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Bread and Ballots: The Role of Food in the Next Israeli Election

The government started to address the issue of food security but political paralysis and an economy dominated by monopolies have pushed it aside once again

Recent political gridlock has made life far more difficult for the nearly 11,000 families that relied on the National Initiative for Nutritional Security, a program that provided 500 shekels (about $145) a month for basic grocery expenses.

Gidi Kroch, the CEO of Leket, a nonprofit focused on the elimination of food insecurity in Israel, says that the problem remains unresolved in part “because the government doesn’t think it’s an issue. It’s focused on its so-called security and everything else is secondary to it.”

For Sushiyuda restaurant manager Milka Avadia, “Everything has gotten more expensive” in the recent past.

“We need more money to pay to the government. You pay more in taxes, you pay for the army, you pay for survival. This country costs a lot of money. … Milk, bread, literally everything is more expensive.”

Milka Avadia in front of her restaurant, Sushiyuda, in Mahane Yehuda Market, Jerusalem, February 4, 2020. (Shakir Rimzy)

With the third election in less than a year coming up in March, parties are touting their election platforms once again. Food security remains an issue on the table for many Israeli households.

Professor Dov Chernichovsky of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, who studies the role of state food policies, told The Media Line that previous governments had begun to address the issue.

“The government had taken a historic step by supporting the national food security program, which we have evaluated. It showed that people were happy with it. This has stopped because we have stopped politically,” said Chernichovsky.

The 2011 demonstrations in Tel Aviv, which began over fury about the high price of cottage cheese, were the last time that food insecurity caused civic unrest.

In a paper written by Chernichovsky and Janetta Azarieva that was published in the Journal of Economic Issues in December 2019, Chernichovsky stated that the protests were catalyzed due to the fact that cottage cheese rose in price far above the rate of inflation for other goods.

Between 2008 and 2011, the price of milk rose by 10% while cottage cheese rose by 34% in the same time period. The difference in the rate of inflation was due to government regulation over the price of milk and the lack of regulation regarding cottage cheese.

Prices in Israel in the past have been dictated in order to ensure that lower-income citizens could afford basic staples, a practice the government calls supervision, but the goods that are controlled make up just a fraction of what’s considered a healthy diet by Israel’s own Health Ministry.

In 2008, Tnuva, Israel’s largest dairy producer, was purchased by Apax Partners, which pursued a more aggressive policy of maximizing profits. Tnuva was sold again in 2014 to the Chinese state-owned firm Bright Food.

Conglomeration is also present in the retail sector; the professor’s findings report that the sale of the Club Market chain to Shufersal led to a rise in retail prices – a fact that’s not lost on Omer Cohen, the owner of Super Machneyuda in the Davidka neighborhood in Jerusalem.

“It’s how it’s been for years,” he says about the rise in prices. “It’s not new.”

Omer Cohen’s Super Machneyuda store in Jerusalem, February 4, 2020. (Shakir Rimzy)

Cohen says he sees people struggling to afford basic goods but that they must buy them anyway.

“We are selling items that are needed – very basic items that everyone needs: fruits and vegetables, water, sugar, flour, salt, cheese, bread. People cannot stop buying these things.”

Chernichovsky places the blame on large companies that have eliminated their competition: “The monopolies that have the power are the real villains here.” The prices for these goods should not be as high as they are, he says, given the fact that the government subsidizes water and that climate change has had a negligible effect on agriculture due to Israel’s sophisticated water management system.

Kroch, the CEO of Leket, also blames the lack of competition. “Israel is not a food desert; there is food available. It’s a retail problem caused by not enough competition by the three big retailers.”

The consequences of increased corporate pressure in the grocery sector mean that Israelis are finding it harder than ever to meet what the government defines as the requirements for a healthy diet.

Lower-income Israelis must spend upwards of 64% of their monthly wages in order to meet that standard. The recommended diet includes natural unprocessed plant-based foods, whole grains, vegetables and nuts supported by small amounts of animal-based protein.

With another election on the horizon, are the parties taking the issue of food security as seriously as they should? So far, no party platform includes a plank on food security. Kroch says this reflects Israel’s history.

“No one dealt with food insecurity in the past – only the nonprofit sector. … Right now, some people are paying more for democracy than others.”

(Shakir Rimzy is an intern in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Student Program)