After two years of hesitation and backtracking, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu finally announced Monday the launch of a new NIS 100 million national program for tackling nutritional security.

The program aims to address the nutritional needs of thousands of poverty-stricken families through 2013 as well as bring some order to the hundreds of food aid charities distributing food to the needy, and is part of a series of measures to address poverty in Israel, declared Netanyahu. He presented the initiative to the media at his office in Jerusalem, together with Welfare and Social Services Minister Moshe Kahlon.

However, this program comes less than two years after former welfare minister and current Labor MK Isaac Herzog announced a similar scheme.

His program never came to fruition after funds slated for it did not receive final approval from the Finance Ministry.

According to Monday’s announcement, NIS 100m. will be directed towards the distribution of special “food credit cards” to those in need, replacing the standard food baskets.

The program will also place special emphasis on the elderly and children in need, and will create an agency to determine ethics in food distribution to the poor.

The committee, which will be headed by retired Supreme Court judge Ayala Procaccia, will also consist of government officials and professionals from the nonprofit sector. Charities will have to comply with the ethical code laid out by the committee in order to qualify for assistance and approval from the Welfare and Social Services Ministry.

“The goal is to make sure that the needy do not have to go to the food but that the food will come to them,” the prime minister explained, emphasizing the need to maintain dignity and honor in food aid distribution.

The announcement of the new program comes after more than five years of intense pressure from nonprofit food charities, which claim they can no longer continue to feed the country’s needy without assistance from the government.

While those organizations welcomed Monday’s announcement, many pointed out that NIS 100m. is simply not enough to tackle the country’s poverty problem in its entirety. The most recent figures from the National Insurance Institute show that more than 433,000 families – or some 1,733,400 people – lived below the poverty line in 2010. However, organizations working in the field say that the number of individuals needing assistance is much higher.

In a joint statement, food aid agency Latet and food rescue organization Leket Israel – with both organizations representing more than 200 food distribution charities in total – said this step showed that the government is finally taking on some of the responsibility to solve a problem that “until now has only been addressed by third sector aid organizations.”

The two NGOs said they hoped this step would be the start of real change in treating all populations that suffer from nutritional insecurity and that more steps will be taken to support “vulnerable populations.”

Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, founder and CEO of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, a nonprofit that has been working closely with the Welfare and Social Services Ministry to initiate a system of food aid vouchers and credit cards, said the decision to increase the budget for food aid distribution was an important step.

However, Eckstein highlighted that it was still “far from being a complete solution to the problem of poverty and nutritional security in Israel.”

The idea to develop such a program was ignited five years ago, after Latet petitioned the High Court of Justice demanding that the government take more responsibility to feed its needy citizens. A subsequent report authored by Welfare and Social Services Ministry director- general Nahum Itzkovitz, who was also at Monday’s press conference, found that the food aid sector was not regulated and did not always provide the right kinds of food to those in need.

Based on that report, Latet and Leket were awarded government tenders to create and operate a special governmentbacked food aid distribution program. With an original budget of NIS 22m. and support from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the program – like the one announced Monday – was meant help coordinate the work of hundreds of nonprofit organizations distributing food to the needy, and raise the quality of food being handed out.

That program, however, did not materialize because the funds slated for it did not receive final government approval.

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