At least 17% of Israeli families cannot afford the amount of food or the type of food that they need during this fourth wave of the COVID-19 crisis, according to a recent survey by the Social Policy Institute at Washington University (WU), a reality which is negatively impacting the physical and mental health of the nation’s children.
The survey, led by SPI Director Prof. Michal Grinstein-Weiss, was based on an online questionnaire taken between August 18 and 22 and shared with The Jerusalem Post this month. It defined families as suffering from food insecurity based on the accepted index of the US Department of Agriculture.
The survey showed that at the height of the coronavirus, the phenomenon of food insecurity was more acute – reaching about a quarter of Israeli families, including about a third of single-parent ones. With the opening of the economy in recent months, that percentage has declined, but still remains high.
Food insecurity has declined with each successive coronavirus wave, however. The Washington University team did four previous surveys on food security during previous waves, as well as when COVID was on the decline and the country started to open up. In the first wave (June 2020), some 23% of respondents said they experienced food insecurity, 22% in the second wave (September 2020), 18% in the third wave (January 2021) and 13% in June.
In general, families with children were hit hardest during this Delta wave – 17% of families with children said they were experiencing food insecurity. In addition, Arab-Israeli families have suffered most throughout the crisis, with 43% of them saying they experienced food insecurity in wave one, 41% in wave two, 37% in wave three, 32% in June and 36% in this current wave.
The WU team found an expected but strong link between food insecurity and behavior in children, Weiss told the Post. This included outbursts of anger, expressions of violence and more.
Specifically, 68% of food-insecure parents said their children suffered from rage and outbursts compared to 57% of parents who had food security, while 48% of food-insecure parents said their children had experienced bouts of violence, compared to 31% of food-secure children.
Also, 62% of food-insecure kids were found to exercise excessive use of electronic devices (compared to 50%), to suffer from eating disorders (48% versus 19%), and from sleeping disorders (64% versus 40%).
Children from food-insecure families were found to have physical health challenges (11% versus 3% of food-secure children), mental health challenges (15% versus 6%) and socialization issues (20% versus 13%).
A SURVEY by Prof. Aron Troen of the Hebrew University Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Environment corroborates the Washington University finding. He added that there were about 450,000 children in Israel who participated in the school feeding program even before COVID-19, mostly from families with low-socioeconomic status, and most of those children were at considerable risk from food insecurity. During the crisis, between a third and a half of “feed days” were lost, likely leaving these children hungry.
But during COVID, a further issue was revealed, he said. Not only were families living in the periphery or “margins of society” faced with food insecurity, but so were the middle class. Many of these people had been living one step away from having trouble putting food on the table, Troen said, and the coronavirus crisis pushed them over the edge.
“There were those who found themselves in trouble who did not have trouble before,” he explained.
He said that internationally, food banks in some countries spoke of as much as a 300% increase in demand. In Israel, that percentage was closer to 70%.
According to the Washington University survey, the number one reason for food insecurity – mentioned by more than half of the respondents – was that families did not have enough money to buy food. The second highest reason was that families did not have enough time to cook (more than 40%), perhaps because they were working extra to make ends meet, Grinstein-Weiss suggested.
The government was not well-enough prepared to deal with these families, according to Grinstein-Weiss. Only about a third have received welfare support, she found, though Troen said that his surveys have shown that this percentage is even lower – closer to 20%. The rest got support from family, friends or non-profit organizations – or not at all.
“There seems to be a lack of data and studies,” she said, both to understand who these families are and how serious this situation really is.
TROEN HAS been researching and reporting on the situation as part of his work for a number of years. He told the Post that the current national food insecurity plan feeds around 10,800 families at a cost of around NIS 20 million per year and the rest are taken care of by non-profit organizations, such as the International Fellowship of Christian and Jews, who step up to fill the void.
The new government promised it would take responsibility for food security and increase the budget for such programs substantially to as much as NIS 118 million, he said. However, the budget that passed in its first reading earmarked only NIS 46m. for two years, meaning about NIS 23m. per year – which is only a NIS 3m. annual increase from the 20m. per year it was before, and NIS 72m. less than what was promised.
The country also provides approximately NIS 30 million per year for food baskets around the holidays.
“Food security is something that the government is required to provide to all of its citizens,” Troen said.
While he praised the nonprofits for the work that they do, he said that their work should “not be letting the government off the hook. This is a matter of national resilience and security. It is the government’s job to make sure citizens have a healthy, sustainable and affordable food system, which at present we don’t.”
He added that the failing food system has a ripple effect, costing the country between NIS 6 billion and NIS 20 b. in health expenditures to treat people who don’t eat well.
International studies have shown a substantial increase (up to 50%) in chronic illnesses, as well as increased likelihood for developing diabetes and anemia, among people who eat unhealthy diets.
The biggest consequences are for the children, Troen said, who don’t develop to their full potential.
“It is one of the factors that traps them back in poverty,” he said.