Shopping for survival

A trip to a Lod charity grocery store gives insight into the food insecurity of Israel's poor.

On Rehov Herzl deep in one of the poorer neighborhoods of the generally poor city of Lod, Rabbi Ya'acov Globerman is fighting with his food suppliers again. "Thievery!" he shouts at the delivery man, who shrugs; food prices are going up, everybody's trying to survive. In the end, the truck unloads crates of sugar, flour, oil and other basics. Globerman, head of Yad Beyad (Hand in Hand), whose charity grocery store and kitchen help feed 2,500 families in Lod and another 2,500 elsewhere in the Shfela region, will just have to schnor the money from his wealthy donors to pay for it. The worldwide food crisis has jacked up wholesale prices for Yad Beyad "by 30 percent in the last three months," says Globerman, a white-bearded 55, who is full of fire on the subject of hunger and how the economy and government neglect are making it worse. The charity opened in 2001, just as the intifada-fueled recession and welfare cuts began roughly in tandem. Over the last year, he says, the number of people getting charity from Yad Beyad has gone up by 15%. "I'm getting two or three new people a day," says the rabbi, showing me an intake report from the morning of a man "with a wife and five kids. He's 100% disabled, he can't work; she has to take care of the five kids. They have to pay rent, electricity, water, food, school supplies, and they get NIS 3,797 a month from the National Insurance Institute. You tell me how they're supposed to survive." The aisles of Yad Beyad's grocery store were crowded the two times I visited. Many shoppers were in their 70s or older, but many others were in their late 20s and 30s. They picked out cereal for NIS 5, pasta for NIS 3.50, cans of bologna for NIS 1.50, or toilet paper for NIS 15, plates for NIS 0.50 or cups for NIS 2. The prices generally range from one-third to one-half of the regular store price, but items that are donated to Yad Beyad - such as salad dressing, leftover Purim candy packs and peanut puffs on the days I was there - go for free. Upstairs there are shoes for NIS 5 and new clothes at cut-rate prices. Across the street a kitchen prepares hot lunches for delivery to the handicapped. Most recipients are allowed to shop once a month for up to NIS 100 in groceries, yet those who are really destitute can shop for free. Otherwise, Globerman makes a point of charging "at least a symbolic amount of money so people can have the satisfaction of paying their own way. They don't have to be ashamed, they're not begging, and they're not learning to be dependent, either. They're still self-sufficient, which is so important." AFTER THE INTIFADA, recession and welfare cuts hit, food and clothing charities began mushrooming across the country, scores of them, and the economic growth of the last three years hasn't brought reports of any of them closing down. Thus, it stands to reason that with food prices rising so sharply, the difficulties poor people face in providing enough nutritious food for their families would have increased as well. Five years ago a Joint Distribution Committee study found that 22% of Israelis suffer from "food insecurity," meaning they can't afford to eat nutritiously, with enough meat, dairy products and vegetables, on a regular basis. In 2004 Dr. Eytan Hayam, director of Soroka Medical Center in Beersheba, told me the hospital was seeing a growing number of babies - mostly Beduin but Jewish as well - with signs of malnutrition such as iron deficiency and underweight. A Health Ministry nutritionist said poor Israeli children suffer three times the incidence of iron deficiency as middle- and upper-class children, a clear indicator of poverty-induced malnutrition. Aside from this, I've heard several stories over the years from social workers, charity volunteers and teachers about children who subsist mainly on bread and pasta; who eat the chicken leg as soon as it is handed to them at the soup kitchen, unable to wait until they get home; and who are ashamed to tell their teachers they're hungry, and have to be gently persuaded to accept free food, and then only surreptitiously. At Yad Beyad, though, I talked to a half-dozen food recipients, and none said they or their children were going hungry. "I won't let them get to that point," said a woman whose husband earns upward of NIS 4,000 a month, but who needed charity to help feed her three children because one of them requires constant care and hospitalization due to a birth defect, and the state aid for the child's first year had just run out. "We've slept on the floor, but I give my kids milk, cottage cheese, eggs, hot dogs, schnitzel," said the woman, in her early 30s. "I come here to buy oil, chicken soup mix, bleach - the basics. It helps a lot." A cleaning woman with two kids, also in her early 30s, says she owes about NIS 100,000 to the grocery store, the bank and various other creditors, but still makes sure her kids "eat eggs, burekas, pizza." A Russian immigrant in her mid-50s, a divorcee with diabetes and high blood pressure who says she supports her teenage daughter on NIS 2,000 a month in disability payments, told me she pays nearly NIS 2,000 a month in rent - which would wipe out her income - yet feeds her daughter "cottage cheese, chicken, fish, meat, rice." Listening to this story, the rabbi invites the daughter to go upstairs and pick out some clothes, but the girl, who looks about as well-dressed as any middle-class 17-year-old, shakes her head. "She only wants to buy clothes at the shops," sighs the mother. The economics of her story don't add up. She has to be getting more money from somewhere. Globerman has no explanation. The anecdotal evidence from a half-dozen interviewees at Yad Beyad didn't match the findings of doctors, researchers, social workers, charity workers and teachers who've interviewed thousands upon thousands of poor people, and found that a substantial proportion of them do suffer, to a greater or lesser extent, from hunger and malnutrition. The Rabbi Globermans of Israel are trying to provide the cushion between economic insecurity and food insecurity. The rising cost of food only makes the challenge harder.