Combating Poverty and Hunger in Israel
One of the biggest challenges facing new olim (immigrants) in Israel is finding employment. Jobs, especially for non-Hebrew speakers, are few and far between. Finding a meaningful job is nothing short of an amazing gift. Last month, I began working for Leket Israel as an overseas volunteer coordinator, and I could not be happier.
As I am learning from Leket (formerly Table to Table), hunger knows no geographical borders. Our Jewish values implore us to care for one another, ensuring that everyone’s needs, especially those of children, are met. Leket heeds this call, serving as an umbrella organization that distributes freshly grown and surplus food to 180 agencies that feed those who experience food insecurity.
In Israel, where the population is approaching 8 million people, one quarter of the country’s residents lives below the poverty line, including 850,000 children. Loosely, poverty is defined as two parents who each earn the minimum wage, 23.12 shekels per hour (about $6.55), and support themselves and three children on that income. Unfortunately, many people in our country face these economic challenges.
In 2003, Joseph Gitler, an oleh chadash (new immigrant), observed how much food was being wasted in our country. (Estimates indicate that 40% of all purchased food is wasted.) He began “rescuing” surplus, unserved food from event halls, a small amount of which might be taken home by staff or the family that hosted the event, but most of which was going to be thrown away. In the 10 years since Gitler began rescuing food, the practice has grown to include not only event spaces but hotels as well, and last year, the number of meals saved topped 1 million.
When we moved to Israel, my husband and I happily volunteered to participate in this food rescue project. We were given a date and an event location, and at an assigned hour, we called the caterer who advised us whether there was food to be picked up. After one event, we left with 52 shoebox-sized containers of food that we’d packed and delivered to a central collection point in Modiin, to be distributed to 12 different families. Amazing!
In addition to rescuing prepared food, Leket also accepts food – dairy products, drinks, and other dry goods – from major Israeli producers to be redistributed to organizations that provide food to those in need. Leket also receives 1,100 loaves of bread daily from its donor bakeries. Knowing that the most attentive, inquisitive and successful students are those who regularly eat healthy, balanced meals, Leket also runs a sandwich-making project that prepares sandwiches on school days for 8,000 children in 110 schools in lower socio-economic areas of 30 different cities.
Leket has made a connection with a generous man in Rehovot, who planted a large tract of land for the sole purpose of feeding those in need. The farm is approximately 700 dunam (more than 170 acres), and the result of the abundance of the farm is called Project Leket. The initiative allows volunteers to pick fruit and vegetable crops – various types of citrus, radishes, avocadoes, eggplant and more – on the property throughout the year. This food is then donated to the agencies with which Leket has relationships. Many Israeli companies bring staff members to the fields to glean as team-building exercises. B’nai mitzvah teens come with family and friends to do something special in honor of their milestone. And during school vacations, families come picking in the fields to show children that potatoes do not grow in the net bags at the grocery store!
Leket prides itself on its food redistribution as well as being an information resource. Nutritional consultants visit the agencies with which Leket has relationships and offer workshops to both staff and constituents. These nutrition education initiatives lead to a healthier population and, in turn, everyone wins with lower healthcare costs. Lastly, Leket works with its agencies to provide consultation on food storage and handling, as well as to secure grants and other funding to build infrastructure and procure equipment. These are much-needed efforts because no matter how hard staff and volunteers work hard to get the food, it will spoil if it isn’t stored and processed properly.
Through his work to rescue food, Joseph Gitler has taken initiative and instituted change in our country. He has heeded Rabbi Hillel’s imperative in Pirke Avot (Ethics of the Fathers): “Do not separate yourself from the community.” Indeed, now is the time for all of us to feed the hungry, emotionally, spiritually, and physically, helping to abate all forms of hunger through acts of gemilut chasadim (loving kindness).
For more information on Leket, please visit the organization’s website and, on your next trip to Israel, consider a visit to the fields in Rehovot or Nahalal! Maybe I’ll be lucky enough to see you there.