Feeding Israel’s hungry

Ahead of the elections, Leket’s Joseph Gitler urges the new government to take ‘a bigger piece of the pie’

Leket volunteers picking vegetables (photo credit: LEKET ISRAEL)
Leket volunteers picking vegetables
(photo credit: LEKET ISRAEL)
After I recently interviewed Joseph Gitler, the founder and chairman of Leket Israel, the National Food Bank, I found myself humming the words from the Beatles’ song, “Imagine” – “You may say I’m a dreamer....” Gitler ended our interview by quipping, “I’m OK with people reading this and saying, ‘This guy’s a dreamer.’ That’s fine!” 
But in the 16 years since establishing Leket in 2003, he has realized his dream of turning the organization from a one-man band into Israel’s leading food rescue and redistribution network. Working tirelessly to alleviate hunger across Israel among all the country’s communities, Gitler and his CEO, Gidi Kroch, lead a huge task force of 50,000 volunteers and 110 staff members. 
In 2018, Leket Israel – according to its annual report – distributed some 30 million pounds of rescued food, including 2.2 million hot meals, to its 200 nonprofit agency partners, such as schools for youth at risk, senior centers, homeless shelters, soup kitchens and other social service organizations.
Gitler, 44, a graduate of Yeshiva University and Fordham University Law School, grew up in Manhattan and Teaneck, and made aliyah in 2000, moving to Ra’anana, where he lives with his wife, Leelah, and five children. He founded Leket Israel after witnessing significant food wastage in Israel at a time of rising poverty, and realizing that the country lacked a national food bank or food rescue and recovery program. Putting aside his career as an attorney, Gitler decided to dedicate himself to remedying that problem.
According to Leket Israel’s Annual Food Waste and Rescue Report, produced in cooperation with BDO Israel, Israelis threw away a staggering 2.5 million tons of food in 2018 – almost half of which could have been salvaged. Among Leket’s achievements last year was the Knesset’s passage on October 23 of the Food Donation Act, a law that significantly removes liability from anyone along the food donation supply chain.
A study by the Adva Center, a non-partisan policy analysis institute, recently disclosed that more than a quarter of all Israeli households fall into the categories of “poor” or “nearly poor.”
Asked if he thinks poverty and hunger are issues in the upcoming elections, Gitler says, “I think every party will tell you that it’s important to them, but as someone said to me, the poor don’t vote as a bloc.” 
He urges the new government to increase its funding of Leket, which is currently 5-10% of its 14 million dollar annual budget. “I think the government, whatever government is formed, should take a bigger piece of the pie,” he says.
Today, Gitler says, Leket is looking to expand its operations, which serve as a model for other countries around the world. “Our two core projects – prepared food collection and agriculture – are probably the two largest projects of this kind in the world,” he says. “We work with all sectors of Israeli society. This is not lip service. We’re not doing it to raise money. We really care.”
Leket Israel volunteers sort out produce at its logistics center. (Photo: Leket Israel)Leket Israel volunteers sort out produce at its logistics center. (Photo: Leket Israel)
Why is your organization called Leket?
Leket is a non-religious, non-sectarian organization serving all sectors of Israeli society, from day one. We were looking for a name that would connect us with our heritage, and the beauty is that it’s the heritage of all peoples in Israel. Jewish, Christian and Muslim people all have the Bible as part of their heritage. It turns out that there are three beautiful commandments in the Torah – Leket (gleanings), Shichacha (forgotten produce) and Pe’ah (corners – referring to the corners of the field) – which dealt with how farmers, the business people of ancient times, needed to take care of the poor. We felt that Leket, gleaning what was left of the wheat or what fell off the back of the wagon, was so relevant to what we are and what our mission is. Essentially we’ve modernized an ancient Biblical commandment. Whenever I meet with rabbis, I say this is a commandment that after the destruction of the Temple no longer exists technically, but morally, ethically and spiritually, it is a source of our charity, and takes it into modern times. Leket says, “Hey, you farmer/caterer/hotel/IDF, you who throw away all this perfectly good, safe and nutritious healthy food, what gives us the right?” I often say this to kids, “I don’t care who you are, who your family is, if we live as part of a greater world, none of us has a right to waste.” I’ll give you a perfect example. Recently I was in a famous restaurant here in Jerusalem, and I got there before my lunch guest, who I called and said I was hungry and I was going to start eating. So I started eating the salads, and obviously there’s an order in this restaurant to clear things away, because after a while, a waiter comes over and starts taking away the salads I’ve only half-eaten, because he thinks it’s polite. That’s what I’m fighting against. About 50% of our food waste happens in our homes. A lot of it is about attitudes toward food and the way we look at it. Leket, as an organization, estimates that 40% of our food in Israel and the West goes to waste, and we better figure out logistical solutions to get that food where it makes sense for us to do it, and where it doesn’t make sense, we might as well network with others. From day one, we made a decision to distribute that food to agencies who feed the poor, so we don’t feed the poor directly, and this makes sense on many levels.
What are you doing to rectify the poverty situation in Israel?
What we try to do is serve organizations primarily where their ultimate goal is more than feeding. I’ll give you an example. We started a project two years ago where for the first time, we started working with cooked food in 10 very specific schools where the government felt these kids were one step away from total failure, and it’s way cheaper to catch them now than later. The problem was that schools still end at 2 o’clock, and unlike my kids – who do all kinds of activities in the afternoon – these kids are at risk. One school principal called us and said, “I can keep these kids in school with a free after-school program, but I need lunch. If I give them lunch, they’ll come.” Fortunately, we said yes, and we partnered with an army base that is close to Ofakim, where the school was, and we now have 150 kids in this after-school program every day. The end result is that these kids are now staying and some of them are doing Bagrut (matriculation) and going to better army units. That’s what we’re about as an organization. We have our place in tikkun olam. Part of it is food, part of it is environmental, but at the end of the day, people want to help people. And so people support Leket for many reasons, but ultimately it is all about feeding the hungry.
Forgive the question, but where does the funding come from?
I like questions like this, because hopefully people who read this will want to support us. The funding comes from a number of sources. In the last few years, we have started to have a closer relationship with the government, and we are seeing a little more funding from the government, specifically the Welfare and Agriculture ministries, the first in cooperation with Kolel Chabad, who are partners in a lot of the work that we do. In 2019, I think the percentage of government funding will be about 5-7%. Overseas donors often ask two questions, “What is the government giving and what are Israelis giving?” I think in 2018, somewhere between 30-35% of our budget came from Israeli donors, which I think is acceptable to most people. We also get funding from donors abroad, including Evangelicals, who are American and Canadian, British and Swiss, Australian and South African, and others. This is what I do, we have a fundraising team and we have become a big organization.
What do you mean by ‘big’?
We have 110 employees. Our cash budget this year, not counting the food, is nearly 14 million dollars. We can talk about what we spend the money on, but the beauty of Leket is that this year we’ll bring in 50, 60, 70 million dollars of food, and we value it very conservatively. For example, we value a cooked meal at 15 shekels, which could be coming from a very fancy restaurant for which someone just paid 100 bucks. But we don’t have to be greedy.
Did you ever imagine Leket growing into something this big?
It really was somewhat of a lark in the beginning. What I mean by that is I’m very blessed. I saw it as opportunity to get something off the ground, something that I could not believe, to this day, was missing. Israel is the land of non-profit organizations. And this concept, not wasting and using our excess to take care of the poor, is a biblical one. The idea of food banking has been in the US, certainly in Arizona, since the 1960s, so why didn’t it happen here?
What is your answer to that question?
Food banks in the United States and Canada are essentially private charities. They might get a lot of support from the government. You have organizations in Israel that call themselves food banks, but the concept of getting excess food to feed the poor was being done in Israel but not in a centralized manner. You had Latet, which is a wonderful organization, really focused on dry goods and getting the issue out there. Twenty years ago, the Israeli public didn’t know much about poverty and they really pushed the issue, with their protests and petitions to the High Court. They brought the issue to the forefront and did a wonderful job of that, but what was missing – and I don’t know why – was a commitment from agencies saying they would take it on themselves. Israel has such a robust third sector, so why not this? Every major city in North America has a food bank, and they’re the most prominent organizations.
Maybe we needed someone like you to come from America?
Maybe. It’s just surprising.
We’re doing this interview ahead of national elections. Do you think this is an issue that should be on the national agenda?
I think every party will tell you that it’s important to them, but as someone said to me, the poor don’t vote as a bloc, meaning they are not a constituency. There are parties that say they’re very much about social issues and they care, but I think it’s important. I think the new government, whatever government is formed, should take a bigger piece of the pie, and they have over the years, but it’s still just a sliver. On the other hand, I’m not the type to come out and attack, because there are so many social issues that the government can choose, but what I – as a person who cares about social issues – want to know is that the government is doing the maximum to help. It’s great if it’s my particular issue; I’d love more support for what we do. But foster kids and adoption and youth at risk are important too, so there are so many directions you can go in. As a person who really cares about social issues and inequality and helping the needy, it matters that the government’s doing a lot. Are we spending our tax dollars in the right places? That’s what concerns people like me. But I believe this issue is one that should have a more central place, and part of our challenge is working better with the government. Yes, others will blame the government. But we’ve been learning slowly over the years how to work with the government. We got this law passed just a few months ago, which protects food donors from legal liability as long as they’re not reckless. That was a big story, and that’s working close with the government on the kinds of things politicians should be doing. We initiated the legislation, but we still needed partners to get Knesset members together from different parties to support it. Israel is a complicated country.
What’s your next dream?
No. 1, Leket’s estimate is that we’re only getting 5-7%, maybe 10%, of the food that is available. We have a long way to go just in food collections and there is tremendous demand for the food we can get our hands on. Every charity says, “I look forward to the day when I can shut down.” That’s a bit of a pipe dream. What I mean when I say that is that I dream of the day when Leket is collecting enough food to take care of all the poor in this country, or we as a society have figured out a way to take care of the poor in a way that Leket doesn’t need to be providing food to them. Does that mean that Leket stops picking up food? And have we, as a society, stopped wasting food? I don’t see that happening. So, interestingly, it feels like there’s always a place for someone to do something with excess food. I wish that one day there will be peace, and we’ll be giving that excess food to our cousins surrounding us. If there isn’t peace, does that mean putting it on a boat? I’ll tell you a story. I remember that one of the first times I exhibited at a farming conference in Tel Aviv a decade ago, people would look at me and say, “Who is this guy and what does he want?” And I would say, I want your excess crops or crops that you are not marketing, whatever the reasons. And one farmer says, “I’m so upset by what you have to do. You have to understand, Israel today is a far wealthier and more successful country than it was in the early 1980s. It was a lower-middle class country but everyone had enough to get by. No one was going hungry. When we had excess tomatoes, there was no Leket, and there was no demand from the poor of this country, so we used to ship them to Biafra for free. People there were literally starving to death. It was a humanitarian gesture. How painful it is for me to hear you say we need those tomatoes today to feed the poor of our country.”
Tell me about Leket’s programs.
Leket is a mass volunteer organization. We have around 50,000 volunteers every year, primarily picking in the fields and packing produce at our logistics center. So we’re always looking for Israeli groups and groups from overseas to help us. We have all kinds of programs, and the easiest way to find out about them is to visit our website (leket.org) or send us an email ([email protected]). Most groups come for a couple of hours, and we have them work in three fields, one in Rehovot, which is owned by a board member of ours who donates everything he grows, one in Nahalal and one interestingly is on a farm that we own. This is a little bit off mission, because we are primarily a food-rescue organization, but an amazing organization called Shalom Israel – which is an evangelical group from Singapore – bought us our own 40-dunam (almost 10 acre) farm, so we send a lot of volunteers there. And we have our project in our warehouse that we run with the government through Colel Chabad’s Eshel Yerushalayim, where we send about 4,500 fruit and vegetable monthly packages to individuals that the government and the National Insurance Institute decide should be getting them. This is great because we don’t have to decide and the government supports it, so it’s a nice use of your tax dollars. 
Are you looking to expand Leket?
Yes, we have great projects but we’re looking to expand, and the main way Leket expands is by putting trucks on the road. We have IDF army bases and corporate cafeterias just waiting for us to have the ability to pick up surplus food from them. We try to network where we can. Ofakim is a perfect example. There we arrange for a driver to the agency that gets the food. Our donors give us money and we pay for a driver – it takes an hour – to pick up the food from the army base, and bring it hot and ready for the kids straight to the school. He loves doing it and we have four trucks just in Eilat, more than anywhere else in the country. Why is that? Because Eilat is full of half and full-board hotels, where it is buffet after buffet after buffet and big army bases. Eilat is a small place, with 50,000 people, and they only keep about 15-20% of the food. The rest of the food is exported, to Yeruham, Dimona and Beersheba, where there is more demand. We always call Eilat a net exporter and Jerusalem a net importer. We have two trucks in Jerusalem picking up and distributing, but we still need to bring more food to Jerusalem. 
What’s the focus of your work in Jerusalem and around the country?
In Jerusalem, we work with some of the hotels, army and police bases, and corporate cafeterias, primarily, and then we bring cooked food to people in government-subsidized housing for the elderly, primarily to people who don’t leave their rooms very often. One of the things we ask them to do is feed the people in their “rec room” to break loneliness and cause social bonds. We bring these places enough food for one hot meal every day of the year. 
Around the country, we deliver about 1,100 meals a day like that just for the elderly. We have soup kitchens and after-school clubs in Jerusalem, and again, it is important to note, we’re talking about feeding not just Jews but Muslims, Druze, Bedouins, African refugees living in Tel Aviv. It’s very important to me, to our board and to many of our providers that we don’t discriminate. We’re still viewed as a Jewish organization by non-Jews, but we really want people to think of us as an Israeli organization, and we’re trying all the time to make sure that our service, as best as we can, is equalized. In Israel, the social service sector is much more robust in the Jewish community, and even more so, in certain sectors of the Jewish community, and we’re always looking for ways to provide food in an equal manner as much as we can. Our agencies are varied and all over the country, and the key thing when you think about Leket is we’re a provider of low-cost food to agencies who are hopefully, if successful, getting people through the horrors that they are going through. 
It seems that what you have created is a model that others around the world can replicate. Do people come and learn from you?
The answer is that, we argue, our two core projects – food collection and agriculture – are probably the two largest projects of this kind in the world. Partially it’s the weather, partially we’ve been able to push, and people also say it’s part of the Israeli culture. In America, people would say what’s my risk and legal liability, and once they got their answer they might help. Here it’s just, “Great idea, how can we help?” I really compliment the people of the State of Israel for their attitude. If my first 50 calls to caterers had been, “We’re sorry,” we would not be sitting here today. Everyone said, “Sure, when can we start working?” So my answer is yes. Just the other day we got an email in Spanish, which I put into Google Translate, from people in Argentina who are looking to replicate some of our work. And yes, they visit us. Last night, I had a conversation with a Christian businessman from Guatemala, and he found out from a friend that I was coming, and invited me to visit food banks there. We’ve had videos of ours on the website of the Foreign Ministry of Israel, because we are really positive and adamant when we say we work with all sectors of Israeli society. This is not lip service. We’re not doing it to raise money. We really care. That’s who I am. 
I always say that I pray for the day when someone else will not ask me, “Do you work with X or Y?” If you were talking to City Harvest in New York, and you asked them, “Do you work with African Americans or Latinos?” they’d look at you like you’re out of your mind. It’s not a question. When will that day come in this country, when people don’t ask that question anymore? I’m OK with people reading this and saying, “This guy’s a dreamer. That’s fine!”■