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‘Soup Kitchen Nation:’ Relieving Poverty in Israel by Reducing Food Waste

Addressing one of the ramifications of poverty by a government-led food rescue program

According to a recently released Israel National Insurance Institute 2018 poverty report, nearly 1.8 million Israelis are living in poverty.

There are different ways to measure destitution: The poverty rate is 22.2% when looking at economic income and 16.8% when taking into account disposable income after taxes and government transfer payments. Using the latter measurement, Israel is fourth to last in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Around 840,000 children in Israel live in poverty, which as a percentage of the total number of children is the second-worst in the rankings, exceeded only by Turkey.

One way poverty is evidenced is through food insecurity.

“We are one of the poorest countries in the OECD; food insecurity is the most severe symptom of poverty,” Eran Weintrob, CEO of Latet – Israel Humanitarian Aid, told The Media Line.

“We are the high-tech nation,” he added, “but we are also the soup kitchen nation.”

In order to address this, Leket Israel, The National Food Bank, is calling on the leaders in the next Israeli government, whose members will be chosen in the March 2 election, to create a national food rescue program that would also address the country’s food waste issue.

Food collection. (Leket Israel)

“We lose 20 billion shekels [about $5.8 billion] on food waste and the value of the food was originally 3 billion shekels [$900 million], so we are wasting six times as much as the problem,” Leket CEO Gidi Kroch told The Media Line. “That means it can probably be solved with food rescue … which is only something the government in Israel can do.”

He says when taking the value of the food that was wasted is taken into account, the cost of the program would be around $260.41 million because “with every shekel invested, you get at least three or four shekels of food.”

The March election will be Israel’s third election in one year, which also means that Israel has gone that long without a working government

The absence has been felt most by Israel’s neediest.

Kroch says that about 11,000 families in Israel have received financial assistance for food in a program that expired at the end of last month because the government cannot authorize the 20 million shekels (about $5.8 million) needed to renew it during the interim phase before new leadership is established.

“Eleven thousand families won’t get food starting in January because of the politics,” he said, explaining that larger families, which are generally in the Arab and ultra-Orthodox populations, are more vulnerable than smaller ones.

Children and the elderly are the most susceptible to poverty, regardless of what segment of society they hail from.

Hot meal distribution at elderly day center. (Leket Israel)

For Kroch, the ideal food program would include nutritious food and initially start with the government offices donating their surplus food from the dining rooms to the poor.

The food rescue program also would address the financial aspect of hunger.

“In Israel, the price of food is going up more than the salaries,” he said. “[Here,] there is 100% access to food, the question is whether people can purchase it.”

*T., who spoke to The Media Line on condition of anonymity, is one of the Israelis who face food insecurity. She is 53, her husband is 60, and they have eight children, three of whom live at home, ranging in age from 17 to 30.

T. works two jobs: one in the morning at a school for troubled children and one in the afternoon at a kindergarten. Her husband works at the National Insurance Institute, which released the 2018 poverty report, in logistics, where he just received a promotion.

“In the last few years, everything became more expensive: the electricity, water, rent, etc.,” she told the Media Line.

T. doesn’t use her clothes dryer and washes her dishes by hand to cut down on utilities. She also shops in Ra’anana, about 50 miles away from her home in Jerusalem, because it is cheaper, checking an app on her phone regularly to make sure she is getting what she needs at the lowest price.

She says that without the help of Leket, which provides her produce, she would be in chronic debt.

“I get fennel, tomatoes, cucumbers, celery and onions, but I really want potatoes,” she said, and they come only every once in a while.”

“Thank God no one is hungry because of Leket,” she said, referring to her family and her neighbor who cannot make ends meet.

Leket’s Kroch says that it will take widespread support from across the ideological spectrum to create a food rescue initiative that will help more people like T.

“[The food rescue program] requires significant changes and funding. That’s why I would like to see a coalition of members from various parties join in and say: ‘We as Israelis have to solve this problem,’” Kroch said.

Leket Hot Meal Rescue. (Leket Israel)

Latet’s Weintrob agrees that solving the problem of food insecurity and poverty, in general, will require members of all parties to make the issue a priority.

“It’s not a matter of ideology or politics. … It’s related to the value and the strength of Israeli society,” Weintrob said. “We must ask ourselves, do we want [these] children to have a future? Do we want … our grandparents who built this country and survived the Holocaust to finish their lives in dignity?”

“It’s all a matter of policy and priorities,” he continued.

Weintrob argues that Israel does not have the “right tools” to help people stay out of poverty. Government assistance to the elderly without pensions is less than the income below which the government classifies one as impoverished. And people earning minimum wage cannot make enough to avoid being destitute.

He believes that the poverty rate in Israel, which has generally been higher than the average for OECD countries over the years, is a result of government inaction on the issue.

“There is no governmental goal to get rid of poverty, and while there are some offices that address aspects of the problem, there isn’t one body that is in charge,” Weintrob said.

He contends that this is partly due to lawmakers’ lack of political will, which is a universal problem.

“It’s not unique to Israeli politics, but when you invest in poverty you cannot see the proof within a short period of time. For politicians who want to be re-elected, they invest in things with immediate results,” Weintrob said. “Unfortunately, we don’t have planning and thinking for the long term.”

David Rawlings and Steven Ganot contributed to this article.