Herzog aims to help poor as food prices rocket

Latet says it will have to stop handing out rice to needy; expert urges Israel to grow more wheat.

rice grains 88 (photo credit: )
rice grains 88
(photo credit: )
As prices of basic foodstuffs rise drastically worldwide, Israel is starting to feel the ripples of what is being called a "quiet tsunami," and government officials said Sunday that urgent help is needed for Israel's poor. Pnina Ben-Ami, senior adviser to Welfare and Social Services Minister Isaac Herzog, told The Jerusalem Post that with the price of rice and other staple foods soaring this week, compounding recent hikes in electricity and gasoline, the minister is to lead an initiative to raise National Insurance Institute allowances for the poor more often - twice rather than the current once-a-year update - to stop them from eroding. "The erosion of allowances makes it very hard for needy people to cope in their day-to-day lives," Ben-Ami said. As a consequence of the global rice crisis the cost of rice hiked in some retail networks on Sunday, and is set to rocket nationwide in the coming days by 50 to 80 percent, David Franklin, CEO of Sugat, the biggest importer of rice to Israel, told the Post. Bread, whose price is overseen by the government, was hiked earlier this month for the second time in a few months, and sugar, oil, flour and coffee are expected to cost more in the coming days. "There are crazy rises all over the world, and nothing we can do will stop it," Tzvia Dori, who is in charge of internal trade and price supervision in the Industry, Trade, and Labor Ministry told the Post. "Only direct assistance to the poor people in Israel can help," she said, rejecting the idea that other commodities in addition to bread be put under governmental supervision. Franklin also saw no way the government could avert the price crisis. "It's difficult to see how the government of a small country like Israel can avoid this problem," he said. Sugat imports most of its rice from Thailand, India and other Southeast Asian countries, and it is the "uncertainty in these places that makes life very difficult," Franklin said. Key factors in sending food prices soaring across the globe are the world's swelling population, growing demand from developing countries like China, increased cultivation of crops for biofuels and natural disasters such as floods and droughts. Israel is not likely to see the kind of fiery riots witnessed in parts of Africa, and retail food networks say the crisis will probably not hurt Israel as badly as many developing countries, but the state's needy will certainly be affected. Eran Weintraub, director of Latet, the largest charitable foundation in Israel supplying food to the poor, warned of crippling consequences for his organization and those who need its help. "Latet will have to stop buying and distributing rice very soon [because of the rising cost], and will in general buy smaller amounts of food," he told the Post. "The poor will get less from us, and will be forced to buy less in the stores, so they are being hit from all directions. People who, until now, barely kept their heads above water will now also become truly poor." The soaring costs also highlight the growing rift between the haves and have-nots. "What do the big-time CEOs care, what do the big businessmen care?" asked Elhanan, 48, who volunteers once a week in a group that hands out food to the poor. "But some families can afford only bread and milk - they are the ones who will really suffer," he said, speaking as he bought rice in a Jerusalem supermarket. Franklin stressed that the crisis was not only one of price. "Another major concern is being able to get hold of quality rice. Our problem is to continue the supply of quality rice, and we're putting a great effort into maintaining the quality, at a time when many countries, such as India, have restricted exports." Where bread is concerned, by contrast, Israel could do a great deal itself to alleviate the problem, said Hebrew University Agriculture Faculty economics Prof. Yakir Plessner, a former deputy to the governor of the Bank of Israel. "Almost all of our wheat is imported, and we should grow more of it here, because now, economically, it's worth it," he said, noting that wheat can easily be cultivated without much water. "It's certainly possible," he said. Where should this take place? According to Plessner, the southern coastal plain, as far south as Ashkelon, is appropriate, enjoying enough rain to make for good crops.