Jerusalem — For a single day in mid-March, the parking lot at Hebrew Union College, the Reform movement’s Jerusalem campus, was packed with boxes, not cars, as more than a hundred young volunteers participated in the mitzvah of kamcha depascha, providing food for the needy on Passover.
After filling the 2,000 cartons with a variety of staples, the teens loaded them onto trucks bound for outlying communities, where welfare offices and nonprofit organizations in both the Jewish and non-Jewish sectors were waiting to distribute them to the poor. Without similar packages from hundreds of nonprofit organizations, schools and synagogues, more than one million Israelis would not have enough food this Pesach, or at other times during the year.
A major 2003 survey conducted by the Brookdale Institute/JDC and government ministries found that 22 percent of Israelis said they lived with moderate to severe “food insecurity.” Of these, 14 percent (250,000 households) said they had trouble producing “appropriate and balanced meals” for financial reasons. They consumed less poultry, meat and fish than those with higher incomes. (A follow-up survey is scheduled for next year.)
Another 150,000 households (8 percent of respondents) reported “severe” food insecurity, meaning they lived “with anxiety that the food they have will not suffice, and that they will not have enough money to buy more.” Lack of money forced them to produce less-than-nutritious meals, to reduce the size of their meals or to skip meals altogether. While everyone agrees this situation, which has only been exacerbated by the government’s budget cuts in recent years, cannot be allowed to continue, not everyone agrees on a solution.
Most experts in the field of food insecurity, defined as the ongoing inability to acquire adequate amounts of nutritious food, hope the country’s first national food bank, which is scheduled to open before Rosh HaShanah, will mean that fewer parking lots will have to be commandeered for emergency food assistance during the next holiday season.
The food bank “will provide a systemic response in times of need,” says Laurie Heller, co-chair and initiator of the Forum to Address Food Insecurity and Poverty in Israel. “It will have a central warehouse and will become the central clearinghouse for food solutions throughout the country.”
Cheri Fox, co-chair of the Forum, says the food bank will create a joint purchasing program to allow organizations that provide food to the needy to purchase at a “20 to 35 percent discount because the bank will be purchasing food in bulk.”
Just as important, Fox says, the food bank will have access to food sources that individual organizations do not have.
Centralizing the procedure will assure that the food is “handled safely,” she says, “and given to organizations that will distribute it honestly and won’t resell it in the marketplace. Everyone will benefit.”
Heller says much of the food bank’s proposed three-year $15 million budget (including $7 million in operating expenses, a $7 million food purchasing fund and $1 million capital investment to purchase truck, forklifts and so on) will come from diaspora Jews. “We’ve made a request to the UJC,” she says of the United Jewish Communities, the North American federation system. She adds that a number of federations, including Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Detroit, have been part of the initiative since its inception. UJA-Federation of New York has not been approached by the Forum, Heller said.
Explaining UJA-Federation’s philosophy, Alisa Rubin Kurshan, vice president for strategic planning and organizational resources, noted that in “the longstanding debate about whether to provide fish or the fishing rod to the poor,” the New York organization is “delighted that many groups in Israel and North America provide fish. We believe it is wise to also make certain that larger segments are able to fish — i.e. can be productively employed.”
To that end, she said UJA-Federation was an initial investor in the development and expansion of food co-ops throughout Israel, “helping to foster local empowerment and grassroots ownership” while welcoming “multiple efforts to address this significant challenge.”
At least some in the American philanthropic community question the strategy of the food bank.
Richard Hirsch, a businessman and philanthropist (and former president of the board of The Jewish Week), is worried that the planned bank’s operating costs “sound very high.” He said the long range plan is sound, but he is concerned that it will take time to organize and meet with predictable Israeli bureaucracy, all of which could, in the short term, divert needed funds from the volunteer groups.
The immediate problem, he said, is “to get enough money to support the volunteer organizations that already provide the food with extremely low overhead,” and where the spirit of volunteerism is “incredible.”
Hirsch calls for more awareness of the problem among diaspora Jews, and financial help, warning: “We cannot mortgage the future of Israel by having its children go hungry.”
The establishment of a national food bank is particularly important in Israel, Heller and others say, because the Israeli government has relegated the job of feeding the poor to nonprofit organizations.
Bob Forney, president and CEO of the Chicago-based Global Food Banking Network, told The Jewish Week that the $8 million the food bank proposes to spend on warehouses, vehicles and the like “is not overhead. That’s how you get all that food. Without these things the program will not be able to find and secure donated food and distribute it. All food agencies have this so-called overhead.”
Forney, whose association has been advising the Food Forum, stressed that the food bank will not replace the non-profits.
“The food bank is concerned first about acquiring donated food from the private sector, and second, in organizing the [non-profits] so they can bring about changes in public policy,” he says. “The food bank will do both.”
If there is a consensus on one issue, it is that the Israeli government isn’t doing enough to provide its most vulnerable citizens with adequate nutrition.
“In America, the government spends 1 percent of the federal budget on providing nutrition to its most needy citizens,” Heller says. “The Israeli government does not respond to this need.”
“The Israeli government plays down the scope of the problem, perhaps because of the image it wants to present to the world, but this denial is hurting Israel,” he says. “American Jews need to do much more to help, but the government has asked the federations not to make a big deal out of it.”
The NGOs concur.
“When I go to donors they think I’m fabricating the problem, because the government refuses to admit that such terrible poverty exists,” says Avraham Israel, founder of Hazon Yeshaya, which provides more than 200,000 meals to the needy every month. “I’m upset that the government isn’t taking a more active role in feeding the hungry. All of our funding comes from private donations.”
Hazon Yeshaya delivers food to schools “where kids come with empty stomachs. They won’t have a hot dinner and often go to bed hungry. The elderly, especially the bed-ridden, would starve without the meals we bring them,” Israel says.
“The food we distribute is sold to us at a bulk rate but it still costs. If the food bank can help us buy more food at less cost, we’ll welcome it.”
Dalit Rochman, director of community relations for Table to Table, which “rescues” tons of leftover food from manufacturers, farmers, dining rooms and wedding halls and distributes it to organizations like Hazon Yeshaya, says that municipal welfare offices around the country “came begging for more money and food vouchers before Pesach in order to feed the hungry. They were able to help only the poorest families.”
A spokesman for the Prime Minister’s Office says the government “is doing its utmost, and making a concerted and comprehensive effort to address” this situation, “in close coordination with the relevant government bodies.”