZON] is to mobilize people to work with us, to be passionate about the work that we are doing to try to get policy change that will lead to the end of hunger in America.”

Read more about MAZON and The Hunger Museum.

For the full conversation, listen to the podcast:

Watch the interview:

Recipes from Abby J. Leibman

Pizza in a Pot (aka A Bowl of Yum)

8 oz of egg noodles

1 jar of tomato sauce (About 2 cups; it can be adjusted up or down, depending on how saucy you like your pasta)

Shredded mozzarella

1 to 2 cups of vegetables of your choice, cut small or shredded: zucchini, broccoli, spinach, etc.

Boil egg noodles until al dente. Drain.

While noodles are cooking, heat tomato sauce to a simmer and add any vegetables desired (zucchini, broccoli, spinach, etc.)

Simmer until vegetables are cooked.  I often shred the vegetables; it cooks more quickly and it’s a sneaky way to get veggies into small children!

Combine noodles with the sauce and vegetables, season to taste with salt and pepper.

Reduce heat to low.

Add shredded mozzarella – as much or as little as you like!  Stir constantly until melted.  Serve immediately.

Mom’s Brownies

Jack Andersen/Getty Images

Butter an 8×8 or 9×9 inch square pyrex baking dish (adjust temp and cooking time for a metal pan)

3 squares of unsweetened chocolate (I use Baker’s)

1/4 lb. (one stick) unsalted butter

1 cup sugar

2 eggs

1/2 cup nuts (optional)

1/2 tsp baking powder

1/4 tsp salt

1/2 cup flour

1 tsp vanilla

1 Tbsp of water

Melt chocolate and butter in the microwave or in a double boiler, cool slightly.

Cream butter and chocolate with the sugar until smooth.

Beat in two eggs.

Combine baking powder, salt and flour and add to batter while mixing at low speed

Add vanilla and water, stir to combine. Fold in nuts, if using.

Bake at 325°F for about 20 minutes, or until a cake tester comes out with moist crumbs attached.


Debra Eckerling is a writer for the Jewish Journal and the host of “Taste Buds with Deb.Subscribe on YouTube or your favorite podcast platform. Email Debra: tastebuds@jewishjournal.com.

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