(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
It was a late Sunday night and Ornitte Nagar, who coordinates volunteers for the food rescue organization Table to Table, got the call. One of her volunteers was in hospital and she would have to make a run herself.
Asking a friend to drive her, Nagar stopped off at Gagon, a men's shelter in Jaffa not far from the clock tower where she would pick up some plastic containers to be used to collect perishable food from Sbarro, the pizza and pasta fast-food chain that has a branch in Tel Aviv's central bus station. If there is food to collect, Nagar would bring it back to feed the ever-hungry mouths at the shelter.
At Gagon, Nagar navigated around some 25 homeless men, young and old, who were bulked up in layers of housecoats, winter jackets and scarves, lumbering around the foyer looking for something to do. Some were watching TV, while others prepared their bunk-beds for sleep or ate a late-night dinner on the outside patio.
Nagar loaded about 50 plastic containers into the back of the car and sped off to Sbarro. "The hardest part of this job is the logistics," she said from the passenger's seat.
Nagar has been working in a paid position for Table to Table for about a year, and is one of 14 full-time employees at the organization, headquartered in Ra'anana. "Sometimes a restaurant, wedding hall or high-tech company will call us saying they have tons of food, but when we send our volunteers there, they have little more than a piece of chicken," she sighed.
Other times she arrives for a "little bit" of food, finds too much to fit in her car and has to call for back-up. To avoid sending out a collection truck or car unnecessarily to a location, Nagar asks certain questions in advance and often goes out on a first run herself - as in the case with Sbarro that night - to estimate where to deploy her volunteer resources. After all, it is her job to collect the greatest amount of food that will feed the greatest number of people.
Large amounts of food tend to get spread over several non-profit organizations, including food banks, homeless shelters, afternoon clubs for youth, seniors' residences, battered women's shelters and meals-on-wheels programs.
Since its inception in 2003, Table to Table has rescued hundreds of thousands of tons of food. With 500 part-time volunteers working throughout the country, Nagar coordinates food pickups from Jerusalem to Beit Shemesh, and from Hadera to Rehovot.
Food is collected during the day by paid drivers - not volunteers - using refrigerated trucks from large food collection sources. The food is stored in walk-in fridges and freezers in a warehouse in Ra'anana, and then gets delivered to over 60 organizations around the country.
Nagar estimates that 7,000 meals are rescued each week. "Most people aren't starving here [in Israel]," she explains, "they are just malnourished. What people need and what we need to collect is meat and fish - anything with protein."
Sometimes, short of food collection possibilities, Nagar also needs to juggle the volunteers who commit to making both day and night runs. If a volunteer cancels or does not show up, either Nagar fills in or the food is left uncollected.
The job is pretty intensive, she admits, especially when volunteers call her in the middle of the night asking questions about a food pick-up - there are between 100 and 200 every week. Usually, she says, collecting food is fun. "We really like going to weddings and walking around in our jeans while all the guests are in fancy clothes. We get to go behind the scenes and collect food from the back rooms. It's kind of surreal."
There were about 50 kilograms of food to rescue that night at Sbarro.
Not the largest collection Table to Table makes, but Nagar estimates "still worthwhile," as the food could provide about 20 meals.
Sbarro's night shift manager, Noam, asked an employee to load the pasta and sauces into the containers that Table to Table had supplied. Nagar was also getting into the swing of things, loading pizza and salads that the staff would otherwise have been thrown away.
On some nights, Sbarro staffers find themselves giving food away anyway after 9:30 p.m., when the restaurant closes, to hungry people who come asking for food. "We give away a little bit of pizza at night," says Noam.
That Sunday night, however, no-one had come by, meaning Table to Table would get all the extras. With about a dozen ten-liter containers loaded onto a trolley, Nagar wheeled the food outside to the car.
Back at Gagon, a resident quickly volunteered to help transfer the food into the shelter's kitchen, where half-a-dozen crates of dry doughnuts also awaited consumption. The small smile on his face meant as much as a 'thank you.'
Finding places to park the volunteers' cars is one of Nagar's pet peeves. The parking fees add up for an organization that runs a tight budget and hires only key people to coordinate food collection and donor relations. She recounts her experience collecting food at the Azrieli Center: "We have permission from the center's owners to collect food - and we do collect a great deal of food from there - but the problem is that every time we enter the mall we have to pay for parking."
Food rescue from restaurants, factory cafeterias, wedding halls and high-tech companies is but one of Table to Table's activities. It also runs a volunteer program, Project Leket, that enlists volunteers to help pick unwanted ripe fruit from farmers' fields. Thousands of Israelis from schools, army units, youth movements and tourist groups ("Off the plane and onto the fields - they love it!" says Nagar) have picked hundreds of tons of fruit over the years that would have otherwise rotted in the fields. Working with over 15 farmers and packing houses, Table to Table typically collects over 10 tons of fruit and vegetables per week.
The organization also runs a sandwich program where volunteers are given supplies to make and distribute sandwiches to hungry schoolchildren. Nagar says that they produce 1,300 donor-subsidized sandwiches per day. "We look for low-cost suppliers, and use the fruit and vegetables picked by Leket volunteers in the lunches," she says, adding that she has received amazing feedback from teachers.
"Children who before hadn't been eating during the school day, are calmer and better able to concentrate on their learning," she says. "Hopefully these kids can find their way out of the cycle of poverty through education."
At the end of her busy work day, it is the fond memories of making people happy and doing good for society that keep Nagar going on late-night runs.
For information on how to volunteer, see www.tabletotable.org.il