Some 700 people, some locals but mostly from peripheral cities, attended a mock Seder organized by social rights activists on March 17 to protest the food insecurity experienced by at least 22 percent of the population and which, according to the municipality, affects about half of Jerusalem’s children.

The mock Seder, in its third year, was organized by a coalition of grassroots organizations coordinated by the Center for Food Insecurity in Israel and the School of Social Work at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. The event focused on child poverty and food insecurity, placing Jerusalem at the center.

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“In the US, for example,” says Dr. Roni Kaufman, a lecturer at BGU’s School of Social Work and head of the Food Insecurity Center, “the federal government spends $60 billion per year on nutrition programs at schools, but here in Israel, the maximum budget we managed to obtain is NIS 120 million. It feeds only 150,000 children and only four days a week, so what do these kids eat the rest of the week?”


According to Kaufman, there are clear indications that malnutrition is becoming wider among children, “certainly among haredi and Arab children,” he said.

Ilan (a pseudonym) is nine years old and the oldest of five children. The only hot, nutritious meal he eats is when he arrives at his after-school center. His mother is divorced and for the past year she has been working for an elder care agency.

“It’s hard work,” says her employer, “but she is very reliable and she manages to work almost full time. If she wasn’t raising her children alone she would probably work more hours.”

The most Ilan’s mother can expect to earn is some NIS 4,000, and that meager amount is only possible through the help of her younger sister, who sometimes replaces her in the afternoon, so she can work more hours.

“I know that if it weren’t for the after-school program provided through the social welfare department at the municipality, the children probably wouldn’t get enough to eat,” concluded the employer.

“The misconception that the poor are to blame for their situation is of course untrue and cynical,” says Kaufman. “Most of them work, but never earn a decent living and cannot feed their children properly.”

“The poverty rate in Jerusalem – as in the whole country – has been very slightly static or even decreasing for the past two years,” says Dorit Biran, a high-ranking expert at the municipality’s Welfare and Community Department, who says the percentage of poor children in Jerusalem went from 58.5% in 2007 to 57.4% in 2008.

“True, but the problem is that although the number of poor people is static or even slightly lower, today poor people are even poorer,” comments Kaufman.

“There is clear evidence that nutrition at school is critical,” says Kaufman, “and I just don’t understand how it is possible that in Jerusalem, the city with the highest number of children under the poverty line, we lack a nutrition program at schools.”

Biran says that the nutrition program in the capital differs slightly from the rest of the country.

“Nutrition programs are run as part of the extended-day education program, which we do not have here, since in Jerusalem we apply afternoon enrichment programs for children at risk, which includes a hot meal anyway.”

In fact, says an official, the Jerusalem Municipality hasn’t applied for the national lunch program at schools, which is left to the discretion of the local councils and is not mandated by the Education Ministry. From the Welfare Department’s standpoint, the relatively high rate of participation among local children in the network of afternoon programs takes the place of the hot-lunch program. But some charity organizations focusing on children include in their programs nutritional meals for schoolchildren, and in many instances eventually add food baskets or hot meals for the rest of the family.

“This shows even [the afternoon program] is not enough, or perhaps doesn’t reach out to all the children who need the nutrition program,” concludes the official at city hall.

“As we already know from past years,” continues Biran, “the haredi and Arab families and children are affected most. But poverty and lack of food, or more accurately food insecurity, can be found in every community and the numbers tell a grim story: In 2008, 19.8% of families and 34.2% of children were below the poverty line, but if we look at the figures in Jerusalem separately, the picture is still difficult. Compared to 58.5% of the children of Jerusalem in 2007, 57.4% were below the poverty line in 2008 – and these figures are from before the economic crisis hit us all.”

But the worst figures in the city are among the Arab residents: 74.4% of non-Jewish (i.e. Arab) children are below the poverty line, compared to 45.1% among Jewish children.

“So the least we could do,” adds Kaufman, “was to show Israeli society, through media coverage, the situation through this annual mock Seder, serving debris, stones and dust, instead of the tasty food most of us will find on our plates.”

“YEARS AGO we had a real welfare system here,” says Kaufman, “National Insurance Institute child allotments enabled families to buy the food they needed. And moreover, this was a more dignified way to ensure people could lead a decent life – certainly better than this new reality of soup kitchens and food baskets, which deal a serious blow to needy people’s dignity. And in the first two decades or so of the state, we also had a large-scale nutrition program at schools. We all ate at school, the poor and the less poor, but since 1975 – with the privatization process and the takeover of all these new capitalist regulations – it was halted, and eventually even the National Insurance Institute allotments were slashed, and now we are seeing the disastrous results of this policy.”

According to both Kaufman and Biran, the figures for 2009 might be worse because the economic crisis and the Madoff effect have struck almost all the organizations that helped needy families with meals and food baskets.

“While haredi society has numerous charity organizations and a whole system of community support, in Arab society we do not find the same system, and this sector has a higher number of children who are born into poverty.”

One of the most frustrating issues for the hundreds of grassroots activists and parent volunteers is the fact that despite all the media coverage over the years on poverty issues, little, if anything, has changed or improved.

Kaufman’s work and studies on the reasons that led to this situation have provided him with some insights.

“We have to change our policy. It’s now time for a massive movement that will emerge from the communities affected by poverty – what’s been done until now, though important, was not enough: initiating bills in the Knesset and trying to persuade leaders didn’t bring the radical attitude change we need to fight poverty. So we’re working on this new path now. We don’t have any alternative, do we?” remarks Kaufman.

“I know, through my work in the social work department at Ben-Gurion University, that there are quite a few studies conducted by nutritionists and psychiatrists, all showing the same worrying results: children who do not eat enough are doomed to become poor and underprivileged like their parents. We cannot allow this to happen.”
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