“Nutrition security,” says Dr. Dorit Adler, “exists when everyone can get the entire ‘basket’ of food that supplies all of the nutrition ingredients for a healthy life so that people can utilize their potential to the fullest.” Dr. Adler, who serves as president of the Israeli Forum for Sustainable Nutrition and is head dietitian of the Israeli Council for Nutrition Security, is deeply involved in nutrition, public health, nutrition security, and health promotion and its relation to social issues.
Dr. Adler cites an alarming statistic provided by Israel’s Ministry of Health, which states that 10,000 Israelis die each year from obesity and diseases related to nutrition. “Most diseases today,” she explains, “are the result of malnutrition – not only because people don’t get enough energy, but because much of the food that we eat in Israel is ultra-processed food which is harmful, and contributes to non-communicable diseases, like obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and even Alzheimer’s disease.” Dr. Adler explains that sugary beverages, salty snacks, and bakery products that combine white flour with salt, sugar, and margarine are examples of ultra-processed foods that should be avoided. “We need to eat real foods that protect us,” she declares. She suggests that people should adopt a healthy and sustainable diet, such as the Mediterranean diet, which is based on plant-based foods, with a small number of foods of animal origin.
While Israel grows most of its fruits and vegetables and can support a healthy, basic food basket, says Dr. Adler, recent studies have shown that many people in lower socio-economic brackets in Israel cannot afford to pay for items in the basic food basket. “If you don’t eat enough vegetables and fruits, then your risk of disease grows dramatically.” Poor food nutrition, she adds, will have significant implications for the Israeli health system and the next generation. “We know that women who are pregnant and suffer from malnutrition or obesity have a greater risk of having children who will develop obesity, heart disease, and other ailments. We are now feeding the diseases of the next generation.”
Dr. Adler notes that it is vital not to provide sugary beverages, snacks, and other harmful foods to sectors of the population whose nutritional needs are not being met. “It is crucial not to give harmful food to poor people,” she says. “Whoever wants to help should give only healthy food.”
Ilanit Hafuta, head of the Meir Panim Branch in Or Akiva, adheres to Dr. Adler’s dictum. Hafuta cooks and prepares healthy meals in conjunction with a nutritionist for her clients daily. “It is important, especially now when many people aren’t working, and older people, Holocaust Survivors, and children don’t have the ability to go out to help themselves, to provide the healthiest meals possible.” Hafuta prepares fish, chicken, or meatballs, along with an ample supply of vegetables, including peas, beans, potatoes, and carrots, and fruits. She notes that the assistance that Meir Panim provides not only nourishes the body but the soul as well. Hafuta mentions the case of a woman whose grandson is disabled and was unable to leave his home. A volunteer from Meir Panim comes each day to take the child outside. “Children with special needs,” she says, can be difficult when they are in the house all day, and the parents don’t know what to do.” Hafuta adds that volunteers come to visit childless older adults, water their plants and flowers, and take their pets outside.
Yehudit Elimelech, head of the Tiberias Branch of Meir Panim, also prepares food each day for those who come to the soup kitchen and offers a similar menu of filling, tasty, and healthy selections. As with Ilana, her assistance goes beyond serving nutritious meals. Yehudit tells of a family of six, that was unable to pay their bills. One of their daughters suffers from Crohn’s disease and was unaware that Bituach Leumi (The National Insurance Institute) provides financial assistance to those with the disease. Meir Panim put her in touch with staff at Bituach Leumi, which arranged payments to the family. Another child in the family needed a computer for long-distance learning due to school cancellations during Corona. Again, Meir Panim arranged for a computer to be donated to the family.
Tiberias, located on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, is normally a tourist attraction for both Jewish and non-Jews. The cessation of international tourism to the city has been felt economically by its residents. Yehudit mentions a Tiberias resident who made his living piloting his boat on the Galilee for visitors. Due to the current economic slowdown, he, too, is now a frequent visitor to Meir Panim, where he receives food and assistance.
Whether it is preparing healthy food for clients or helping those in need in myriad different ways, the staff of Meir Panim is always available. “Whatever we can do for them,” says Yehudit Elimelech, “We do. It’s not just about food.”