Nearly 24,000 people eat in soup kitchens and 22,500 families rely on others to feed them on a daily basis, while close to one-third of the population cannot afford to buy essential food items, according to a report published Monday by the Welfare and Social Services Ministry. The 36-page report, which as well as presenting some alarming statistics also included recommendations on how the government could take responsibility for feeding the country's poorest populations, noted that more than 450,000 people receive food aid annually from roughly 500 non-profit organizations countrywide. "This is the first time that the State of Israel has conducted such an intense study into the growing phenomenon of nutritional insecurity here," Welfare and Social Services Minister Isaac Herzog told a press conference convened to release the report. The report was prepared by the ministry's director-general Nahum Itzkovitz and a team of professionals and academics with input from those who work in the field of food distribution and aid. "Israel should be committed to protecting its unique character as a welfare state, especially with such a big increase in nutritional insecurity and food distribution that has taken place in recent years," he said. Itzkovitz, who was commissioned by the minister to research the problem last July, said that despite growth in Israel's economy on a macro level, there was still a disproportionately high level of poverty and increasing inequality between certain segments of the population. He concluded that the government needed to become more involved in supporting the non-profit sector in providing food aid and finding additional avenues to help individuals become self-sufficient. Among the suggestions made by Itzkovitz were plans to streamline the non-profit sector, which currently provides the main bulk of food aid; increase the government budget from NIS 30 million to NIS 50m. to provide additional support for NGOs; establish a public committee on food insecurity and distribution, which will also coordinate government and NGO activities; push to reopen discussions on increasing certain social benefits cut in recent years; and ensure that poverty data is regularly collected. Eran Weintraub, general manager of humanitarian aid organization Latet, welcomed the Welfare and Social Services Ministry report and recommendations, calling it "the first time a government has recognized in a public forum" the country's poverty problem. However, he did point out that the limited budget was only "a drop in the ocean." "This Pessah we will have to distribute NIS 25 million worth of food to more than 200,000 needy families and all we get from the government is NIS 3m.," said Weintraub. "What will happen when that is all used up?" Just over a year ago, Latet filed a legal petition calling on the government to take responsibility for Israel's weakest and neediest populations. Weintraub has repeatedly said that Israel's third sector could not manage the growing poverty problems without support from the state. According to the US definition, "nutritional insecurity" is considered "a lack of continuous access to sufficient quantities of appropriate food that can ensure a healthy, active life and normal development." The most recent study on food insecurity in Israel, the data of which were included in Itzkovitz's report, was conducted in 2003 by the Brookdale Institute and found that 22% of the population had a problem feeding itself and its families. These figures are significantly higher than those of the US and Canada, noted the study.