How can Israel address rampant food insecurity? - opinion

The government can take significant steps toward eradicating food insecurity and creating a fair and sustainable food system for all Israelis.

 CHOOSING BETWEEN bread and milk: 47% of Jerusalemites live below the poverty line (Illustrative).  (photo credit: FLASH90)
CHOOSING BETWEEN bread and milk: 47% of Jerusalemites live below the poverty line (Illustrative).
(photo credit: FLASH90)

Naomi (not her real name) is begging at a busy intersection in my neighborhood, vigorously passing between the cars stopped at the traffic light. One hand is outstretched and holding a paper cup; the other holds a sign that reads, “Don’t judge me. It’s humiliating enough as it is.” 

Grateful to have a reason to rest from running for a moment, she shares her story, carrying herself with dignity.

She wants respect – to be heard and seen for who she is, not a nameless object of pity. She is energetic despite her hardship; pained but articulate. She rushed here from work to try and earn a bit more money for an hour or two before the Sabbath. 

Naomi is employed as a caregiver for the elderly. She tends to seven elderly individuals and earns NIS 6,800 a month (a bit more than half the average wage of about NIS 12,400). Her monthly rent is NIS 3,800, and after paying her other fixed expenses she is left with about NIS 1,200 of disposable income. She simply can’t make ends meet. 

Naomi is not alone. According to the most recent survey conducted by the National Insurance Institute in 2021, more than half a million families (1,600,000 Israelis) suffer from food insecurity. Of these, about half are severely food insecure, meaning that they experience the deprivation of hunger.

Food security impacts almost 2 million Israelis

The groups most affected by hunger include recipients of income support and/or disability allowances, unemployed working-age individuals, single-parent families, individuals with low education, large families, children and families within the ultra-Orthodox community and Arab families. 

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

Food insecurity is a widespread issue, not limited to Israel. Climate change, economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic and geopolitical instability have exposed the failures of global food systems. This systemic issue disproportionately affects marginalized communities, contributing to disparities in health and nutrition within and between countries. 

Countries like the US, UK, Australia, Canada, Germany and Scandinavia employ various policy measures to address food insecurity. These strategies tackle both the upstream drivers of food insecurity, such as production, availability, affordability, and individual factors like unemployment, low earning power, and high living costs. 

Notably, the Biden-Harris administration’s White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health has outlined a vision for transforming food systems, emphasizing nutrition incentives and evidence-based approaches.

IN CONTRAST, Israel’s response to food insecurity remains inadequate, fragmented, and disconnected from research and evidence. The National Food Security Project, administered by the Welfare and Social Affairs Ministry, in collaboration with municipalities and NGOs, provides some relief through monthly food and cash vouchers. 

However, its budget and reach are limited, serving only a fraction of about 32,000 of 256,000 severely food-insecure households. Additionally, the Education Ministry’s school lunch program excludes older students.

Philanthropic food banks and charitable organizations attempt to fill the gaps, but they cannot substitute for a comprehensive and well-coordinated government response. During the COVID-19 crisis, the Interior Ministry distributed NIS 700m. worth of food-voucher debit cards, based on property tax discounts, resulting in an inequitable distribution that left many food-insecure households unserved. 

The recently passed government budget proposes to perpetuate this approach by allocating NIS 1b. of food vouchers for distribution via the Interior Ministry, through the same flawed and inequitable mechanism based on the discounted property tax criterion. This risks cementing a flawed and wasteful program, politicizing food security and welfare policy, and weakening the overall welfare system.

Recognizing these challenges, the budget department head and the legal counsel of the Treasury have raised concerns about the Interior Ministry’s distribution of food vouchers, highlighting their potential to perpetuate inequality among different sectors of the population. This dispute is currently under review by the attorney-general’s office.

In the recent meeting of the National Council for Nutritional Security on June 4, the council emphasized the urgent need to allocate the budget toward strengthening the “National Food Security Project” within the Welfare and Social Affairs Ministry. This stance is based on several important considerations.

Firstly, according to the National Nutritional Security Council Law (2011), the Welfare and Social Affairs Ministry is assigned the responsibility for developing and implementing food security policy, as it possesses the necessary expertise for effective planning and execution. 

Secondly, from a societal perspective, the fragmentation of responsibilities among multiple ministries weakens the government’s ability to lead a cohesive national policy on this crucial issue.

Thirdly, from a professional standpoint, simply transferring funds without providing sufficient support for essential complementary interventions and services, along with a lack of monitoring and evaluation, fails to deliver a comprehensive solution to the problem of nutritional insecurity. 

Fourthly, allocating the nutritional security budget to various ministries based on partisan considerations sets a dangerous precedent that undermines the effectiveness of social services. 

Fifthly, the transfer of funds through uncoordinated external mechanisms, without integration and coordination with the primary official social security system, erodes the integrity of the National Insurance Institute.

Lastly, from a political standpoint, this decision seems to indicate that Israel is adopting an undesirable pattern of clientelism, reminiscent of non-liberal democracies like Turkey, where politically branded “flagship programs” associated with ruling party leaders are promoted to maintain their existence and cultivate dependence on these programs among their political base.

GIVEN THE importance of the problem, it is crucial for the government to reconsider its approach and allocate the budget to strengthen the “National Food Security Project” within the Welfare and Social Affairs Ministry. This ministry possesses the required expertise, responsibility and professional know-how to effectively address nutritional insecurity. 

Fragmenting responsibilities among ministries weakens the government’s ability to lead a comprehensive national policy on food security.

It is crucial for Israel to recognize the urgency of the food security issue and implement comprehensive and coherent policy reforms, focusing on both the drivers and consequences of food insecurity. 

By redirecting the budget to the Welfare and Social Affairs Ministry, investing in evidence-based strategies, and fostering interministerial coordination, the government can take significant steps toward eradicating food insecurity and creating a fair and sustainable food system for all Israelis, now and for future generations.

Prof. Roni Strier, of the University of Haifa, is the chair of the National Nutritional Security Council. Prof. Aron Troen, of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is a member of the Scientific Advisory Committee of the National Nutritional Security Council.