No nonsense – hunger is a real issue in Israel

Are our government representatives, people who were democratically elected to serve the public, really blind to the situation?

A Leket Israel volunteer delivers food to a housebound woman. (photo credit: COURTESY LEKET ISRAEL)
A Leket Israel volunteer delivers food to a housebound woman.
(photo credit: COURTESY LEKET ISRAEL)
On Friday evening, after yet another week of health and economic uncertainty due to the coronavirus, the Channel 12 weekly talk show with Ofira Asayag and Eyal Berkovitch hosted Minister-without-Portfolio Tzachi Hanegbi. Despite Hanegbi’s three decades of parliamentary experience, he managed to make an appalling statement, saying that those who claim they have reached the point of starvation and have nothing to eat are talking “nonsense,” or in Hebrew, harta.
In one thoughtless statement, the minister undermined the growing distress of many people in Israel who, until the corona crisis, could never have imagined they would experience such a situation.
I wonder, are our government representatives, people who were democratically elected to serve the public, really blind to the situation? Are those who sit in cabinet and government meetings unable to grasp the true meaning of the statistics they’re hearing?
The organization I head, Leket Israel, is the largest food rescue organization in the country. In the days before the pandemic, we used to receive donations of surplus cooked meals from hotels, corporate cafeterias and IDF bases, as well as donations of surplus fruit and vegetables from farmers. All of it would be distributed through the hundreds of nonprofit organizations we work with, reaching 175,000-plus people in need.
Unfortunately, because of the pandemic, this number seems small in comparison to today’s much more complex reality. In mid-March, with the onset of the emergency regulations and the forced closure of hotels and businesses with which we collaborate, we stopped receiving donations of surplus cooked food. Even the IDF stopped donating surplus meals from its bases.
This led us to launch an operation to purchase and distribute hot meals directly to the homes of those most vulnerable, and over the past few months we have seen the situation as it is developing on the ground. “Nonsense” is the one thing it is most definitely not.
Since the outbreak of the crisis, Leket Israel has distributed 60% more fruits and vegetables and 50% more hot meals than usual. In the past several months, 31 local authorities have asked Leket to distribute food to those in need, compared to only five local authorities prior to the emergency regulations. This in itself shows the significant increase in the number of hungry people in Israel. Yes, literally hungry.
DURING THE lockdown, from mid-March until the end of April, Leket Israel distributed 2,263 tons of fresh produce; 35% more than the amount distributed during the same time the previous year. In addition, more than 700,000 hot meals were delivered directly to the homes of those in need.
Sadly, many of the people we are now helping to support were never on our radar before. These newly hungry people are completely “normal” individuals who worked hard and earned a living until they were thrown into unprecedented economic distress. These are the people we meet every day, and the ones we think about when we go to sleep.
One alarming statistic is the more than 50% increase in the donations of fruit and vegetables we’ve received from farmers since the crisis began; some 800 additional tons each month. Farmers who, during normal times, sell their produce to numerous businesses, were suddenly left with no one to sell it to. These farmers were thrown into significant economic distress of their own. In an inspiring act of solidarity, they chose to donate their produce to the needy, even though they do not know if their farms and livelihoods will survive the crisis.
For a decade and a half, we at Leket Israel have been professionally engaged in providing food security to those who need it the most. Lately, many more people need our. The struggle is real.
If this was not the reality, I would be the first to suggest we change our name to “Nonsense Israel.” However, that is not the case. This only “nonsense” seems to exist in high places, and is being reflected shamelessly in television studios by those who should be working to serve the public.
Hanegbi did well in speedily apologizing, even while it was still Shabbat, and Netanyahu acted responsibly by renouncing the minister’s remarks and reinstating actions to control the spread of the virus. However, a slip of the tongue of this magnitude shows the urgent need for those in charge to grasp the new reality.
I call upon members of the government to come visit Leket Israel’s Logistics Center and look closely at the numbers and people up close. I am certain that once the gravity of the situation is seen as it really is, we will not be hearing such insulting statements again.

The writer is the CEO of Leket Israel–National Food Bank, the leading food rescue organization in Israel. Leket Israel’s sole focus is rescuing healthy, surplus food and delivering it to those in need through partner nonprofit organizations.