The Holy Land is facing an unholy crisis. Normally a magnet to pilgrims and other visitors, the pandemic has hit Israel hard. Unemployment in the US is bad; here it’s twice as dire, with the rate currently at 20%.
In a country that has become famous for technology and innovation, people are struggling to eat. I run Israel’s national food bank, and since Day 1, I have been struggling to keep the nation nourished as needs skyrocket.
It’s a need that is pulling heart-strings, and even prompting the octogenarian Israeli president, Reuven Rivlin, to come to one of our warehouses, roll up his sleeves and help us pack boxes.
As news media cover big questions of politics and diplomacy facing our small spot in the Middle East, my thoughts are far more immediate: Will people, whatever their religion or ethnic background, be able to eat tomorrow? When the school year restarts on September 1, how many kids will arrive at the gates in the morning having skipped breakfast because of their family’s financial situation?
As I watch the tragedy of good people going hungry unfold, I also witness another unhappy development: small businesses, the backbone of every good Western economy, facing possible misery and, in many cases, closing their doors.
My team started to wonder if there were ways we could address both issues simultaneously. And we hope that our answer provides inspiration to others around the globe. We think it’s a testament to the potential that small businesses can have, with some help, for resilience and adaptability.
Over the years, my organization has developed a beautiful relationship between small businesses and the needy.
Over the years, my organization has developed a beautiful relationship between small businesses and the needy
Farmers who have fields and orchards that aren’t profitable to harvest commercially invite our volunteers to collect the food and distribute it to the poor: crops that would otherwise be left to rot. Hotels and restaurants hand us the leftovers from their buffets to pack up for families where kids wouldn’t otherwise get hot meals.
We’re proud of what we do, but we actually got our inspiration from a higher source. While we’re not a “religious” organization as such — our staff and receipts come from all backgrounds — here in the Holy Land, the values of Scripture pervade. So our name is Leket, from the Hebrew term the Bible used to tell the Israelites to leave corners of the fields for the poor to “glean” food.
This biblical idea is probably one of the earliest sources of championing partnerships between businesses and the poor, and we are essentially redeveloping it and reinventing “gleaning” for the modern era.
When the pandemic hit, tourists stopped coming. Hotels and restaurants stopped cooking, and we stopped receiving their leftovers, normally the basis of many of our meals for the poor. We faced a choice: With donations of cooked food having all but vanished, do we stop feeding the growing numbers of hungry people or start buying meals?
We went to donors with an intriguing proposition: Help us feed the needy and we’ll prop up small businesses at the same time. They donated money for meals, and we commissioned hotels and restaurants to get their kitchens and kitchen staffs cooking them. Yes, it’s a step down from the lavish cuisine they pride themselves on making, but it’s better than laying off staff and closing.
We went to donors with an intriguing proposition: Help us feed the needy and we’ll prop up small businesses at the same time
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People around the world responded generously. They saw it as multitasking charity: donations that bring double results.
Over the last two weeks, we set up a crowdfunding campaign that allows anyone to donate the price of a meal or two, knowing they are feeding the hungry and supporting small restaurants.
It’s moving to see people of all financial backgrounds digging deep, and a joy to see the $15 donations as well as the $1,000 donations.
Whether the givers are Jewish people who know Israel well, or Christians who dream of one day dining on St. Peter’s Fish at a restaurant by the Sea of Galilee and would like to help ensure that the restaurants there survive, they all are driven by similar values.
As for the businesspeople, the whole experience has underscored just how capable small businesses are of adapting; the amazing solidarity that many of them have with their staff; and what a source of inspiration they are.
What’s more, we witnessed the extent to which small businesses blaze trails.
They built our food bank’s capabilities over the years. When the pandemic hit, bigger companies increasingly started to follow their lead. Big technology companies that don’t normally have budgets for charity approved special donations. McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and other large corporations realized their trucks were sitting idle as we struggled to deliver to our growing list of recipients, so they loaned us the trucks.
And here’s why I care so much that you, probably reading this thousands of miles from Israel, hear about what we are achieving here.
We have a reputation as a country that epitomizes division. Virtually every news article one sees is about the Arab-Israeli conflict. And we’re famous for our political divisions, too. But when it really counts, we know how to pull together.
We have a reputation as a country that epitomizes division. Virtually every news article one sees is about the Arab-Israeli conflict. And we’re famous for our political divisions, too. But when it really counts, we know how to pull together
The small businesses we are helping have kitchens where Jews and Arabs cook, pack and tidy up together. When we save jobs, we save all of their jobs together, and when we take food to the poor, we take food to the poor of all communities.
If outside-the-box thinking that does the best for small businesses and the best for disadvantaged citizens can do such good here, I’m confident it can elsewhere, too, and hope our work gives strength to like-minded people outside of Israel.
Joseph Gitler is the founder and voluntary chairman of Leket Israel – The National Food Bank, which responds to the paradox of hunger and poverty in Israel, on the one hand, and significant food waste, on the other, by rescuing and redistributing tens of millions of pounds of food each year. www.leket.org