Making the food desert bloom

Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, buys dessert at the CitiMart in Sderot.Courtesy Jewish Agency for Israel
Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, buys dessert at the CitiMart in Sderot.
Courtesy Jewish Agency for Israel

An initiative launched last month aims to make food shopping more affordable for residents of Israel’s outlying communities. The Tzarchaniyat Ha’Ir, or CityMart, the first of a planned chain of co-op supermarkets, opened in the southern city of Sderot.

The chain is a multimillion-dollar project of the Jewish Agency, UJA-Federation of New York, the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington’s United Jewish Endowment Fund, the Israel Venture Network and private donors.

A second store is planned to open on Jan. 21 in Arad, in the northern Negev. The initiative has a goal of opening 10 stores a year for the next four years.

The United Jewish Endowment Fund has committed $300,000 over three years, according to Jocelyn Krifcher, who chairs its grants committee.

“The goal of the co-op is to provide food 17-to-30 percent cheaper than the supermarkets in the geographic periphery,” she said.

In small towns far from the center of the country, supermarkets are few and prices are high, she said. It places a hardship on low-income people who live there.

“The further you move from the center, the more you pay for food,” said Nir Lahav, director of the Jewish Agency’s social activism unit, who organized the initiative.

He said he has raised $3.3 million of the $4.5 million required by the project’s three-year business plan.

CityMart will operate as a nonprofit, with its earnings going toward opening additional branches, lowering prices, and fostering communal activities and social change.

It is the communal and social change aspects that the Endowment Fund has tied its contribution to.

“Are we in the food business? Yes, but that’s not the driving force,” Krifcher said.

The Endowment Fund has invested in a Jewish Agency program called “Young Communities.” It brings together groups of young Israelis who commit to living, working and volunteering in economically depressed areas.

“We asked [the Jewish Agency] to build the markets in the Young Communities that we support,” including Sderot, she said. Young Community members “run the market and the social impact program.”

Lahav said that once co-op members learn to operate a store, they can begin to organize social activities for their group from funds the store generates. Eventually, “we’d like to see the co-op do things with the entire community.”

The supermarket project grew out of the 2011 “cottage cheese protest,” when a hike in the price of the staple food led to a spontaneous boycott. At its height, thousands of people were living in tents and holding demonstrations in a backlash against skyrocketing consumer goods and housing prices.

“Unfortunately the government has not done what it promised to do” to alleviate the high cost of living, Krifcher said. So the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency stepped in instead, enlisting Jewish communities and private donors.

Krifcher concedes that the markets might not turn a profit. “It’s not a slam-dunk,” she said. “It’s risky.”

Lahav agrees. “If we will not be able to sell enough, we will have to close.”

Krifcher thinks the idea can be adopted closer to home, in the food deserts of American cities.

“The more I see this in Israel, the more I say, ‘Why can’t we do this here, with all our social problems.’”

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JTA News and Features contributed to this article

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