Bridging the gap between rich and poor

JEWISH NEWS OF GREATER PHOENIX - March 16, 2012. On a recent visit to Phoenix, Joseph Gitler, founder & chairman of Leket Israel, spent time with the local Jewish community sharing the successes of the food bank he established in 2003. Joseph's concern of the growing poverty situation in Israel propelled the young entrepenuer to form Leket Israel. The organization is the recipient of grants from the Jewish Community Foundation and the Jewish Community Association's Israel and Overseas Council.

Leket Israel: Bridging the gap between rich and poor

Waste not, want not.

Leket Israel, Israel's National Food Bank, has invested the age-old adage with new resonance, and relevance, as it strives to rescue food to feed the poor.

So explains Joseph Gitler the organization's dynamic founder and chairman on a recent visit to Phoenix. Gitler tells how the idea was sparked in the difficult years just after he and his wife, Leelah, made aliyah in September 2000. Within weeks, the Second Intifada began, the rise in terrorism leading to a severe decline in tourism with a devastating impact on Israel's economy.

"We were fine," he says of his family. They had settled in Ra'anana, and Gitler was working in the software business. But he had a gnawing feeling that many were not fine.

"I started to get a sense of the growing poverty situation," he says, "reports in the press, statistical reports." And not, he notes, just among the more vulnerable groups - Ethiopian Jews, Israeli Arabs, the ultra Orthodox.

"People were out of work," he says. Or struggling to get by - single mothers, the elderly, workers living on minimum wage - and hungry.

"I've got to do something," he decided.

He quickly realized that the need was not serving meals to the hungry - there were plenty of wonderful programs for that, he says - but getting surplus food from farm or kitchen to table.

"What was missing was a food bank," he says.

Based on the concept of rescue and redistribution, Gitler wanted to "glean" - leket in Hebrew - what was being wasted and use it to assuage want. He started with one caterer and 100 main courses going to waste after a wedding. He picked them up in his Subaru station wagon and by midnight they were in a local soup kitchen for use the next day.

From caterers, he reached out to restaurants, corporate food services, food manufacturers, wholesalers and distributors, and then to farmers with bountiful crops but not enough workers to harvest them.

In 2011, Leket Israel rescued 21,147,000 pounds of produce, hot meals and perishable food and redistributed it to more than 300 nonprofits and 109 schools. Its new sandwich program made and distributed 1,125,000 sandwiches for at-risk kids. It engaged dozens of workers and thousands of volunteers in gleaning more than 65 types of fruits and vegetables from 450 farmers and packing houses. Valley residents Jill and Jay Zweig and their family spent a day picking oranges, grapefruits and turnips on a family bat mitzvah trip to Israel in 2009.

"It was a day doing something meaningful that the kids could relate to," says Jill Zweig.

It was a highlight of the trip, says family friend Karen Koven who traveled with the three generations of the Zweig family, exulting at the opportunity to get Israel's dirt under her fingernails.

Leket is the recipient of two community grants for its work, one from the Jewish Community Foundation and a second from the Jewish Community Association's Israel and Overseas Council.

David Weiner, chair of the council, says the group was impressed with Leket's collaborative approach and commitment to innovation and best practices. The food bank was recently recognized in Israel for its managerial process, transparency and accountability and was awarded the 2011 President's Citation for Volunteerism.

Weiner sees the potential for a mutually beneficial relationship between Leket and the local community.

"Our schools teach their students about hunger and how we are all responsible for each other," says Weiner. It would be a good model for teaching about hunger and a potential match for local youth philanthropy programs such as the JCF's B'nai Tzedek program.

Adds council member Ethan Bindelglas, "We can learn from their success and possibly use this to help in similar efforts here."


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