Our daily sustenance

Cooperative food banks are offering a lot more than low-cost products.

Pnina Leibovitch  88 248 (photo credit: )
Pnina Leibovitch 88 248
(photo credit: )
Nine years ago, following the publication of a report on poverty by the National Insurance Institute (NII), a reporter from Channel 1 asked Barbara Epstein, head of the Community Advocacy association, if she could introduce him to a family with "an empty refrigerator" so he could show the effects of poverty to the public. "What he wanted was a family - perhaps with kids dressed in rags - looking desperately at an empty refrigerator," recalls Epstein. The reporter's shallow image of poverty infuriated her, she says, but it also led her to rethink how to help those in need. Epstein explained to the reporter that poverty was not only about empty refrigerators but it was also about the socioeconomic awareness of those below the poverty line. "I don't know if he understood what I meant," Epstein says, "but it caused me to think again and to launch a serious debate with my staff. And that's how we came up with the idea of creating food cooperatives, something that I had come across while living in the United States. We decided that by the time we would have to face the outcome of the next poverty report [which is issued once a year by the NII], we would have a different answer." While the local version of the food cooperatives was born out of anger and frustration, these emotions are not dominant among the people involved in the project, which has already created three cooperatives in Jerusalem and several more around the country. All the cooperatives were founded by the staff and volunteers of Community Advocacy. The first one, in the Katamonim neighborhood, opened nine years ago. Two others have opened since in Kiryat Menahem and Gilo. To be eligible to shop at the cooperative, one first has to become a member. Annual membership costs NIS 60 and members have to commit to working a minimum of one monthly shift at the cooperative store. At the time that Epstein set up her first cooperative, the local press was full of pictures of long rows of people waiting their turn to get a pair of shoes, a bag for school or a basket of food. "It was all about charity and giving to the poor." says Epstein. "The message was that poor people cannot take care of themselves, so every kind of help went through charity. But we wanted to convey a different message." That message is that people can take care of their own needs. "Under no circumstances will we accept donations of food products - it is totally incompatible with the idea behind the cooperative," says Epstein. "One of the primary ideas was to create a place where notions of healthy food and rules of fighting food insecurity - which doesn't always mean lack of food but lack of a healthy, balanced diet - would prevail and set healthy habits." Zehava Cohen is a veteran of the cooperatives in the city. She was one of the first to join the project in the Katamonim in 2000. "I was present at the very first steps," recalls Cohen. "I was part of the teams that would go from door to door in the Katamonim, trying to explain to the people that we had an alternative to the difficult situation they were in, and that with our new project they would be able to regain control of their lives instead of being dependent. We went to the community center, organized evenings to explain, we sent flyers, anything that could bring in more members to join us," she says. Today, for the hundreds of registered members, the cooperative has become part of their life, says Cohen. The cooperatives, beyond the need to lower the cost of food, also empower people in need by enabling them to take responsibility to guarantee food security for their families and their neighbors by involving them as part of the solution. The not-for-profit food cooperatives are in fact a socioeconomic enterprise. The project utilizes the voluntary labor of the community to lower food prices by buying food in bulk at wholesale prices, which is then sold to members at cost, while the turnover from sales is used to replenish the stock, ensuring that the cooperative stays self-sustaining. "This project has nothing to do with cheap chains of supermarkets but rather brings a different view to the whole economic aspect of the members' lives," says Michal Gomel, coordinator from Community Advocacy to the project in Gilo. "This is not just an attempt to open neighborhood grocery stores," says Epstein. "All tasks relating to buying and selling of food, including ordering, receiving, stocking shelves, working the cash register and bookkeeping, are shared by the members on a rotation basis. Over and above their time, members pay a small monthly membership fee of NIS 5, while the association itself assumes the responsibility for overhead costs, such as rent, equipment, electricity and water, and municipal taxes and fees. An initial "loan" is made to the cooperative for products, but after that the actual income from sales is used to replenish the stock. Should additional items be required or stock need to be increased on a one-time basis, Community Advocacy takes responsibility for this. Community Advocacy also hires a cooperative coordinator, usually a community worker, as well as an assistant. Their task is not just to open and close the store but to engage in educational activities, in outreach activities and in community-based projects to teach about nutritional security and to establish working groups that will address the issues of nutrition as related to matters such as poverty and hunger, health, and child development. "We are all on the same level," says Cohen. "There are no bosses and employees here - we all are part of a team that works for the same aim: to help ourselves by ourselves." Cohen works 10 hours a week as a consultant at the Gilo co-op, for which she is paid, while she still is an active member of the Katamonim shop neighborhood, where she lives. On Monday morning, Cohen arrived at the Gilo branch to meet with the coordinator, Michal Gomel, and other members of the team of Gilo: on their schedule, a meeting with a local personality, aimed to obtain some support for the rent of the shop. "We rent the Gilo location, which was initially an apartment, from a private person. The monthly rent is NIS 3,000, and to this we have to add an enormous sum for municipal tax - about NIS 12,500. The Interior Ministry has refused, even after the municipality provided us with a special support letter, to reduce or change our status so that instead of paying municipal tax as a business, we could pay the lower residential rate," explain Cohen and Gomel. "So we are trying to get support as donations, but for rent and the like, not for food." Pnina Leibovitch has been a member of the cooperative in Gilo for a year and a half. She initially joined because she thought it would interest her husband, who was unemployed at the time, to become part of the team and do some volunteer work. "Meanwhile, I lost my job," she recounts. "I was a microbiologist at Bar-Ilan University; the project I worked on was shut down following the Madoff [fraud] affair. So I decided to join the team, and today I am an active member of the cooperative." But Leibovitch and other members of the cooperative food project are doing even more. They are involved in various groups working for a more social approach to the current economic situation. "We believe that VAT should be regulated - lower or nonexistent for basic products and higher for luxury items," she says. "The theory usually presented by the neoliberal economists, that rich people shouldn't benefit from products exempted from VAT, is absurd," says Epstein. "When was the last time you saw a rich person buying a subsidized loaf of bread?" As such, Leibovitch and other members of the cooperatives have been very active in the recent activities to convince the government to cancel the VAT on fruit and vegetables as part of their larger project to reach a regulated tax on all basic products. For Epstein, there is no doubt that being a member of the food cooperative is a stepping stone to getting involved in social activity; in other words, "to regain control over one's life." Do the food cooperatives also serve as a tool to help people become more aware of their economic rights? Epstein says it was certainly one of the goals of the entire enterprise. "The program has a wide range of aims - from empowering women to enabling people to be aware of the economic powers and how to acknowledge them. We include, for example, courses of the SEAM (the social economic academy) to give to our activists the tools to combine the need to save their own money with the willingness to be socially involved and bring a change in the society in which they live." The co-ops also serve as a melting pot. Cohen, a Mizrahi woman from the Katamonim, is the consultant for the Gilo cooperative. The volunteers, residents of Gilo whom she helps to manage the shop, are mostly Ashkenazi middle-class residents, including new olim from Russia and the UK. The prices in the food cooperatives are indeed lower than in the cheapest large supermarkets, not to mention grocery stores or even the Mahaneh Yehuda market. A quick glance at the products - rice, salt, sugar and pasta - indicates an average of one or two shekels less. "The discounts are not very large on each item," says Gomel, "but at the end of the shopping list, the final sum will be significantly lower." "We don't work only on lowering the prices of the products," adds Epstein. "We also did consumer testing on various products. We presented the participants with various kinds of rice, and nobody could tell the difference between them, thus proving that choosing an expensive variety of rice over a cheaper one doesn't always ensure a better-tasting dish." But not everything goes so smoothly. Epstein admits that despite the large numbers of people who joined the teams, there are still many who should be interested but have not stepped in. "First there are always people who don't like to get involved. You have to become a member and agree to work your shift in the store. Not everybody can or wants to do that. Also, we can't afford to bring in all the products people want to purchase. We're working on the basic items, and some people find it a burden to buy some products here and still have to go to one of the inexpensive supermarkets to complete their shopping," explains Epstein. But there's more, and it's the toughest aspect. Food cooperatives are still considered, at least by some of the residents, as a "poor people's" thing, a solution to underprivileged sectors of the society, and some people are reluctant to be part of it. "If they do not belong to that part of the society, they feel uncomfortable about being a part of it," agrees a high-ranking social worker at the municipality. "The only neighborhood where this issue comes out differently is in Kiryat Menahem," says Epstein. "Our projects enjoy all the support of the local administration in each neighborhood; but there is clearly a very solid network of support in that particular neighborhood, whose results we can see also in the food cooperative project there." The fact is that in Kiryat Menahem things seem to work more easily. "Besides a very much involved community," says Epstein, "some of the residents there are very eager to participate in the project but are not defined as belonging to the underprivileged class, for example students, especially medical students who live close to the Hadassah-University Hospital. They are well educated and will soon be part of the middle and upper class, though for the moment their financial situation as students or interns explains their need to take part in the project. As a result, this is no longer viewed as a 'solution for the poor' but rather a social initiative." Still, the Gilo food cooperative is facing difficult times. In fact, if nothing dramatic happens in the coming weeks, it might even shut down. "It is difficult to admit, but despite all we have achieved - including solid support from the welfare department at the municipality and the large involvement of the residents - we can't pay the rent or the tax property anymore, not to mention the fact that we should be moving to a larger location. There is not enough room here for the natural development of this shop, and if we do not manage to find a sponsor the cooperative will shut down in the fall," says Gomel.