Poverty and food insecurity in Israel

Gov't statistics say an estimated one-quarter of all Israeli citizens, including 837,000 children, live in poverty.

Poverty 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Poverty 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
There is a family in Jerusalem with four children. The wife is a secretary, the father, who suffers from depression, cleans houses when he is feeling well. Their combined income is about $2,000 per month, twice the minimum wage. After rent, utilities and school fees, the family is left with only $250 for food and all other expenses. They are already deeply in debt.
“These people are simply not making it,” Chaya Devora Leibowitz, project director for Ezrat Avot, an organization that helps poor families in Jerusalem, tells The Media Line. “There is a large proportion of society here who are working and don’t have enough money for food. They are minimum wage earners or part-time earners, or people who are partially disabled.”
Ezrat Avot provides weekly food packages to 250 families like this one. On the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashana and Passover, the list swells to 2,500 families. The weekly packages contain canned and dry goods – flour, oil, sugar, cereal and canned vegetables. The holiday packages include chicken and wine. Leibowitz says her organization’s help is not nearly enough – many families get help from several different organizations.
Israeli government statistics say that an estimated one-quarter of all Israeli citizens, including 837,000 children, are living in poverty. Half of these poor families have no wage earner. The JDC Brookdale Institute finds that the rate of poverty among families in Israel is the second highest of the OECD countries, and almost twice the OECD average.
In Israel, there is a large amount of “food insecurity” rather than outright hunger. Rates are higher among the ultra-Orthodox, where only 45 percent of the men work, and Arab citizens of Israel, where only 28 percent of women work.
“Food insecurity is a spectrum that describes how available and accessible healthy food is that can be obtained every day in a socially acceptable and predictable way,” Ken Hecht, a consultant for Mazon, a food distribution project based in Los Angeles told The Media Line. “In Israel, half of all cases are people who are worried about getting enough food, and half are situations of people missing meals they may need to grow.”
Hecht is in Israel researching food security for Mazon, which donates some $4 million a year in both the United States and Israel. In the US, he says, most food aid is given out by the government. The program that used to be called food stamps and is now called SNAP feeds 42 million people each day. Recipients are given pre-loaded cards that can be used to pay at supermarkets. In Israel, the government does give money through the National Insurance Institute but most aid is distributed by NGO’s.
There are an estimated 400 NGO’s dealing with food assistance. They have tried to coordinate efforts through Leket Israel, the country’s largest food bank and food rescue organization. One of the ironies in Israel is that despite the poverty, tons of agricultural produce rots in the field. Leket has amassed tens of thousands of volunteers to go out to the fields to gather 13 million pounds of produce each year.  Leket in Hebrew means gleaning, and the Bible tells farmers that whatever falls to the ground as they are harvesting their fields should be left for the poor.
Leket Israel also supplies 7,000 sandwiches per day, made by volunteers and given to needy schoolchildren in 25 cities. They also collect left-over food from celebrations such as weddings and redistribute it to nearly 300 partner NGO’s.
The need continues to grow. Mazon, in Los Angeles, hopes to increase their donations to Israel this year, and sent Ken Hecht and his wife Christina to visit some of the agencies where aid is given.
“We visited an agency in Jaffa that runs an orphanage and an after-school program that also has a hot lunch,” Christina told The Media Line. “I am struck by the wonderful people who are doing this work and their commitment.”
Ezrat Avot, which also runs a day center where seniors get a daily free hot meal, has a waiting list for families who need food packages.
“People don’t like to have to ask for food – nobody wants to be a beggar,” she said. “In the Bible being poor is compared to being dead. But I also see a tremendous amount of loving kindness. Some of our volunteers are very wealthy and could spend all day getting their nails done, and instead they come to help out others.”
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