Fighting for food and clothing

Volunteers glean produce for the poor.  Photo courtesy of Leket Israel
Volunteers glean produce for the poor.
Photo courtesy of Leket Israel

Poverty is not the result of fate, State Comptroller Joseph Shapira argued in a report on Israeli poverty released last August. Yet, for the Israeli working poor and others who survive on incomes considered below the poverty line, it can feel that way.

Government funds are generally insufficient, and these people find themselves increasingly dependent on nonprofit organizations to try to make ends meet – and fate is often a factor.

“Fate strikes even those who never would have expected it,” says a 30-year-old father of two who prefers to remain anonymous. “I used to work as an electrical engineer for a large company until extensive staff cuts began, and I was fired. My wife remains the sole breadwinner and her salary barely covers the basics such as rent and electricity.

“After job hunting for six months, I finally turned to a nonprofit in Netanya, one which I had financially supported in the past. Today, my own family is in need of their assistance. Over the last six months, every week, I go there to receive fresh fruits and vegetables that come through Leket Israel [the National Food Bank].

“This is really helpful given the high cost of fresh produce; it allows us to feed our children nutritious food while saving us a lot of money,” he says.

In 2013, some 23.5 percent of Israel’s population – more than 1.7 million people, including 439,500 families and 817,200 children – were living below the poverty line, according to the December 2014 poverty report of the National Insurance Institute, the Israeli equivalent of the Social Security Administration. This figure awards Israel the dubious distinction of having the second-highest poverty rate among member states of Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Mexico came in first.

The previous August, Shapira’s report on poverty revealed that 894,000 Israelis, of them 306,000 children, go for as long as an entire day without food or are forced to cut the size of their meals because they can’t afford basic food products. The need for people with limited funds to make decisions about food is officially known as food insecurity.
While not considered life-threatening, it has an adverse effect on mental and physical health and tends to perpetuate the poverty cycle.

“I don’t need a poverty report to know that the three jobs my husband and I work do not pay enough to survive,” Iris Umgazin, a 48-year-old Jerusalem mother of five told “They say there are tough security situations in Jerusalem? We are fighting for food and clothing.  The war is first and foremost inside the home: how to survive, how to live, how do I feed my kids.”
Like other such documents, the comptroller’s poverty report made headlines but resulted in little action.

In the 2015 national budget, the Welfare Ministry designated 1.7 billion shekels (about $425 million) to meet the recommendations of the Committee for the Fight against Poverty, which called for an annual allocation of $1.8 billion. Even that allocation was not distributed because the Knesset was dissolved in December 2014 before the budget could be approved. In the months leading up to the March elections, party platforms gave precedence to affordable housing, focusing on the report’s finding that the poor devote a larger than average share of their income to housing – to the detriment of spending on other essentials.

However, last week, food – or in this case, food loss – returned to the forefront as Shapira again took the government to task for failing to address the issue. “In the world of dwindling resources and a growing population, the mission to provide food for all people has become one of the major challenges of humanity,” Shapira said. The report also said that food loss has social, environmental and economic consequences.

Leket strives to meet that challenge. Former New Yorker Joseph Gitler founded the organization in response to the 2003 National Insurance Institute poverty report. “The report was so damning, the statistics were so shocking and the category of ‘working poor’ was devastating,” he explains.
In 2010, Leket merged with Table to Table, a food rescue organization that Gitler also founded, and became Leket Israel, the National Food Bank, serving as the umbrella for nearly 200 food agencies around the country.

“On the one hand,” Gitler says, “we are a rich Western country that wastes food; on the other, we need far too many organizations to feed the poor. With a task force of volunteers and staff members, each week Leket Israel transfers over 220 tons of food to nonprofit partners such as soup kitchens, homeless shelters and senior centers, feeding about 140,000 people.”

During the years, Leket Israel has developed into a multifaceted enterprise involving thousands of volunteers and a small professional staff. Each year, about 55,000 people dedicate two to three hours to picking crops that would otherwise be left in the field; another 2,000 volunteers help with collection, distribution and other aspects of the wide-ranging undertaking. This greatly helps defray costs, Gitler says, noting that Leket Israel’s $10 million budget is funded almost entirely by donors, one-third of them from Israel.

Their roster of activities is extensive. Among them:

Meal Rescue. Each week, refrigerated trucks pick up about 13,000 excess hot meals and 1,800 surplus loaves of bread from more than 200 catering halls, restaurants, corporate cafeterias and bakeries and redistribute them to community agencies around the country, serving the population, regardless of race or religion.

Project Leket. Some farmers find it unprofitable to harvest all their produce, while others cannot pick their entire crop before it begins to rot. Putting this unharvested produce to use, each week 154 tons of produce are collected from 450 farmers and from Leket’s two fields where 13,000 tons of 80 crops are grown to supplement nutritional needs.

Sandwich for School Kids. Every school day, volunteers prepare 7,800 sandwiches that are distributed to disadvantaged schoolchildren in more than 100 schools throughout Israel.

Food Rescue. Twenty-five corporate partners donate a weekly average of 22 tons of perishable food items – dairy products and baked, dried, frozen and manufactured goods – that are nearing their expiration dates or were overproduced, packaged incorrectly or cannot be sold commercially.
Nutrition Education Program. Through workshops, Leket Israel’s in-house nutritionist delivers seminars on proper nutrition and tools to maintain a well-balanced diet on a limited budget.

In response to Shapira’s report on food loss, Gitler says: “There is a lot that needs to be done, and it is absolutely essential that there be cooperation between the government and the nonprofits. Our government can and should be directly supporting food rescue both financially and through raising awareness.”

The concept of Leket, which means gleanings, comes from a biblical injunction that describes how farmers should treat the poor: “When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the stranger, the orphan, and the widow ….”

Sarabeth Lukin is an American-Israeli journalist who lives in Jaffa.

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