Begging the question

Jerusalem has the largest number of soup kitchens and food providers in the country.

Jerusalem has the highest food assistance rate in the country, with 4.18 food-assistance groups for every 100,000 residents, according to a recent report conducted for The Forum to Address Food Insecurity and Poverty in Israel. The forum, a coalition group of some 50 philanthropic foundations in Israel and overseas, including several Jewish Federations in the United States, released their findings at a conference held earlier this month. The forum was founded in 2003. Its chief goal, according to director Cheri Fox, is to bring about some systemic national change; to collect and distribute food to organizations in a more equitable way; and to get to more places where there isn't an emergency food response and encourage and help organizations to provide that sort of assistance. Nationwide, the study, which was prepared by the Israel Center for Third Sector Research at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, found that 179 organizations provide emergency food regularly for at least 500,000 Israelis. And even this figure does not include most Arab Israelis, who largely receive food from charities or organizations whose primary activities do not include providing food and so were not included in the study. Dudi Zilbershlag, the director of the Meir Panim philanthropic organizations, confirms the statistics. Meir Panim provides some 400 meals to the hungry, plus another 270 meals on wheels to invalids on a daily basis in Jerusalem alone. Meir Panim also sends some 370 meals to schools and day-care centers for disadvantaged Ethiopian immigrant children in the capital. According to Sari Revkin, director of Yedid, The Association for Community Empowerment, an organization that runs social-rights centers throughout the country, Jerusalem has the largest number of soup kitchens and food providers in the country, thanks largely to the extensive network of religious organizations, free-loan societies ("gemachim") and other such institutions. "The government is meant to provide a social safety net, but that net has become full of holes," says Fox, and numerous organizations have been created to fill the need. However, "there has been very little local coordination and no national coordination... One outcome of the study was a very strong sense of the need for collaboration between the organizations." Ultimately, Fox says, the forum envisions a "national system of collection and distribution of food" and is working with a group of MKs from different political parties, including Labor, Shinui, Likud and the United Arab List, to promote legislation for the creation of a national food bank. In early June, a multi-partisan group of MK's traveled to Washington to study existing operations and the complimentary and comprehensive roles that the private and non-profit sectors and government can play. "The models that we saw that were successful were those initiated by the municipalities reaching out to the non-profit organizations. It would be wonderful if that were to happen in Jerusalem," Fox says. MK Michael Ratzon (Likud) was part of the delegation to Washington. "We saw that the idea works, and I think it's a fantastic idea to establish a food bank consolidating all the excess food produced by farmers and institutions like the military and police, to distribute it to the social organizations and disadvantaged." But he denies that the establishment of the food bank could be construed as a rebuke to the government's social policies or the municipalities' functioning. "It shouldn't be taken as a rebuke at all, but rather a way to make the system function more efficiently," he says. Zilbershlag believes that the response to hunger in Jerusalem needs to be "intensive... hot meals in schools are what's required." Noting that the cost of providing food to the poor is as high as NIS 22 million per year, Zilberschlag says that the organizations "should set up a common operations center consisting of all the non-governmental organizations." With 22 warehouses, 14 soup kitchens, eight delivery trucks and other resource facilities, Zilbershlag believes that Meir Panim has "the ways and means, logistical base, abilities and volunteers to enable them to serve as a clearing house for a food-bank operation." Meir Panim has been attempting to do this for nearly a year, Zilberschlag says, adding that is very difficult to coordinate among the groups to get such a plan off the ground. All of the experts agree that the number of food-providing organizations has grown because the need has grown. When times are tight, says Revkin, "one of the first expenses people cut is food. It's one of the only things, that if you cut, you're not going to be evicted or that your water or electricity won't be turned off. "What we see now is a direct result of the cuts in the last two years," she contends. "There was a time in Israel when there were subsidies on basic foodstuffs. No matter how little money people had, they could buy basic foods. Over the last decade these subsidies have been cut; where once it was a given that you could always get bread and cheese and eggs and once a month maybe even chicken now that's not so. "We're seeing this all over, and in Jerusalem in particular," she adds. While agreeing, Fox makes a point about terminology. "We [the forum] don't use the word hunger we talk about food insecurity," she says. Food insecurity, she explains, is an international term nowadays used to describe the "lack of an adequate diet in developed countries where there is plenty of food, but a growing number of people who don't have the resources to purchase it. There are hungry people, but that's different than people starving to death," she clarifies. No less than 22 percent of families nationwide defined themselves as food insecure, Fox told In Jerusalem, pointing to a 2003 Brookdale Institute study that her group initiated and funded. And 8% of the interviewees defined themselves as "severely" food insecure. "There is a significant correlation between poverty and food insecurity." Families that are undergoing an economic or medical crisis may be "making it," on the surface, she says, "but somebody suddenly loses a job but they don't want to stop paying a mortgage... those are the kinds of things that throw people into a food insecurity crisis when they're not necessarily defined as being below the poverty level... and don't show up on poverty lines but are clearly struggling." She says she believes the municipality must play a larger role in coordinating efforts but she also points to a role for the private sector. "You don't solve food insecurity by making people go to soup kitchens or giving them parcels of food. Long term, they have to have jobs and they have to be able to support themselves." Revkin suggests focusing on a "distinct number of families that have fallen into poverty and to look at what could help them break that cycle. Finding a way to assist those families with a broad spectrum of social, economic, psychological and community support could be a real model to emulate."