Politicizing food insecurity - comment

Optimistically, elections should be a time when parties pander to the citizens to win their vote.

LEKET ISRAEL volunteers distribute food at a soup kitchen in Tel Aviv.  (photo credit: LEKET ISRAEL)
LEKET ISRAEL volunteers distribute food at a soup kitchen in Tel Aviv.
(photo credit: LEKET ISRAEL)
On March 23 Israelis will once again be heading to the polls to elect their representatives to the Knesset. Could this be an opportunity for Leket Israel or another chance to be let down? Over the past year, Leket Israel has seen that COVID-19 is not only a health pandemic but also an economic and social one. In 2020, Leket Israel increased its support to the food-insecure population from 175,000 to 250,000 recipients weekly. We have put more trucks, vans, tractors and people on the road and are working to try and meet the growing demand. All of this is supported by private philanthropy, without any government money at all. Even during the most serious disaster in modern history, Israel depends upon nonprofits for support, while ignoring the challenges they face.
Optimistically, elections should be a time when parties pander to the citizens to win their vote. If this is the case, then Leket Israel should be doing everything in its power to gain the support of the political party ready to prioritize food rescue and the food insecurity agenda. We could “lend” our reputation to the parties, in exchange for being included in the charter of the new government once it is formed. But would it even matter?
Last year, Arye Deri, chairman of the right-wing ultra-religious Shas Party and the minister of interior, received NIS 700 million ($213m.) allegedly for people living in food insecurity. These funds were received not as a grant to offer welfare aid to the people in need, but as a result of what ostensibly looks like certain political circumstances, therefore essentially transitioning the Ministry of Interior into the “Ministry of Sectoral Welfare.” Why sectoral? Because instead of allocating these funds to the Ministry of Welfare that has – in partnership with nonprofits in the field – already created and is using criteria as to who is eligible for the financial assistance, the “Ministry of Sectorial Welfare” created new criteria ensuring that some of the people who are in need will not receive support, while others with no need will receive support.
Meanwhile, Leket Israel is a member of a coalition of nonprofit food aid agencies working together to raise awareness and elicit political support in order to once and for all have funds allocated to the base of the national budget.
Without this addition to the budget, it is not possible to address the issue of food rescue and hunger in a responsible and systematic manner. Without these funds in the base of the budget, any political change might reduce or negate the allocations completely.
The amount suggested by the coalition is a modest NIS 225m. ($68m.). Since Leket Israel has the capability to quadruple its funds by rescuing and delivering four times as much in food value, imagine what it could do with an even bigger budget. The government providing this budget to the nonprofits will be leveraging their support by a ratio of 1:4. It just makes economic sense.
Or does it? By giving the NIS 700m. ($213m.) to the Ministry of Interior, the food aid coalition lost its leverage to petition the government and political parties to secure funding for food insecurity. This means that the government has technically already provided funding for this issue and at a significantly larger amount than was requested, never mind the fact that the Interior Ministry is in no way qualified to regulate these funds. Now, all pleas from nonprofits for substantial support to battle food insecurity will look like sordid attempts to solicit funds for their own organizations, meaning 0:1 for the politicians.
There are numerous families in need, both current and new (due to the COVID-19 crisis) who are deemed ineligible according to the new “Sectoral Ministry’s” criteria. Additionally, since this funding resulted from purportedly political circumstances, it appears that it will be a one-time distribution and not a systematic approach to the problem, a patch so to speak; this made a “political patch” in time for the elections.
In the end, is it a fantasy to think that the issue of food rescue and food support will garner any sort of serious support or interest this election season? Unfortunately, at the moment, it looks that way. The politicians will be using these issues to gain more votes, but will they present a viable solution or will they once again just say whatever they need to in order to win?
Despite this, we at Leket Israel will not stop trying to impress upon our government officials the importance of food rescue as the paramount solution to food insecurity. However, we are and will continue to be pragmatic and realistic in setting our expectations for government support.
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.