Are Israelis going hungry?

Two million Israelis have reported loss of income due to the crisis, and about 510,000 citizens have not yet returned to the labor market since the beginning of the corona crisis.

A BEGGAR in Jerusalem. 'People are falling very quickly and they are looking for help anywhere they can find it,’ says Leket’s founder and chairman Joseph Gitler. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
A BEGGAR in Jerusalem. 'People are falling very quickly and they are looking for help anywhere they can find it,’ says Leket’s founder and chairman Joseph Gitler.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
One in every three children starting school this year across the country is facing poverty, Latet Israeli Humanitarian Aid published earlier this month. Some 36% of schoolchildren parents reported to the organization that children are skipping meals to help them endure the financial crisis, while 26% of the children are sent to school without lunch.

Therefore, the answer is yes – Israelis are going hungry. And they were so even before the coronavirus crisis.

A study published by the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI) last month showed that two million Israelis have reported loss of income due to the crisis. Among those, 20% were business owners who had to close their business either temporarily (14.4%) or permanently (5.4%), while 53% of young adults aged 18 to 24 suffered a decline in earnings. According to the National Insurance Institute, about 510,000 citizens have not yet returned to the labor market since the beginning of the corona crisis.

Meanwhile, Israel finds itself in a political crisis. While poverty and social inequality should be on the top of the priority list, the reality is different. In late August, Finance Minister Israel Katz announced that no additional grant will be given for the end-of-year holidays, a financial help that could have aided a significant number of families to get through the holidays without food shortage. The announcement followed the “check for every citizen” grant, whose aim, however, was to stimulate the consumption in the economy rather than to address the growing problem of hunger and overall poverty, as food stamps policies aim to do.

Therefore, this year Israel approached the holidays with about a million citizens who have lost their jobs – which can be translated into about four million people whose homes have been impacted by economic distress. And there is no governmental safety net to catch those in free fall. Relying on nonprofit organizations, therefore, has become a reality for numerous families.

LEKET ISRAEL, the leading food rescue organization in the country, has a played a prominent role in supporting families in distress – prior to and during the coronavirus crisis. The food bank mobilizes thousands of volunteers who harvest and collect surplus agricultural produce and cooked meals to sort and distribute, mostly to organizations such as shelters and soup kitchens throughout the country. As of 2019, Leket rescued 17,000 tons of healthy food to be delivered to 175,000 Israelis in need per week.

“Since March, we’ve seen at least a 50% to 100% increase in demand from the organizations we work with,” Leket’s founder and chairman Joseph Gitler told The Jerusalem Post. The numbers of calls from those who need help has also significantly increased, Gitler said, even though in the past the organization did not generally receive calls from private individuals.

“That shows the level of desperation,” he added. “People are falling very quickly and they are looking for help anywhere they can find it.”

This year an expected addition of 145,000 new people will enter into the cycle of food insecurity, a preliminary analysis conducted by Leket predicts, adding that before March the economic value of solving food insecurity in Israel was NIS 3.2 billion ($940 million). Now, the organization claims, predictions show it has increased to NIS 3.62 billion.

ANOTHER CENTRAL player in combating poverty is Latet (meaning “to give” in Hebrew), an NGO aiming to combat poverty and food insecurity. In 2019, the organization distributed around NIS 90 million worth of food to poor people, reaching over 200,000 individuals. In a study conducted by the organization, it has foreseen that the real effects of the recession will only be felt in 2021, together with a decline of middle-class Israeli families into poverty.

“Their [the children’s] chances of gaining working skills and eventually taking part in the workforce is almost zero,” Gilles Darmon told the Post earlier this month concerning the staggering rate of children who lack the basic conditions for succeeding in the school environment, such as proper nutrition and technological access. “We are now seeing the making of Israel’s poverty report 15 years down the road,” Darmon added.

Latet’s head of research Naama Yardeni, expounded in an op-ed on Ynet last month on the swift fall from middle class to poverty Israeli families are susceptible to. Based on a preliminary study on the impact of coronavirus on Israeli society, Yardeni wrote that “even a family of higher earners could find themselves in poverty and have difficulty paying for food within two years,” adding that in several cases if one earner only loses his job, the family runs a great risk to degenerate into poverty.

“One of the most worrying and painful conclusions from the study is that this could happen to any one of us,” Yardeni concluded.

THE PANDEMIC has exposed the cracks in every system and pushed unstable situations to their breaking point. Even though official data has not yet been published following the catastrophic impact of the virus on the economy, Israel’s National Insurance Research Division has already conducted a few simulations in order to understand the scope of the crisis. Poverty per capita has risen by 15% since March, and by 13% among children. Poverty severity increased by 11% and the standard of living decreased by 3%. The Gini index, which measures income inequality, jumped 4% since then. The simulation was based on key data from last year’s Poverty Report, and using the Social Security wage database and the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) household expenditure survey.

Data from the previous report, however, already showed that poverty has indeed crept into Israeli society and become the reality of a significant percentage of Israeli families. Last year’s report published in January was a loud and clear cry. Poverty had increased compared to last year and 1.8 million people, among those 841,000 children, were living under the poverty line. The poverty line of an individual in 2018 stood at NIS 3,593 and NIS 5,750 for a couple. For a family of six, the poverty line was NIS 12,218. Translating it to the number of households, it reached almost half a million, totaling 18% of Israeli families, while the poverty per capita was 21.2%. Israel has held a place at the bottom of OECD countries in terms of poverty since 2018, and the situation following the corona crisis has deteriorated further.

While there are a number of policies that aim to tackle poverty, their weaknesses were even more exposed during the pandemic. Policies such as grants for workers, savings funds for children, increase in income supplement for the elderly and efforts to maintain a steady increase in the minimum wage help in improving the socioeconomic situation. These same policies, however, are an attempt to put a Band-Aid on a bullet wound: the standard of living is high and increasing while a significant part of the population lacks the educational background to establish themselves in a stable career. The policies themselves lack consistency and the grants are too low, especially if compared to other OECD countries. Childless adults, for example, cannot receive such grants; the children’s savings fund is discounted from the child support, and increases in minimum wage and allowances happen according to the consumer price index and not to the general standard of living.

Worldwide, the UN predicted that by 2030, the number of undernourished people could reach as high as 909 million following the first months of the pandemic and the heavy toll world economies have paid for it. Oxfam charity estimated, according to a Reuters report, that by the end of the year, as many as 12,000 people could die a day from hunger linked to COVID-19.

THE PROFOUND human toll of hunger and malnutrition is not to be taken lightly, especially when children are involved.

“It’s still too early to conclude what the consequences are of the stress and malnourishment of this period,” Dr. Miriam Herman, a pediatrician from Tel Aviv, told the Post.

“Parents are afraid to bring their children in for consultations,” Dr. Herman said, adding that her clinic in downtown Tel Aviv used to attend to around 150 children a day before the crisis and today she is in contact with 30 children, mostly through online consultations .

“Children are absorbing their parents’ fears at home, for example,” said Dr. Herman.

“One of the things I could readily observe is that those who were already anxious, have become more so. There are those who have ADHD and are not taking their medications in this period. And children suffering from chronic diseases, those who really need to come for consultations, they are not being brought,” she says, emphasizing the lack of clarity on the impact of this period on children’s health and wellbeing.

“With or without corona, we already had more than 800,000 children living below the poverty line in Israel,” said Dr. Herman. “It’s a vicious cycle,” she said. “Everybody is busy with something else and the children are falling between the cracks.”

The fact that a third of Israeli children are living below the poverty line and a quarter are being sent to school hungry is not the utmost priority of the government could be perhaps the best indication of its moral quality. If such a problem has turned into just one more issue down the interminable list, just another headline, just another cry in protests, time has indeed arrived for a serious cheshbon nefesh (spiritual accounting) on the moral foundations of our society.

“There is a lot of pain in this country right now. A lot of people suffering,” Leket’s Gitler said. “Especially those who can help, now it’s time to help more,” he concluded.