Sandwiches: Simple solutions to complex problems - opinion

Some plans to reverse childhood poverty and social alienation are complex and require ambitious networks and strategies. Sometimes, it's just giving a kid a sandwich.

 NEVET, AN Israeli nonprofit, provides over 10,000 healthy, fresh sandwiches daily to students who need them (Illustrative).  (photo credit: OMRI SHAPIRA)
NEVET, AN Israeli nonprofit, provides over 10,000 healthy, fresh sandwiches daily to students who need them (Illustrative).
(photo credit: OMRI SHAPIRA)

Most of us will pass over “No One Eats Alone” day without giving it even a second thought. As adults, we’ve likely forgotten what it is like to be the odd one out in the lunchroom, or alternatively, we might even welcome the thought of a meal spent in quiet solitude. 

But the fact that this day exists, commemorated on February 18, demands that we take a moment to think about the tens of thousands of Israeli schoolchildren who spend their meals alone – not by choice but rather because they have nothing to eat.

While the social element is troubling enough on its own, there are obviously other disturbing realities related to youth hunger.

A hungry child is typically unmotivated, distracted or angry, leading to behavioral problems and educational deficiencies. Even the most ambitious and creative students will be unable to concentrate on an empty stomach.

While all-encompassing social and educational reforms might be daunting, and certainly challenging to implement, here we can humbly say that there is a relatively easy response to addressing hunger in schoolchildren.

FRICASSEE/TUNISIAN SANDWICH (credit: PASCALE PEREZ-RUBIN)FRICASSEE/TUNISIAN SANDWICH (credit: PASCALE PEREZ-RUBIN)

And the answer is nothing more complicated than the humble sandwich.

The sandwich in Israeli school culture is a staple – both nutritionally and socially. Every day, classes pause while students take out their aruchat esser (10 a.m. meal). As most children typically don’t eat a full breakfast before school, the design of this meal, which has been an Israeli institution for decades, is to ensure that a child gets a healthy nutritional pickup to get through those earlier morning hours when they might be tired and distracted.

OUR ORGANIZATION, Nevet, has taken on the role of providing those sandwiches every day to thousands of Israeli children who can’t afford them. Even in 2022 there is a growing number of families from all ethnicities, religions and walks of life, who can’t afford to send their children to school with even a simple sandwich. 

In order to spare the children the humility of “handouts,” teachers and local volunteers in 238 schools around the country prepare the daily meals before opening hours so that they are ready for discreet pickup by the students as they walk into school. Started in 2016, as a basic concept, our initiative now provides 10,000 sandwiches a day – over 1.75 million sandwiches delivered every year. 

The feedback we appreciate most is when teachers speak about how this simple change has made an enormous impact on the emotional and developmental impact of the students. Violence on campus and cutting class is way down among our “clients” as well as a lower need to prescribe medications used for scholastic success. 

Principals of participating schools report major improvements in concentration, respect and a growing feeling of trust between student and teacher, and reaching educational milestones.

We firmly believe that beyond the very practical impact of giving a child the basic nutrition he or she needs, the long-term vision of taking hunger out of schools completely is to save our children the painful stigma of being the “poor kid.” That is exactly why we are working with the government ministry to implement a universal meal program at schools, as many other western countries have done.

Child psychology has shown that kids are far smarter and cognizant of their surroundings than we realize. They are keen to notice when kids are “different” or “in pain” and they certainly observe when their classmates are forced to “go without.”

Part of our vision, therefore, is to create an educational environment that would remove that unequal playing field. School can be challenging enough on its own, with all sorts of academic and social pressures, and no child should have to face extra emotional pain because of the meal that their family can’t afford.

We can all picture the child sitting in the corner or at the far end of the playground, trying their hardest to look invisible as their friends enjoy their lunch while they have nothing to take out of their bags. We can just as easily imagine that child’s relief when he or she is able to join in, devoid of that fear and stigma.

Some plans to reverse childhood poverty and social alienation are complex and require ambitious networks and strategies. 

And sometimes, they just involve giving a kid a sandwich.

Together with your support, next year at this time we hope that not only will “No One Eats Alone”, but that “Everyone Will Have Something to Eat together”.

The author is CEO of NEVET, an Israeli nonprofit organization that provides healthy, fresh sandwiches to students who need them.