How is Israel working to fight food insecurity - opinion

Jewish tradition actually forbids food waste, with the commandment of bal tashchit (not to destroy or waste) being an important religious and environmental ethic.

 Leket Israel Distributing Hot Food to the Needy  (photo credit: LEKET ISRAEL)
Leket Israel Distributing Hot Food to the Needy
(photo credit: LEKET ISRAEL)

When I was little, if I ever didn’t want to finish my dinner, I remember being told (as I’m sure many of you were) to “think of the starving children in Africa.” Dinner leftovers would even reappear for breakfast. 

I can’t say that tradition has continued with my own kids, but it did provide a life lesson – not to waste food.

The problem of hunger isn’t just in Africa – the Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that nearly 690 million people go to bed hungry each night. To put that into perspective, that is almost 9% of the people on earth. And the problem is getting worse, increasing by almost 60 million in the past five years alone; as I write, there are also reports of Ukrainians in shelters now running low on food.

At the same time, billions of tons of edible food are wasted every year – that’s over one-third of all food produced. This rotten food decomposes in the garbage, creating methane, which is a powerful greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. Eight percent of all greenhouse gas emissions are actually created in this way – twice the amount caused by the airline industry.

Add to that the land, water and fossil fuels needed to grow the produce in the first place, and the impact of food waste on the climate is huge. Furthermore, with food today often grown in a way that damages the climate (see my column, “Growing more with less,”  February 3, 2022), tackling food waste is essential to curbing the climate crisis.

 VOLUNTEERS SORTING and packing fresh, rescued produce at Leket Israel, to be distributed to Israelis in need throughout the country. (credit: LEKET ISRAEL) VOLUNTEERS SORTING and packing fresh, rescued produce at Leket Israel, to be distributed to Israelis in need throughout the country. (credit: LEKET ISRAEL)

Jewish tradition actually forbids food waste, with the commandment of bal tashchit (not to destroy or waste) being an important religious and environmental ethic. As the world’s only Jewish state, a lot is happening in Israel to help prevent food waste.

Rescuing excess food

In 2021, food bank Leket Israel worked with thousands of restaurants, farmers, caterers and other establishments, to collect 1,385,000 meals and 25 million kg. of fresh, nutritious agricultural produce. That is almost NIS 220 million (more than $67 million) worth of food, helping to feed 223,000 people every week. A network of 18,000 volunteers, including families, companies and schools, helped to make this happen. And certified dieticians also provided 80 nutrition workshops to help raise awareness of how to eat healthily on a limited budget.

As Joseph Gitler, founder and chairman of Leket Israel, explained, “what most people want to hear is Leket shutting down, but I don’t consider that realistic. What I consider realistic is the unfortunate reality that we live in, that there are going to be people who need help, in Israel, and maybe outside of Israel. 

“So I have two hopes for the future: that Leket can grow big enough so that we can take care of all the need in this country… and then take care of people outside of this country.”

Leket has already made a start on this second goal. The organization is the Israeli representative of the Global Foodbanking Network, and Gitler serves as a member of its board. Leket works closely with food banks around the world, sharing best practices, and in recent years it has helped new food banks learn how to start their own programs. 

In 2020, as COVID-19 spread across the world, Leket Israel also hosted a series of webinars with its partners, Feeding South Florida, City Harvest UK and Foodbank Australia, to discuss the pandemic’s impact on food banks across the globe.

Cutting food waste through technology

Israeli innovations are also starting to make an impact. Technology company Wiliot, for example, helps to cut food waste in supply chains by monitoring transport and storage conditions. If fruit and vegetables are en route to a supermarket, computers the size of a postage stamp can monitor their location, temperature, humidity, motion, and even if they have been put on the correct shelf. Once in the store, the technology can also monitor demand, which helps to reduce over-stocking.

In September 2021, Wiliot’s technology was recognized by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for providing better end-to-end traceability in the food supply chain, helping to reduce food waste. The company has won numerous global awards and attracted high-profile investors like Amazon and Pepsico. It is also working with many of the world’s well-known food and beverage brands.

I’ve mentioned UBQ and HomeBiogas in previous columns, but they are worth mentioning again. UBQ turns household waste, including food scraps, into a material that can replace plastics, concrete or wood in thousands of applications. In fact, 1.3 tons of waste are diverted from landfills for every ton of UBQ materials that is produced. 

The Beit Yanai-based, HomeBiogas, also converts food leftovers, but its system turns them into gas or a green fertilizer. The company has announced that it is working with the UN to help people in refugee camps across Africa access fertilizer and cooking fuel. 

The root of the problem

Educating people about personal responsibility is at the heart of the food waste problem. Moved by seeing hungry school children in one of Jerusalem’s poorest neighborhoods, Robin Katz set up StartUpRoots in 2015. She soon realized that much more was needed. ​Today, the organization empowers students to grow their own food, ​develop skills and an understanding of nature, and ​encourages them to take personal responsibility for the earth’s limited resources. 

“We started educating kids to grow their own vegetables seven years ago, when I discovered that there were schools in Israel where the subsidized school lunches, which lacked fresh vegetables, were the main or even only source of food those students might receive in a day,” she said.

“This is the first year that we are witnessing a significant amount of food waste, so we developed lessons to address it. We are now working with the Environmental Protection Ministry and the Education Ministry, to make their Green School program and our top-quality educational materials related to food waste, plastic waste, and recycling more easily available to more Israeli schools.”

With little space in schools with which to work, StartUpRoots designed a vertical hydroponic system that can grow 120 plants per meter, per month. Its program has reached thousands of students across Israel, despite the limitations of the pandemic, and it is also advising organizations overseas. With American educators on the board, for example, the curriculum is aligned to both Israeli and American educational standards, and the program is also linked to American day schools.

Trends in the Cohen household

On the personal front, while leftovers don’t turn up as breakfast in the Cohen household, COVID-19 has brought about two changes that have helped reduce food waste, both of which I recommend. 

Firstly, because we couldn’t access delivery slots for online groceries in the early days of lockdown, I started shopping every couple of days in my local stores, buying only what we needed. Not only did this cut food waste in our house, but also our shopping bills. According to research into consumer shopping habits, smaller and more frequent grocery shopping trips apparently became a trend in 2020. 

The other trend, which I happily admit to following, was planting my own vegetables and herbs during lockdowns. (If red peppers ran out in the shops, we wouldn’t starve!) And while a supermarket-bought pepper might go a bit wrinkly after a few days in the fridge, there was no way I’d let a Cohen-grown pepper go to waste! After the shmita year, I suggest you try it. ■

The writer is Middle East Correspondent for India’s WION (World Is One). The author of Tikkun Olam: Israel vs COVID-19, she has helped numerous multinationals report on their contributions to tackling the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

The views expressed are those of the author.