THE JEWISH CHRONICLE - May 2011. In an exclusive interview conducted by Lee Chottiner of the Jewish Chronicle, Leket Israel's CEO, Gidi Kroch, discusses how the Israeli government can better address the nutritional needs of Israel's impoverished.
How Israel can feed more people without spending a shekel
Gidi Kroch says hunger — not terrorism — is the leading problem facing the State of Israel.
Photo courtesy of Leket Israel
Gidi Kroch, CEO of Leket Israel, picks oranges in Israeli grove. Leket has 40,000 volunteers who harvest produce when farmers find it not profitable to do so. The food is given away at pantries and other distribution centers across the country.
He should know. Kroch, who visited Pittsburgh last week, is the chief executive officer of Leket Israel, which bills itself as the national food bank of the Jewish state.
And his assessment jives with other agencies, including the Jaffa Institute, a private, nonprofit organization in Israel that provides social services to severely disadvantaged children and their families in the greater Tel Aviv-Jaffa area.
The government says it is addressing hunger and will do even more before long.
While Leket and Jaffa also say the government needs to be more involved, in combatting hunger, they differ somewhat over how to do it.
In a column published in the Jan. 20 Chronicle, Jaffa’s youth fundraising coordinator, Jackie Frankel, wrote that the government needs to make “budget priority adjustments” to prevent an economic crisis.
But Kroch said he isn’t asking the government for money. Instead, he wants the government’s assistance in growing the demand for, and supply of, surplus food.
“They don’t need to support me financially,” Kroch said of the government. “There are other things they can do.”
Some of those things, he said, include awareness of what Leket does with the country’s farmers.
The government can also donate produce from its wholly and partially owned research farms, he said, and open its military bases for “prepared food rescue.”
Lastly, it can push for a “Good Samaritan Law” in Israel, which waives the liability from food companies — farmers, grocers, restaurateurs — that donate food to the needy.
“The idea is that if a company donates food in good faith and then somewhere along the line gets sued because of the donation — spoiled food, personal damage, etc. — the law will protect the company from these proceedings,” Kroch said. “In Israel, there is no law as such. A few years ago this law was promoted by a group of involved people in Israel, but it was squashed on the way.
“Currently, no one is promoting this law and in my opinion it is stopping companies from donating food,” he added.
The government defended its actions on the hunger issue. According to Couty Sabah, director of research and planning for Israel’s Ministry of Social Affairs and Services, the idea of better collection and dissemination of surplus food is “at the heart of the policy of the government.”
He said the government issued a 21 million shekel “tender” in January to support the work of NGOs who would oversee such work.
“We would like to regulate this market of collecting food; the government does not want to do that directly,” Sabah said. “That’s why we published a tender. This tender will be supported by the government; the idea is to find an umbrella organization (he later said there would be more than one) that will regulate the work that is done by hundreds of organizations, [assuring that it is done] in such a way that the collection and distribution of food would be done in a more effective and efficient way.”
Sabah said NGOs would have to put in bids for the jobs.
He agreed with Kroch that there is a legal liability issue for food providers that could be addressed through a Good Samaritan law.
But Kroch claims the government tender includes no actual support for people at risk.
“The money is directed toward regulation and some software — not food,” he said. “The food distribution part of the tender has no real money.”
A spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the government takes the issue of hunger seriously.
“The Government of Israel is acutely aware of this problem and claims to the contrary are untrue,” spokesman David Baker said.
Leket “rescued,” or collected, more than 9 million pounds of fruits and vegetables straight from Israel’s fields and orchards last year, Kroch said. He explained that farmers don’t pick their produce if the market price drops too low, but that Leket has more than 40,000 monthly volunteers who will do it for them.
Leket also “rescued” 322,400 prepared meals in 2010 and 3.4 million pounds of perishables from wholesalers, manufacturers and packing houses. It also prepared 1.1 million sandwiches for hungry kids in Israeli schools.
It’s that sandwich service that gave Kroch one of his more heart-wrenching experiences.
He and his son were filling in for a volunteer last November, delivering sandwiches to Herzliya schools. They were 10 minutes late to one school, so they left their delivery with the security guard who rushed them into the building. As Kroch drove off, he and his son looked back and saw the kids standing at the doorway, their hands outstretched.
“You know they’re hungry,” he said.
Leket Israel: The National Food Bank was established in 2003 by an American immigrant, Joseph Gitler, who started collecting food from weddings and bar mitzvas, then graduated to grocery stories and the farmers themselves. He started an organization in food rescue and collection, which merged with another food bank in 2009 to create what is today known as Leket Israel: The National Food Bank.
Some 123,000 Israelis joined the “circle of poverty” in 2009 according to Israel’s National Insurance Institute “Report on Poverty,” which was released last November. In addition, 850,000 children and a growing number of working poor are now considered to be living below the poverty line.
Kroch doesn’t quite agree with the figures, but he does agree the problem is acute.
“Terrorism is not the biggest threat in Israel,” he said, “it’s hunger and the way we deal with hunger in Israel.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at email@example.com.)