The business of poverty

Veteran immigrant Joseph Gitler has turned a simple food rescue idea into the National Food Bank, centralizing donations and providing meals to thousands of needy people each day.

November 10, 2010 23:50
Joseph Gitler

Joseph Gitler 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Joseph Gitler does not seem like your typical nonprofit organization director. It’s not only his laid back attire or his relaxed, easy-going and humorous attitude that sets him apart from most other founders of grassroots NGOs but rather his smooth business-like talk and his upbeat demeanor.

Running a charity has its difficulties, admits Gitler, 36, founder and director of Leket Israel, the National Food Bank (formerly Table-to- Table), which each year recycles more than $17 million worth of food waste from restaurants, supermarkets, agriculture and other businesses and distributes it daily to some 270 charities nationwide.

However, according to Gitler, “organizations are always going to complain that they do not have enough money or that poverty has increased in order to raise money, but the truth is that we are all doing our best to help the situation and whether the numbers grow or not there is always going to be some areas we cannot cover.”

On Monday, the National Insurance Institute released its annual poverty report indicating that more than 120,000 individuals joined the poverty cycle last year, following the onset of the global economic crisis at the end of 2008. Overall some 435,100 families or 1,774,800 people and 850,300 children lived below the poverty line last year.

While the economy is showing signs of improvement, the government is still limited in the amount of financial aid it can provide the poor and much poverty relief is provided by thousands of local charities running soup kitchens, food aid distribution centers and programs for the disabled, children at risk and the elderly.

“There is always a discussion in the third sector about how it is being asked to deal with some of society’s most challenging problems but that it’s not expected to pay well, hire the best people or advertise on the same level as other businesses in order to get its message out there,” observes Gitler.

“Leket is not just about rescuing food for the needy, it’s also about projecting an image.”

AFTER SPENDING MORE than an hour with the veteran immigrant from New York talking about the nonprofit he started out of his car several years ago, it seems clear that the image he is trying to “project” for Leket Israel is one of a slick business-style charity that will act as both an umbrella organization to an uncoordinated sector attempting to tackle one of the country’s worst problems, poverty, while encouraging the public to improve its eating habits and to waste less food.

“I hope that what I’ve been saying makes it sound like what we do is a business,” states Gitler. “We do try to run Leket like a business and just as no business would want to live hand-to-mouth it’s the same with us. We try to ensure we have a solid budget for all the things we are doing [$4.5 million a year]...

and I take great pride in the fact that we pay reasonable salaries. I can’t stomach hearing about a company that earns tens of millions in profits and pays its employees NIS 7,000 a month. People don’t have to be clients of a charity just because they are working for one.

“We are all about feeling good. I know we have it easy in many ways because we are running a businesstype charity that does not deal day in, day out with the terrible social issues that people face here. The truth is I pay a lot less attention to poverty statistics than people might think because we’ve already realized that as much as we do and all the other charities do, it’s never going to be enough.

“Organizations are always going say they can’t do enough to reach everyone but the only real solution is for people to work and get paid reasonable wages so they can support their families. There are always going to be people in every society who need to be taken care of such as the elderly or the disabled or children, the tricky part is dealing with able bodied people who are working but can’t make ends meet.”

LEKET ISRAEL helps people from all strata of society, explains Gitler, describing the work of the 80 staff members and thousands of volunteers who collect food from restaurants and supermarkets, pick up leftover produce from farmers or help out at one of the organization’s two storage and distribution centers in the North and the Center.

“As an individual, however, I’m more disturbed by people who are trying to make a living but can’t do it, as opposed to those who have made a life choice and chose not to make a living,” he says.

Indeed, figures from the NII report show that the majority of those who joined the poverty cycle over the past year actually had one household member who worked, with many forced to take significant pay cuts as the recession kicked in. The report highlighted that some 18,400 poor earn a monthly wage.

Even with the poverty figures seemingly worse than ever, Gitler takes it all in his stride.

“I take a lot of these things with a grain of salt, because a lot of people in this country are working for cash and a lot of income goes unreported,” he says. “At the end of the day, it does not really matter if the NII says the increase is 25 percent or 15%, there are still tens of thousands of people a year who need some sort of help. I know it sounds so terrible, but we are really doing our best to help.”

A LAWYER by training, Gitler made aliya with his wife and their oldest child – today he has five – in September 2000. His new life started off on a high, and the family moved straight to Ra’anana where Gitler began working for a familyrun software business. However, within weeks of their arrival the second intifada started and things began to change rapidly.

“I started looking around me and hearing about NII reports on poverty and reading stories in the newspapers and seeing on TV about people struggling financially. I had charities knocking on my door all the time asking for money, and suddenly many circumstances came together all at the same time,” he says of the decision to “take a sabbatical from the business for a couple of months” and look into starting a nonprofit food rescue operation.

“After the terror attacks of September 11, the opportunities we’d been working on in the business died and this gave me some time to think about my future. There was not really one particular situation that spurred me any way, but all sorts of things that came together at once. The stories about people struggling financially, especially those that were trying to make a go of it, really bothered me.”

Gitler started to investigate what was happening with all the organizations that were helping the poor.

“I literally drove around the country and I visited hundreds of social welfare organizations, all doing a variety of different things. I had one purpose in mind – to get a sense of what was missing in a country that is overrun with charities.

Everyone I met said they did not have enough money or they did not have enough volunteers, but that goes with the territory of running a nonprofit, everyone says this.”

According to Gitler, what struck him most was that there was no single organization centralizing the donations of food.

“There were some dealing with packaged or perishable goods, and there were others cooking and distributing food, but when it came to ready cooked food, baked goods, agriculture produce or supermarket leftovers, there was just nothing really being done.”

Gitler took this as a sign that he had found his calling and after intensive research into other food rescue operations around the world, he launched Table-to-Table in March 2003 “out of the back of my car” and using “my garage as a storage space.”

“The goal from day one was not to create a completely new charitable operation. There are already so many wonderful after school clubs for kids and homeless shelters and battered women’s shelters, so many wonderful people doing great work.

Our job was to find out how do we support them. For a lot of organizations, especially the smaller ones, we have become like their philanthropists.

They were spending $50,000 a year on food and now, because of our intervention, they are spending $10,000 on food and getting better quality goods. Most people do not realize that improving eating habits is also a very big part of what we do.”

With an annual budget of some $4.5 million, most of it from private donors and general fund-raising both here and abroad, Table-to- Table decided to merge earlier this year with Leket Israel, the National Food Bank, as a way of further pooling resources. In the coming weeks, Leket Israel, under Gitler’s leadership, will attempt to take on its biggest task yet by applying for a government tender to help manage Ministry of Welfare and Social Service’s national nutritional security program aimed at making sure people eat better quality food.

So is the lawyer from Riverdale surprised that he has ended up at the forefront of the country’s war on poverty? “I’d done a bit of volunteering in my life but I would never have characterized myself as a do-gooder.

But word about our work spread so quickly.

“It’s funny because I don’t really think that the community around here – where I first started – even knows that this has gone from Joseph Gitler in his Subaru Outback station wagon in March 2003 picking up leftover food by himself to recruiting a few volunteers to literally utilizing and helping thousands of people have nutritional hot meals every day.”

But that is exactly what Joseph Gitler has done.

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