Jerusalem food rescuers: Salvaging food for those in need

Jerusalem volunteer organization ‘salvages’ several tons of sustenance for residents in need.

'THERE IS such a big supply of food and so many hungry people; the problem is in the distribution and in the method of getting it out there.’ (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
'THERE IS such a big supply of food and so many hungry people; the problem is in the distribution and in the method of getting it out there.’
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The coronavirus and ensuing restrictions have caused great economic harm to many, but perhaps the harm has been greatest to those who were already struggling to make ends meet and put food on the table.
The grassroots organization “JLM Food Rescuers” initiated a project two years ago to raise awareness about food waste – through workshops, lectures, community meals and gatherings, in hopes of creating a community and movement for those who desire a more just and less wasteful food system. In the past year, they began to “rescue” food that would otherwise be thrown out from the commercial food market in Givat Shaul, creating pop-up “pay what you can” stands in public spaces on a weekly basis.
In the face of the coronavirus, which has brought Israel from its lowest rate of unemployment to its highest in just a few months, the rescuers have been working to increase their volunteer base, which now meets twice a week to collect three to four tons of food each day and bring it the food insecure. Pairing up with grassroots organizations and initiatives that grew out of the coronavirus crisis, more than 2,500 food baskets have been distributed in 20 neighborhoods throughout Jerusalem, including Arab and haredi neighborhoods. 
“Through a network of partnerships, we facilitate the sustainable redistribution of healthy food that would otherwise be wasted from the commercial market to low-income communities,” said Jerusalem resident and JLM Food Rescuers founder Daniella Seltzer.
Seltzer, 28, has worked in the issue of food justice for several years in Israel, Canada and Namibia. When she moved back to Jerusalem, where she has spent more than half of her life, she began to collect produce at the Mahaneh Yehuda market that the vendors would not sell to customers, mostly because they didn’t look perfect -- misshapen bananas, a box of several tomatoes with one moldy one, or slightly discolored parsley, for example.
“This food could be brought to people, eaten by animals or turned into energy,” Seltzer said. “As consumers, we see food as a product and value it in a certain way, assuming it should look a certain way, and this is part of a larger financial system that allows food waste to happen because it allows more profit for the power holders,” she maintained.
“Our work envisions a Jerusalem in which everyone has equitable access to healthy food,” she said. “We are moving beyond tzdakah – not just giving people food – and trying to create a non-hierarchical, community based model to repair the food system and our relationship to it.”
Because of Jerusalem’s “strong and wide civil society,” Seltzer explained, the rescuers are able to work with community organizers, food security initiatives, neighborhood councils, and others to facilitate their own food redistribution and create decentralized systems to bypass barriers to food access.
Jerusalem, as Israel’s largest city by population as well as one of its poorest, is distinctive in its diversity, a fact that is acknowledged by the municipality, which hires community managers to act as the liaison going between the municipality and the residents who have varying cultures and require their own sensitivities.
KAREN PICHEL, 58, met Seltzer in the shuk and since, they have been working together to distribute the food. Pichel, who lives in Har Nof and is originally from Boston, helps distribute the produce, mainly to haredi neighborhoods. Though always passionate about saving, recycling, decreasing food waste, and volunteering at soup kitchens both in the United States and Israel, she noted that she was shocked when visiting a “hesed organization” and seeing “piles and piles and piles of thousands of kilos of produce that is thrown away.”
“At every hour of every day, there is produce being thrown out here and it’s a travesty,” said Pichel. “There is so great a supply of food and so many hungry people. The problem is in the distribution and in the method of getting it out there. We are trying to take the good from the waste and take it to the people who need it.”
Another Jerusalemite volunteer, Shulamit Gafni, 24, emphasized, “During this time of COVID-19 many people have lost their jobs and can’t feed themselves or their families. Meanwhile there are tons of good food going in the garbage. To rescue this food and bring it to people who need it the most is a justice, because food is a right, not a privilege. This is our goal – to bring the food to the people who need it the most.”
Expanding access to healthy food, Seltzer added, is beneficial to the entire city and its residents.
“There is an interconnectedness that is translated to us being affected by others’ well-being and vice versa. Just like a body or an ecological system, every part affects the other part. It’s like when people live in the same house – when one person is not doing well, it will affect the other members of the home.”
Ultimately, Seltzer maintained that this period has offered a “wonderful opportunity to reassess the food ecosystem in the city and the mechanisms that create resilient communities, and create more sustainable networks.”
Anyone can help, whether volunteering in Israel or supporting the work from abroad. The opportunities in this field are plentiful, said Seltzer, who mentioned that they hope to enter into discussions with Jerusalem’s municipality, community centers, and businesses such as the shuk’s trash removal company, whose costs they will be able to reduce. “There is so much to be done, and the impact is immense,” she added.
Ultimately, food “touches everyone,” concluded Seltzer. “It is a basic necessity that binds us together and looking at the way we are impacted by food system gives us hope in working with different subgroups of Jerusalem, including asylum seekers, haredim and Arabs – it touches all of us.”