Local Israel

Waste not, want not

Table to Table and Leket, two of the country’s largest charitable food organizations, have merged to tackle the problem of food insecurity.

Joseph Gitler.
Photo by: Courtesy
Standing in line to pay at the pharmacy, the elderly man pauses. Yes, he needs the medicine, but if he pays for that, he won’t have any money for food for the rest of the week. What should he do?

The single mother of three girls sighs as she realizes she won’t be able to pay the electricity bill again this month. Yes, she knows they’ll probably turn the service off, and yes, she’ll have to pay a big charge to have it turned back on, but if she pays the bill today, there won’t be anything but pasta for the girls to eat until next paycheck. That’s not healthy, but what else can she do?

The two teenage boys are embarrassed, but they ask anyway. Their mother passed away, their father is mostly absent, there’s no one else to help. On school days, the free sandwich they get at snack time often constitutes their main meal of the day. Finally the older boy asks the counselor: “On Sundays, could we please have two sandwiches? There’s never any food on Shabbat, so on Sunday we’re really hungry.”

"This is not the Israel we dreamed of when we made aliya,” says Zara Provisor, who has just celebrated the 25th anniversary of her aliya from London. As volunteer head of Leket Israel’s Sandwiches for Kids project, Provisor sees the need every day, especially among schoolchildren.

“In Israel, the gap between the haves and have-nots is growing,” she says. “Children suffer the most. Some of them come to school without breakfast. They don’t have anything for the 10 a.m. snack, and when they get home from school there won’t be anything ready for them then, either. It just breaks your heart.”

The good news is that as the need continued to grow, Israel’s two largest charitable food service organizations merged their operations, greatly enhancing their ability to serve the country’s neediest citizens. In January, Table to Table, Israel’s primary “food rescue” charity, and Leket, the country’s biggest charitable food purchase organization, joined forces and now operate under the name Leket Israel. With the merger, Leket Israel becomes Israel’s biggest charitable food service organization, dedicated to collecting all kinds of food slated to be discarded and redirecting it to needy people all over the country.

“The merger makes perfect sense,” says Ron Guttmann, one of the founders of Leket and now deputy chairman of Leket Israel. “I sat on the board of Table to Table, and Joseph Gitler of Table to Table sat on our board. We’d go to each other’s board meetings, sit there side by side, until one day it dawned on both of us: We’re both working to serve the same people, so why do we have two organizations? Why not combine our efforts?

“So we did,” he continues. “The combined organization is much stronger. We’re much more efficient, we’re doing everything better – including fund-raising – because the one thing donors look for is efficiency. There hasn’t been any negative reaction at all. Even the legalities were simple.”

“Neither of us had our egos involved in what we did, so the technicalities were accomplished very quickly,” Guttmann adds. 

The timing was propitious. “Over 1.7 million Israelis – 750,000 of them children – need approximately 140,000 additional tons of food a year,” Guttmann says. “If you put all of Israel’s existing food assistance organizations together, they collect, rescue and provide no more than 25,000 tons, about 10 to 15 percent of what’s needed. With our newly combined strength, Leket Israel will be able to tap into the resources of the Global Food Banking Network, an international food-bank support organization, and we’ll be able to make a significant impact in improving the situation.”

The problem in Israel isn’t so much hunger as food insecurity, says Gitler, founder of Table to Table and now chairman of Leket Israel.

“You don’t see distended bellies here like you do in some African countries,” Gitler says. “Our problem here is that we have a significant percentage of low-income people who are forced to make difficult decisions about how to spend what money they have. Frequently they have to skimp on food in order to pay the rent, meet other expenses or pay for medicine,” he says.

“There’s plenty of food in Israel,” he continues. “What we have to figure out is how to take food that’s going to be wasted and get it into the hands of people who need it. Preventing food wastage was the reason Table to Table came into being.”

THE INSPIRING story of how Gitler, then a 28-year-old, three-year oleh from New York, decided to establish Table to Table has become something of a legend. While attending a simha one evening, he saw that leftover unserved food was about to be thrown away. He remembered seeing homeless or hungry people on the street as he walked in.

“Why not give that extra food to people who are hungry?” he reasoned, and then decided to do it himself.

He boxed up the extra food, carried it to his car and drove it to the nearest soup kitchen. It became a pattern: As a food-rescue operation of one, he began going out a couple of evenings a week to pick up leftover food and redeliver it. When others heard what he was doing, they began calling and telling him when food was available. Friends stepped in to help, picking up food and delivering it in their own cars.

As an organization, Table to Table came into being in 2003, rescuing food in Ra’anana, Herzliya and Kfar Saba. At the time of the merger, Table to Table was providing more than 110 tons of food per week to over 230 soup kitchens, homeless shelters, senior citizen centers and other social service organizations around Israel.

Leket came into being in 2006.

“It started with a research project,” Guttmann says. “As CEO of Unilever in Israel, I’d been deeply involved in all aspects of food – making it, delivering it and dealing with issues of nutrition. A study done in 2004 showed that 20% of the Israeli population suffered from general food insecurity and an additional 11% were in far more serious trouble, lacking enough food to make a meal,” he says.


“So a group of us entrepreneurs came together to see how we could help,” he continues. “We decided that what was needed was a food bank, a central organization that could provide the country’s smaller food-service organizations with greater purchasing power.”

“In Israel, 80% of the food being distributed to the needy was purchased,” Guttmann explains. “That’s different from the US, where about 80% of the charitable food comes from donations or government surplus. If we wanted to help Israeli charities, we had to help them get more for their money. So Leket was created to centralize food purchases. Individual charities told us what they needed, we’d go to their suppliers, and because we were buying in such large quantities, we’d negotiate lower prices. We also had donations, so we could also partially subsidize the purchase cost,” he says. 

Ultimately, Leket supplied thousands of tons of food to a variety of smaller charities and even began helping them work more efficiently.

“We started helping them with equipment – refrigerators, warehouses, small trucks – anything that would allow them to work more efficiently,” Guttmann says. “Once they had refrigerators, they were able to give out dairy and chicken – foods that needed to be kept cool. We also helped with food safety by finding a company that specialized in that field and asked them to donate their time to train staff workers. Poor people shouldn’t have to eat poor food. Their food should be as good as anyone else’s, and certainly it must be stored and treated properly. We hired a nutritionist, too, to help ensure that the balanced meals the charities served would have the ultimate in nutritive value.”

LAST YEAR, the two organizations together supplied just under seven million kilograms of food, and a half million meals to Israel’s neediest citizens. As a combined entity, Leket Israel will operate with a total of 50,000 volunteers, three warehouses, 12 commercial vehicles (including refrigerated trucks) and dozens of professional harvesters. It will serve both Jewish and Arab charities seven days a week, handling every kind of food – dry, packaged, loose, cooked, frozen, as well as fresh fruits and vegetables – to more than 250 nonprofit organizations across the country.

Leket Israel will continue all established programs such as Table to Table’s gleaning project, whereby fresh produce is provided to 14,000 Israelis every day. The Night Time Food Rescue volunteers – those who carry on Gitler’s original idea, collecting unserved food from bar mitzvas, weddings, restaurants, bakeries and other catered venues – will also continue, supplying another 12,000 meals per week. And donations will continue from corporate partners. The only change volunteers will notice is the increased efficiency of the larger organization.

Gleaning is among the most popular of the food rescue programs, based on the biblical admonition to leave unharvested food or grain in the field for “the alien, the orphan and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all your undertakings.”

“Table to Table started the Gleaning project in December 2005, when a persimmon farmer in Kfar Haim called us,” Gitler recalls. “First, he told us he had a large quantity of fruit he hadn’t been able to sell. Could we pick it up? No problem, we said. A few days later he called again. Tons of perfectly good fruit had fallen on the ground. Could we find people to gather it up? Again we were happy to oblige. A week or so later, he called to invite us to come and pick persimmons directly from his trees. We organized our volunteers, and by Hanukka we’d organized several hundred people to pick persimmons at various times. It was a win-win situation  for everyone involved,” he says.

“Israel’s farms are very productive,” Gitler comments. “We’re blessed with an abundance of fruit and vegetables. The downside of that is waste. Sometimes it’s not profitable for a farmer to harvest all of his fields; other times, the entire crop can’t be picked before it begins to rot. So with our success in gleaning the persimmon crop, we began organizing volunteers to pick other crops. By the end of 2009, over 100,000 volunteers had helped us pick fruit and vegetables for redistribution to the needy,” he says.

VOLUNTEERS COME from all over Israel, from every segment of Israeli society, religious and secular, Sabras and immigrants.

“We mix big companies with college students and elementary schools, Ashkenazi Jews with Sephardic. We love it when new immigrants from absorption centers come. We’ve also hired 20 full-time Israeli Arab pickers – all women – to work full-time at wages higher than minimum wage,” Gitler says. “Why Israeli Arabs? They were the ones who were willing. In terms of employment, Arab women are at the bottom of the pile. They were delighted to get regular, full-time work. It’s a good deal for everyone.”

When Nadav Steindler volunteered to glean tomatoes, he was surprised at how much fun it was.

“It took me back to gleaning potatoes when I was in fourth grade,” he recalls, noting that he’d made aliya from Irvine, California, six years ago. “In Israel, I was working with NDS, a hi-tech company in Jerusalem. They sponsored a a day of recreation for the employees. We did a number of fun things that day – we went to a museum, did some cart racing, ate at a nice restaurant. We also went to pick tomatoes in a field somewhere in the Latrun area. The tomatoes were of very good quality – it would have been a shame to let them go to waste,” he says. 

More than just fun, Steindler, who now lives in Acre, says that spending a couple of hours gleaning was perfect for a corporate group outing. “It was a good day, and by including the gleaning, we knew we were doing something to help others, too, not just enjoying ourselves.”

Joe Offenbacher, an entrepreneur, took his whole family to glean on a couple of occasions. “I’d seen an e-mail posting about the project, so during a holiday we went with another family from Hashmonaim, so it was a social thing, too,” he recalls. “We picked persimmons. We had made aliya from Teaneck, New Jersey, in 2004, and back there, we’d go pick apples for ourselves every year around Rosh Hashana. This was a little different, picking for someone else. It was more meaningful, and we were happy to volunteer our time.”

Volunteers form the backbone of Leket Israel, a high percentage of them Anglos. By the end of 2009, the 250,000th volunteer was counted, notes Provisor.

Why do so many Anglos volunteer?

“I think it’s because the programs were started by Anglos,” she says. “We brought in our friends, and it grew from there. That’s starting to change now. We’ve gotten some attention in the Hebrew press, so more native Hebrew speakers hear about us and come to help, too.”

SANDWICHES FOR Kids came into being five years ago, says Provisor.

“Table to Table was approached by several different schools asking if we had the capacity to provide hot food for needy students. We didn’t,” she says. “Not only did we not have hot food available, but we knew that schools didn’t have the ability to safely serve hot food, either. But at about that same time, an American charity, Hands On Tzedaka, offered us a donation if we would prepare sandwiches for hungry schoolkids in Israel. Karen Bergson and I agreed to take on the project, making 48 sandwiches a day for schools in Ra’anana, Kfar Saba and Herzliya. In the Tel Aviv area, a few other organizations made 300 sandwiches, so our first total was 348 a day,” she recalls. “Now we make 5,400 sandwiches every day,” she says proudly. “We made our millionth sandwich in June of 2008.”

Sandwiches for Kids operates in 18 communities across the country, from Acre in the North to Beersheba in the South. A total of 24 schools participate.

“Ten additional schools are on my waiting list,” Provisor says. “Yesterday I had calls from two new communities that also asked for help. I don’t know if our budget can be stretched to cover them all.”

Who decides who gets the sandwiches?

“The teachers or, in some cases, the school counselors or principals,” Provisor says. “The program is aimed at the children who need the food, not someone who forgot their sandwich or who doesn’t like what their mother packed. It’s for children who live their lives without knowing where their next meal will come from. Some have parents who leave home at 6 a.m. to go to whatever minimum-wage job they have, without giving their children breakfast or packing a sandwich for a snack. Other children have parents who are ill, in prison, taking drugs or are non-functional for some other reason. Sometimes I come home from one of these schools and feel like I’ve been in another country,” she says.

“What really impresses me is how hard some of these teachers and principals work,” Provisor comments. “These aren’t 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. people – they make home visits, and keep very close track of their students so they know who needs and who doesn’t. Some of them even phone certain students in the morning to make sure they’re up. The teachers and staff of some of these suffering schools are the most amazing people. They’re very inspiring.”

The logistics of preparing 5,400 sandwiches a day and making sure they’re delivered to the right schools is a monster of a job, Provisor admits.

“Anita Burstein, one of our volunteers, does all the scheduling. She works full-time in the hi-tech industry, then comes home from work to do our scheduling. She makes sure there will be six people who come in to make sandwiches every morning. Some of our volunteers are retired, but most are in their 40s and 50s and come in before they go to work or on their day off,” she says.

“We have a lot of simha volunteers, too – bar or bat mitzva kids who select our program for their project. We love having pre-wedding parties, when the bride and her friends come in to help. People like to do a mitzva when they have a celebration,” she adds. 

The dedication of the volunteers is something else that inspires Provisor.



“We’ve had some amazing stories,” she says. “One lady battling cancer was too weak to stand to make sandwiches, but she wouldn’t even think of not coming. Now she sits down to make the sandwiches. Another volunteer, all on her own, once a month leaves her home in Ra’anana at 6 a.m. to drive all the way up to Acre and Haifa to check on schools there. She even pays for her own gas.”

The volunteers, she says, understand the importance of what they’re doing.

“In one of the schools, the principal kept track of his pupils’ progress with a colored graph on his computer. The kids who were doing poorly were in red, those who were doing slightly better were yellow, and so on,” she says. “He showed us how some of the children who’d been in red had moved up to yellow or even beyond once they started getting sandwiches at school. They’d improved because they’d had something to eat. Before, when they were hungry, they couldn’t concentrate.”

The most moving feedback came from one little girl. Her teacher had asked the children to write a thank-you letter for the sandwiches.

“This is the first time I’ve ever had fresh rolls,” the 10-year-old wrote. “It makes me feel so good to know that someone cared enough about me to get up in the morning and make me a sandwich.”

For further information about Leket Israel, call (09) 744-1757 or go to www.leket.org


Stay on top of the news - get the Jerusalem Post headlines direct to your inbox!
   
Jpost.com, the online edition of the Jerusalem Post Newspaper - the most read and best-selling English-language newspaper in Israel. For analysis and opinion from Israel, the Jewish World and the Middle East. Jpost.com offers expert and in-depth reporting from Israel, the Jewish World and the Middle East, including diplomacy and defense, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the Arab Spring, the Mideast peace process, politics in Israel, life in Jerusalem, Israel's international affairs, Iran and its nuclear program, Syria and the Syrian civil war, Lebanon, the Palestinian Authority, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Israel's world of business and finance, and Jewish life in Israel and the Diaspora.

All rights reserved © The Jerusalem Post 1995 - 2014