The significance of food security

An interview with Professor Aron Troen

  (photo credit: Louis Weyl)
(photo credit: Louis Weyl)

In Israel, the word ‘security’ is used frequently in daily conversation. National security, the security of Israel’s citizens, and the need for secure borders are constantly mentioned. Yet the word ‘security’ has another usage which is no less important, but which is discussed far less often – food security. What is food security, and why is it so significant for Israel in 2021?

“Food security,” says Professor Aron Troen, Director of the Nutrition and Brain Health Laboratory at the Hebrew University’s Robert H. Smith Faculty of Agriculture, Food, and Environment, “exists when all people at all times have physical, social, and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food which meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” The absence of these conditions – when people do not have access to sufficient quantities of safe and nutritious food, is known as food insecurity.

Meir Panim, which supplies food packages to the needy, offers free dining at its six locations in Israel, and delivers nutritious meals to students from disadvantaged families, has long been combating the difficulties caused by food insecurity in Israel. In 2020 alone, the organization served more than one million hot meals at its Restaurant-Style Soup Kitchens, more than 34,000 meals for children, and distributed almost 6,500 food baskets.

Before the corona pandemic, it was estimated that close to 20% of the Israeli population suffered from food insecurity. According to statistics from LATET, an organization which combats poverty and food insecurity in Israel, the number increased to 22.6% of the population in 2020. The unemployment and financial crisis unleashed by the pandemic, says Professor Troen, has created conditions of food insecurity for people who had never before experienced these circumstances. “They don’t know how to work the system and the resources that are available,” he says. “They are ashamed to ask for help and are stuck.” He explains that people who are in situations of food insecurity purchase greater quantities of cheaper foods that are of lesser nutritional quality and buy fewer fruits and vegetables, dairy products, and smaller amounts of meat. “If you look at the income that required to purchase a healthy food basket, based on the Ministry of Health recommendations,” says Professor Troen, “the cost of a healthy food basket for a family in the lowest twenty percent of income would cost 65% of their income, meaning that two-thirds of their income would be spent on food, which doesn’t leave a whole lot left over.” 

Professor Troen says that food insecurity can be harmful to overall health. “There is ample evidence that a healthful diet is preventive against Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Studies show better cognitive outcomes with a more rigorous diet. One could infer that there is an inequity that places people who can’t afford food at greater risk for health, for dementia,certainly, and for depression, partly as a matter of their inability to provide adequate and healthy food. If you look at the food insecure population, they have two to three times the rate of chronic nutrition-related preventable disease.” In addition, he points out that the isolation caused by the pandemic has led to increases in depression, anxiety disorders, and eating disorders. Meir Panim’s restaurants encourage diners to socialize with one another, thus enabling greater interaction with others.

Providing healthy food to those in need not only provides immediate assistance and improves nutrition but, according to a recent study, actually encourages recipients to purchase more nutritious food on their own. “We did a study with Leket Israel, the National Food Bank,” explains Professor Troen. “We looked at the quality of food baskets, and we correlated with the self-reported dietary habits of recipients. We see that when you provide a healthier basket, even though you are not able to provide sufficiently for the nutritional needs of that family, the family reports better diets – which means that they are purchasing more fruits and vegetables with the resources that they have saved.” In other words, when organizations such as Meir Panim donate healthy food to the needy, the recipients are motivated to purchase more nutritious items from their own food budgets as well. 

Meir Panim does its utmost to serve its guests healthy, nutritious meals and provide basic food staples in its food baskets. Meals include a fresh salad, fresh fruit, a meat protein, a vegetable, and a carbohydrate. Pantry food baskets contain basic ingredients such as bread, oil, flour, jams, canned goods and tuna, pastas/rice/couscous, and shelf-stable items that can be prepared in a myriad of ways. When the pandemic broke out, Meir Panim stopped receiving leftovers from hotels and events, and volunteers began preparing meals from scratch. The organization invited a group of students studying nutrition to make recommendations to help prepare healthy foods. Meir Panim has utilized their guidance at all branches where food is cooked on-site.  

The challenges of food security have beset a significant percentage of Israel’s population. Solving this problem – especially as the world emerges from the pandemic – is one of Israel’s major challenges. Meir Panim is up to the task.

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