From farm to families in need

Leket Israel collects surplus from restaurants, caterers, hotels and farms to distribute to the needy.

Boy carries produce 370 (photo credit: Laura Kelly)
Boy carries produce 370
(photo credit: Laura Kelly)
There are more than 450,000 families in Israel living below the poverty line, and, unfortunately, that number is only growing. Ahead of Passover this year, many Israeli charities are reporting 20 percent more requests for food assistance for the holiday from poor families compared to last year. A National Insurance Institute survey found that 19% of all Israeli families experience some sort of food insecurity throughout the year.
But Leket Israel, the national food bank and distribution center of Israel, is working to counter both food insecurity and the staggering amount of food waste in Western society.
A few weeks before Passover, on a small farm 45 minutes south of Tel Aviv, a diverse collection of volunteers are sweating from the labor of grappling in the fields of a grapefruit farm, one of Leket’s many harvest sites.
The Goldberg family from Woodmere, New York, celebrating the bar mitzva of their twin boys, and an Israeli school group of 15-yearolds, stand near four massive crates filled with more than 2,000 pounds of pink grapefruit.
The grapefruits are fresh and a quick taste test confirms their juicy and ripe interior. But this fresh citrus is not going to the store to be sold, it’s being distributed to families in need all throughout Israel.
Leket, which began operations in 2003, is named for the biblical precept of leaving behind parts of your field during harvest time for the poor.
“When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings (leket) of your harvest” (Leviticus 19:9).
Leket Israel founder Joseph Gitler, originally from New Jersey, wanted to take a logistical approach to finding a solution for food waste and redistribute it to the needy; identifying perfectly good food that for many reasons would unfortunately be thrown away.
“We exist because of mistakes, inconsistencies in the marketplace, sell-by dates and because of consumer expectations,” Gitler said.
According to its annual report, in 2012 Leket Israel was able to distribute 215 metric tons of food each week to an estimated 140,000 of Israel’s poor. Leket Israel works over many arenas to identify food waste and works tirelessly with volunteers to rescue and redistribute to Israel’s needy.
“We had a call from a caterer [that a] customer had over ordered for an event,” Gitler said. “They were left with 3,000 meals that they had nothing to do with. If we didn’t exist it would have gone straight into the garbage.”
In addition to working closely with restaurants, caterers, hotels, food malls and others, an additional initiative, “Project Leket,” began in order to collect fruits and vegetables from fields that would otherwise be thrown away.
Winter in Israel is the season for citrus, but the price of grapefruits has dropped considerably. For a small farmer with a large crop of grapefruit trees, the cost and logistics of selling would be more expensive than throwing the grapefruit away.
“Today in the modern age, farmers have huge amounts that are left over in the field,” Amir Ahituv, the volunteer coordinator said. “They may not be the right size, color or something slightly got hurt by weather.”
“The simplest solution for the farmer today,” Ahituv continued, “is to just leave it in the field to rot away.”
TODAY, THE charity works with more than 300 farmers in Israel to collect more than 45,000 kg. of fruits and vegetables a week, Ahituv said. The project has coordinators to meet with the farmers and if the farm has a certain property that the project can collect from, they send contracted workers to collect everything.
But in addition to saving crops, Project Leket also maintains two farms solely for the purpose of distribution to charity. The farms are maintained by paid workers and a farm manager, but Leket Israel brings in volunteer groups from military units, companies, schools, families, overseas groups and anyone else that is willing to lend a hand.
But the pink grapefruits being picked a few weeks before Passover are a different story.
The grove is located on a kibbutz adjacent to one of the farms that works with Leket Israel. The entire crop of grapefruits was bought from the farmer, and Project Leket has arranged for the volunteers to come and begin collecting the fruit.
Leket arranges anywhere between four and eight groups to help pick each day.
On this day, an American family was part of the team which arrived to help harvest the field.
“We wanted to do something outside of what we normally do,” said Neil Goldberg, who is in Israel with his wife and four children celebrating the bar mitzva of his twin boys. He said that his kids found it inspirational to help people who need food and work the land.
“We get dirty a little bit,” he added.
“I think they have a fond appreciation for how it gets to the supermarket,” his wife, Leora Goldberg, added.
The family is working alongside a small Israeli high school group that also came to volunteer on the farm. The class is in good spirits and the fruit of their labor, a crate weighing close to 400 kg., is the result of their hard work.
“Today was good,” said their teacher, Or Malka. “It was fun to pick grapefruit.”
Leket Israel is now in its 10th year. In addition to Project Leket and its Meal Rescue program, the organization also runs a Sandwiches for Kids campaign, distributing sandwiches to at-risk children in 113 schools in over 35 cities in Israel. It has invested in nutritional education and training, and has begun a food safety support program to identify and help fund infrastructure for the proper handling, storage and safety of food provisions.
An important aspect of Leket is also its agency relations. In 2012 it conducted an in-depth audit of nonprofits in Israel in order to better consolidate its reach to the population, food needs and storage and food handling facilities.
AHEAD OF Passover, Leket has identified different nonprofits that that work towards creating special packages for the holiday. Pini Fefer. manager of agency relations, explained that Leket helps subsidize the food other nonprofits provide for Passover packages.
“The goal is that poor people don’t eat poor food,” Fefer said. Leket collects fresh produce to distribute to those in need and it identifies nonprofits that can make special Passover packages and gives money to supply wine, meat, oil and Seder foods.
In addition to Fefer’s duties, he and his family joined a Seder at a home for troubled youth in Tel Aviv last week.
“We support this [home] 52 weeks of the year,” Fefer said.
“Last year we gave them a voucher to buy food for the Seder, but its not enough.”
This year however, Leket supplied all of the accoutrements for a proper Seder for around 50 people, including Fefer and his family.
“We arranged with another nonprofit for a large tent in the garden to sit 50 people,” Fefer said. “Usually I sit at home with my family, parents, our good friends – but this holiday we decided to make it special. We are going to help them cook and all the best dishes we will make in my home and bring it to the Seder.”
Back on the farm in Leket’s primary duties, the volunteers are tired and sweaty. But in front of them sit four large crates with more than 900 kg. of fresh, nutritional grapefruit.
“When you explain that you’ve just helped give 1,800 kg. of fresh produce to 1,000 families in need,” Ahituv said, “that’s what really sticks with them.”