Natali Digora, 48, moved to Israel from Moldova in 1997, and worked until last March as a soprano at the Israel National Opera. She lost her job when the Health Ministry restricted the number of singers who could be onstage because of the coronavirus. Natali went home and eventually found she did not have enough money to buy food. At first, she made do with what was in the house. But when the food and the money ran out, she went for several days without eating. “I was too embarrassed to ask for help,” she said.
Tel Aviv native Avi Ohanan, 31, was managing the dairy kitchen at Eilat’s Prima Music Hotel when COVID-19 struck and the hotels were forced to close. Used to eating good food at the hotel or taking it home, he suddenly had to decide how to spend his limited cash. His landlord threatened to evict him if he didn’t pay the rent. “I didn’t know what to do,” he recalled. “I had no money for rent, my electricity was turned off, and I had nowhere to go.”
Digora and Ohanan are just two examples of successful, working people driven by the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic to no longer having enough money to eat.
Helped by Leket, the National Food Bank, which rescues food for distribution to the needy, they are among an estimated 124,000 new people who have joined the 1.87 million Israelis (465,000 households) already facing what the professionals call food insecurity.
That they were rescued by a charity rather than the government comes as no surprise to those working in the field. According to one estimate, the state contributes just 2.5 percent of the more than NIS 2 billion ($600 million) invested in food aid, with charities shouldering most of the burden for this population.
Food insecurity has been defined as the inability to ensure a constant supply of food that contains all the nutritional elements necessary for proper development and health. While it can lead to malnutrition, it is not the same thing. Indeed, it is a prime cause of obesity. It is closely linked to the development of disease and to increased vulnerability to illnesses such as COVID-19.
On Friday, the Haaretz newspaper ran a lengthy profile about a new charity, Culture of Solidarity, born out of the pandemic. A nucleus of three volunteers has grown into an organization of 3,000 that has distributed more than 30,000 boxes of food across the country since the coronavirus came to Israel.
The three founders were shocked to discover that they were being approached by social workers, teachers, even mayors, to help people with nothing to eat. Lists of hungry people that they drew up and gave to social welfare departments were not being acted upon. Nine months after starting what they saw as a short-term project to do a little good, all three have realized that nobody is going to take over because, as they say, nobody is there.
‘Social welfare has no solutions’
“I’ve been in this job for 13 years and it’s always been the same,” Gidi Kroch, Leket CEO, told The Times of Israel. “People turn to the not-for-profit organizations, not the social welfare departments, because they [the latter] have no solutions. Many social workers don’t even open case files for people who are food insecure.”
With Israel’s move from a socialist to a capitalist economy over the last few decades, investment in social welfare has nosedived, employment has become less secure and food prices have risen. Today, socioeconomic gaps in Israel are among the widest in the developed world, a phenomenon that sparked massive social justice protests in 2011 that brought almost half a million Israelis onto the streets demanding change.
That year, the government established a National Food Security Council and made the social welfare minister responsible for the issue. In 2012, the Social Welfare Ministry launched the National Food Security Project (NFSP) under the Food Security Council’s guidance.
In 2014, the Food Security Council calculated that NIS 500 million ($130 million) would be needed annually to support 120,000 families. (Today it estimates the number of families at 150,000.) But by the time the project got off the ground, in 2017, it had been whittled down to a three-year “pilot” project of NIS 50 million ($15 million) per year. Extended for a fourth year (with talks ongoing to extend it further until June next year), it currently has a NIS 55 million ($16.5 million) budget, to which the government contributes NIS 20 million ($6 million) and the local authorities and the Fellowship of Christians and Jews NIS 6 million ($1.8 million) each. The rest is made up from donations raised by Eshel Jerusalem, the welfare arm of the Chabad movement.
In fact, according to Hebrew University’s Prof. Aron Troen, one of whose graduate students trawled through the financial statements of all the relevant food charities operating in 2019, the government contributed just 2.5% of the more than NIS 2 billion invested that year to relieve food insecurity — NIS 20 million for the National Food Security Project and another roughly NIS 30 million from bequests and other sums left with country’s Custodian General.
In 2019, the government contributed just 2.5% of the more than NIS 2 billion that went toward food aid
In 2014, a state comptroller report lambasted the Social Welfare Ministry for failing to fund the National Food Security Council and the government for not having formulated a policy for tackling food insecurity. The report said that the government’s foot-dragging and its desire for the nonprofit sector to continue shouldering most of the financial responsibility raised doubts about its ability to fulfill its obligations.
Opening the document with the words “Poverty is not destiny,” the comptroller wrote that while individuals were responsible for covering their own needs, it was the state’s role to ensure that its citizens could live in dignity, as mandated by the country’s Basic Laws, international law and Jewish tradition.
The National Food Security Project is a private-public partnership that brings the Social Welfare Ministry together with charities such as Leket, Eshel Jerusalem and Latet. It works in more than 40 cities providing 10,800 of the very poorest families with food vouchers, dry goods and fresh fruit and vegetables, equal to NIS 500, or $150, in total each month.
Because the government evidently does not fund enough social workers in local authorities — Eli Cohen, director of another charity, Pitchon Lev, recently told a Knesset committee that municipal social welfare departments were “collapsing” under the pressure of COVID-19 — Eshel Jerusalem also funds a coordinator in each local authority to ensure not only that the food is distributed properly but that families can be guided out of the hunger vortex.
But the project reaches just a fraction of those in need. Furthermore, as it does not form part of the state’s basic budget, the funds for it have to be approved anew every year. Against the backdrop of ongoing political infighting between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Likud) and Benny Gantz, leader of Blue and White, the government has not passed a budget for 2020. In January, the program had to be halted for lack of approved funds and only started functioning in March. Then coronavirus struck and it was postponed until June.
Meanwhile, the National Food Security Council does not receive an operating budget from the government. Its members work as volunteers and its status is merely advisory.
“Food insecurity is deepening during the pandemic but people aren’t getting the money because of political arguments,” says Leket’s Gidi Kroch.
Troen, director of the Nutrition and Brain Health Laboratory at the Hebrew University’s Faculty of Agriculture, Food, and Environment, also researches nutrition and public health policy and advises the Health Ministry’s nutrition division. He points out that the most recent survey of food insecurity was conducted by the National Insurance Institute in 2016. Using different criteria from the National Food Security Council, it found that 18% of the population — around half a million households — suffered from food insecurity, a third of them to a serious degree.
People aren’t getting food aid because of political arguments
After the first wave of the coronavirus, Troen gathered a broad coalition of professionals to draw up the lessons learned prior to a second wave. The group presented its conclusions to the relevant ministries and state bodies.
The pandemic, he wrote, had exposed the weaknesses and “years-long negligence” of a narrow and uncoordinated government policy. The issue, he continued, requires coordination between multiple government ministries, but “despite the efforts of the Health Ministry’s nutritional division and the National Emergency Authority, there is still no guiding hand.”
He volunteered to devise a “dashboard” questionnaire to help local authorities locate those who were hungry, in way that would reflect the dynamic situation.
There’s no point identifying new people who are hungry when it’s so hard to help those we know about
But officials with years of experience in the field told him wearily that there was little point in identifying new people who were food insecure when it was hard to help those they already know about.
Troen is particularly worried about children, who are vulnerable to permanent developmental problems if they do not eat properly.
During regular times, some 420,000 pupils are eligible for school meals. But as the Knesset’s Special Committee on the Rights of the Child heard Monday, the Education Ministry has not been delivering to pupils who are at home because of the coronavirus and has no idea how many may have been fed through Social Welfare Ministry programs or local initiatives involving municipalities and
charities, outside of the National Food Security Initiative.
Shas leader Aryeh Deri to tackle food insecurity his own way
The Social Affairs Ministry and its minister, the Labor party’s Itzik Shmuli — one of the leaders of the 2011 social protests — are pretty low on the political food chain.
Not so Aryeh Deri, leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, who heads the important Interior Ministry.
Deri — whose political support is critical for Netanyahu — has secured NIS 700 million ($210 million) for food security for this year alone — an unprecedented sum — after threatening not to approve the government’s coronavirus economic plan. But because this is not an Interior Ministry responsibility, he has had to perform acrobatics to get permission to distribute food stamps directly to families rather than through existing mechanisms such as the National Food Security Project.
Furthermore, to the outrage of bodies working in the field for years, and amid accusations that Deri was tailoring the aid to Haredi families whose heads of household study in yeshivas, he has specified one criterion only — that eligible families must be receiving discounts of 70% or more on municipal taxes.
Haredi families, along with Arab ones, account for disproportionate numbers of the food insecure, although other groups such as single-parent families and the disabled also form part of the picture.
Calling instead for the pilot National Food Security Project to be expanded, the Israel Forum for Sustainable Nutrition has scorned the Interior Ministry for failing to take into account the experience gathered during the pandemic by bodies ranging from the National Emergency Authority and the Home Front to other ministries, local authorities and charities. Discounts on municipal taxes are not a measure of food insecurity, the forum has pointed out. Rather, it is essential to use objective criteria, like those used by the pilot scheme, and to have measurable targets, all aimed at making healthy basic foods available to those in need, it insists.
Restricting eligibility to households with tax discounts will miss many of the people who have only recently experienced food insecurity because of the pandemic and are still paying normal rates, the forum says. Furthermore, the Interior Ministry’s intention of allowing recipients to use the vouchers to buy anything except for tobacco and alcohol, and to do so for up to five years, hardly reflects the spirit of the government decision to allocate the funds specifically for the relief of food insecurity happening now.
Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights, says that the criterion will disqualify those who either have not asked for a municipal tax discount or who, for bureaucratic reasons, have not received one. Also out of the loop will be the 90,000 Bedouin — who are poor even in relation to other Arab Israelis — who live in villages that are not recognized by the state and therefore have no connection to any municipal authority.
Others have pointed out the need to ensure that groups such as battered women in shelters, migrant workers, asylum seekers and the homeless are not left out.
Shmuli has reportedly said that some six in ten people on food aid do not have discounts on municipal taxes.
A senior Interior Ministry official told the Knesset committee on Monday that the vouchers would be distributed directly to eligible families in six stages, at a value of around NIS 100 ($30) per family member per stage. Those without discounts would still be able to apply for them, he said.
‘In Israel, we’ve created a monster’
Troen told The Times of Israel that coronavirus-driven increases in food insecurity were a worldwide problem anticipated by bodies such as the United Nations.
“But in Israel, we’ve created a monster,” he said. “A huge philanthropic food aid industry has stepped into a vacuum that has existed for nearly 20 years and it’s hard not to feel, as an observer, that this is not merely an example of incompetence but of willful neglect by the state.
“Under duress, the state created a National Council for Food Security, without granting it any funding. We know that since 2003, one in five Israelis are food insecure. Even when a solution such as the National Food Security Project is found, it’s only implemented in a minimal way as a pilot.”
It’s hard not to feel that this is willful neglect by the state
He went on, “The government hasn’t got a clue who is newly food insecure. You have to identify who is in need today, now, and to see that what you’re distributing is actually effective. But we have no targets, no criteria, no metrics. The government says, ‘the local authorities know, let the mayors take charge,’ which is fine in strong communities. But they don’t provide adequate resources.”
The Israel Forum for Sustainable Nutrition, along with public health physicians and academics, are urging the government to set up a body with authority that can formulate a policy on the basis of relevant, up to date data and coordinate between all the bodies involved. They say that the National Food Security Council should be put on a par with the prestigious National Economic Council, properly funded by the government and run from the Prime Minister’s Office to advise during regular periods and emergency ones.
They are also calling for the immediate lowering of prices for basic healthy foods, the expansion of the pilot project, and assurances that hot meals will be made available to all schoolchildren, without exception, in light of the growing number of unemployed parents at home who are not on the welfare authorities’ radar.
Prof. Dov Chernichovsky, who chairs the National Food Security Council, told the Kan radio channel’s “Hayot Kiss” podcast recently, that Israel’s leaders and perhaps also its people apparently found it hard to accept that there was hunger in their Startup Nation.
He is not opposed to the government contracting out the response to food insecurity, but said the current multiplicity of charities was unacceptable, given that the criteria for eligibility vary between different organizations and that there is no overall supervision of the kind of food being distributed.
Perhaps, he said, the government could adopt the model of the health maintenance organizations — of which the country has four — and let a few large organizations take responsibility for food aid, according to clear criteria and a guarantee of government funding, which could be supplemented by donations.
A spokesman for the Interior Ministry said the criteria for eligibility had not yet been finalized and were still being discussed with the relevant ministries.
A spokeswoman for the Social Welfare Ministry said that outside of the National Food Security Project, the ministry has this year distributed NIS 18 million ($5.4 million) for food purchases during religious festivals, plus the same amount to enable the big charities to distribute extra food vouchers, and has received NIS 21 million ($6.3 million) from the Fellowship of Christians and Jews to provide food aid to the general population.
A further NIS 11 million ($3.3 million) has been channeled through the local authorities to help the elderly, with another NIS 8 million (2.4 million) in the pipeline, and thanks to the state lottery, NIS 30 million ($9 million) has been sent to the local authorities to help them respond to coronavirus needs in general. During the first lockdown, NIS 260 million ($78 million) was provided to enable the local authorities and the Home Command to distribute meals to 130,000 elderly.