Food charities call on government to chip in during virus crises

With mass layoffs expected, demand will be even higher, groups say, seeking assistance similar to that planned for small and medium businesses

Volunteers sort produce at the warehouse of Leket Israel, the country's largest food-rescue organization. (Ben Sales/JTA)
Volunteers sort produce at the warehouse of Leket Israel, the country's largest food-rescue organization. (Ben Sales/JTA)

Six of Israel’s leading nonprofit food distribution organizations on Tuesday asked the government to provide them with financial help so that they can keep feeding the needy, as measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus strain their resources and raise the expectation of an increased demand for their services.

Leket Israel, Pitchon Lev, Latet, Rabbis for Human Rights, Shatil and Mazon Israel said in joint a statement they should be provided the same assistance as is planned for the small and medium-sized businesses that will be impacted by government-imposed restrictions aimed at countering the pandemic.

“We call on the government to recognize the essential operations of food distribution aid organizations as a critical necessity for the economy,” the statement said. “If the food aid organizations collapse on their own, the needy may end up in real danger to their survival. The government must rally to ensure the continued operations of these organizations.”

The statement noted that one-fifth of Israel’s population is considered poor according to the National Insurance Institute’s 2018 Poverty Report.

Those people “are now facing an existential threat due to this crisis” and “the food distributed by nonprofits is critical to their food security.”

The organizations warned that with mass layoffs expected as businesses cut down on their operations, there will be an even greater demand for food, as those who until now had not needed assistance struggle to make ends meet.

“This demand, along with the financial uncertainty in Israel and throughout the world, will also impact approximately 15% of the expected donations to nonprofits,” the statement noted.

Gidi Kroch, CEO of Leket, which gathers donated surplus food from the hotel industry and distributes it to the needy, told The Times of Israel the organizations have been in contact with the Welfare Ministry, which has shown understanding for their predicament.

Gidi Kroch, CEO of Leket Israel, with “rescued” food that because of a blemish or cosmetic issue would have been sent to the trash. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)

He said the groups are hoping to secure some NIS 25-30 million ($6.52-$7.82 million) in financial aid.

With some 200 hotels recently closing down as the tourism industry buckled under the economic impact of the virus, Leket will not be able to provide its daily 9,000 meals by relying on donated supplies, Kroch explained. Instead the nonprofit is planning to pay the hotels to produce the food for them anyway.

“People are relying on us to bring them food, sometimes on a daily basis,” he said. “We have no choice at this time except to buy.”

Restrictions under the government’s campaign against the virus are scheduled to last at least until after next month’s Passover festival, leaving the charity food distributors with a period of at least five weeks, and possibly much longer, that they need to weather.

To purchase all of the meals it supplies for that length of time will cost Leket some NIS 6 million ($1.56 million), Kroch said.

The organization has the resources to cover just two weeks of that period, he noted. In the meantime, Leket is making efforts to also raise the needed cash from donors at home and abroad.

In addition, it was also looking at other ideas. A government program to provide food for schools, which are currently shuttered due to the virus, could possibly be diverted to supply meals for the needy, Kroch suggested. Also, Leket is looking at buying the supplies it needs from local food outlets rather than collecting it from areas where there are large numbers of hotels.

The timing of the coronavirus outbreak is being even more keenly felt in the run-up to Passover, when the food industry must switch to producing unleavened products, a process that usually takes companies a day or two, holding up production.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a press conference at the Prime Minister’s office in Jerusalem on March 16, 2020 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

On Tuesday, the Health Ministry declared a partial lockdown on the country, saying people should only leave their homes for work or in order to pick up essential supplies.

On Monday Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced a series of fresh measures that would see most workers in the public and private sectors placed on leave.

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon said Israel would designate NIS 5 billion to aid those affected by the virus crisis.

He said workers placed on leave will receive “improved” unemployment benefits, with those employed for six months now eligible for the payments (an easing of the regulation that formerly required workers to have been employed for at least a year). Small business owners will be able to defer their property tax, water, national insurance, and electricity bills if they cannot make the payments, said Kahlon. He added that grants of up to NIS 6,000 would be made available to small businesses and freelancers.

As of Tuesday afternoon there were 324 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

Israel has banned gatherings of over 10 people, closed schools, forced all Israelis entering the country into a 14-day quarantine, and ordered the closure of all malls, restaurants and cafes (with takeout permitted) to contain the outbreak.

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