From table to table

Joseph Gitler’s special bank means better food for many with limited resources.

Joseph Gitler (photo credit: Courtesy)
Joseph Gitler
(photo credit: Courtesy)
How did you come up with the idea for a food bank?
Well, there are two sides to the story. There was increased reporting in late 2002 with regard to poverty; the National Insurance came out with a poverty report.
The numbers were just shocking. People reacted in many different ways, and my personal reaction was: How can that be with the wealth that I was also seeing? How could it be people were working and still poor? The discussion on the working poor, sort of a new phenomenon.
When Israel was poor, even with a small salary they could still afford to live, and today it seems that in almost all Western countries a certain percentage cannot afford to live, despite being fully in the workforce. There was a general knowledge in my gut; everyone knows that society wastes an astounding amount.
There was very little action in the niche of utilizing food to feed the poor.
I wouldn’t say there was no action, but it was surprisingly minimal. After 10 years of doing this, I understand why. It is very complicated logistically, hygienically. But when done right, it can be rewarding.
What was your first step?
My first step was learning, and that meant, at the time, a trip to Canada to learn from a sister program, Second Harvest, to see how and where. They welcomed me with open arms. Within the charity world I found lots of positive openness to share information. It is not like the business world. They are happy to share information, except for their donor lists! Naturally. We have had wonderful experiences with like-minded charities around the world. We are in touch with dozens of food banks and food organizations throughout the world and members of the global food bank network. An official agency maintaining food banks throughout the world.
Then I came back to Israel and decided that the simplest partners for food collection would be catering companies, so I started to call local area event caterers in the Sharon region. Their response was outstanding. I started initially to collect food by myself and within a few weeks I had a number of volunteers.
At the first place I went to, I saw the potential, the quantity and quality of the food, but it didn’t sink in that it could be really big until a large scale wedding at the convention center in Tel Aviv. I remember that we had one of those old Volvo station wagons; a friend came and it was so full that one of us had to take a taxi back.
That was when I saw that, oh my gosh, we are on to something. The caterers were so appreciative that they weren’t wasting food, it was a win-win situation. The was almost no negative reaction. The only negative was: I can’t believe there’s so much poverty and so much waste.
Six months in we were doing food collection day and night, and started collecting from corporate cafeterias and soon it was time for the first refrigerated delivery vehicle and for the first driver – who is still with us today, managing a large piece of our activity.
Do you just collect food or also funds?
Leket has thousands of donors throughout Israel and abroad. The main source of donations is the US, then Israel and then, depending on the year, Canada, UK, Switzerland, Australia. In the beginning it was friends and family, but then there were two foundations, the Prat Foundation and Nash Foundation, that got involved early on. Once we had not just their funds, but their seal of approval too, it made the fund-raising possible because people are recognizing me. Among philanthropists who have done their due diligence, it just opens a lot of doors. But we continue to work extremely hard raising funds.
We have 100 employees and a budget of over NIS 230 million, but, of course, what matters is what we do with those funds.
We feed over 140,000 Israelis every week and collect over NIS 100m. worth of food.
One of the reasons people support us is the leverage on their dollar. For $1 we can produce $4 or $5 worth of food.
Do you provide food directly to individuals or just to institutions?
Leket’s customers are solely institutions. We work with nearly 200 agencies throughout the country from Eilat to Metulla and they vary in size, scope and ethnicity. We work with many different types of agencies and segments of the population. We are nondenominational.
Everybody affiliated with Leket feels that it is very important to work with all sectors.
We feel very strongly that there are so many outstanding agencies in Israel helping the poor, and they need help: battered woman, homeless, Holocaust survivors...
It behooves us to support them, there is no need to go directly.
What would you say is the ripple effect of your activities?
The ripple effect, which starts in Israel, is first of all that nutritionally insecure people are now getting healthful foods; high quality healthful excess food is entering the system. The type of food is generally not what they agencies would be buying.
This is very important for development in children and stability in adults: keeping them properly fed and having the right foods. Another ripple is that the agencies we work with are small and struggling, and suddenly a large drain on their key budget disappears. This means that they can use these funds elsewhere, such as for afternoon schools for children, tutoring, computers. More of what they need becomes accessible. It also gives them time to do their job.
What is Leket’s largest project?
The success of Leket, especially the work we do with farmers, is something that has been picked up by similar agencies throughout the world. Our largest project is helping farmers with excess crops.
All that agriculture is then distributed through a network of agencies. In 2013, we distributed 25 million kilograms. We just finished a study that shows that there are 50,000 tons of agriculture excess accessible to Leket yearly.
We are only currently getting 20% to 25%, so we are looking for volunteers and we call to the general public to help us achieve more. We are looking for volunteers from both Israel and overseas – wonderful volunteering opportunities: making sandwiches, collecting from the fields, making food at night, working in the warehouse....
Anyone who wants to volunteer can send us an email at [email protected]
When did the first seeds of this idea germinate?
Well, everyone in my generation grew up with parents who said “there are kids starving in Africa,” and that sticks. I don’t have to say that to my kids, they see that, but for us growing up in luxury, we were made aware that there were starving kids in Ethiopia, for instance. The poverty here in Israel is a Western-style poverty. It is more about getting people with limited resources better food. No one is starving to death here; some are hungry sometimes, and we want to increase amount of good healthful food available to all.