National food bank faces rising demand for meals, plummeting food sources

Due to COVID-19, donations of unused prepared food from hotels, companies and army bases are down by more than half while demand for meals is up 50%

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

An elderly lady receives a meal delivery courtesy of Leket, the National Food Bank. (Courtesy, Leket)
An elderly lady receives a meal delivery courtesy of Leket, the National Food Bank. (Courtesy, Leket)

Israel’s national food bank, Leket Israel, has seen donations of unused food from hotels, businesses and army bases plummet since the coronavirus broke out, while the demand for meals for needy people is only growing.

Unable to “rescue” sufficient amounts of extra, unused food as it was used to doing, the organization will have to find some NIS 1.3 million ($385,000) to buy enough for 65,000 meals during the upcoming High Holy Day season, which begins with the Jewish Near Year on September 18.

It has already raised NIS 16 ($4.7) million this year to be able to provide needy people with 800,000 out of 1.1 million ready meals since the start of the pandemic.

Meals based on purchased food cost NIS 20 ($6) each, while those made up of “rescued” food cost just NIS 3.5 ($1), to cover logistics.

Leket volunteers prepare food trays for distribution to not-for-profit and government organizations that deliver meals to the needy. (Courtesy, Leket Israel)

This summer, the organization is collecting the equivalent of around 4,000 meals per day in unused food — less than half the 8,800 daily meals it rescued during summer last year.

In Eilat, where hotels are usually full at this time and able to donate the unused food equivalent of 1,000 meals a day, the number is down to 500-600.

Donations of fresh fruit and vegetables have gone up — by more than 60 percent, from March 15 to July 1 — as farmers have struggled to sell their produce.

But the hotels, the providers of cooked and prepared food, are emptier than usual because so few overseas tourists are coming in.

Furthermore, as Gidi Kroch, CEO of Leket Israel, explained, Health Ministry regulations mean that hotel buffets are no longer self-service. Guests can choose what they want by looking through a transparent screen but must stand in line while a waiter serves them. As as result, they are eating less, hotels are ordering less, and quantities of unused food have gone down dramatically.

With so many Israelis on leave or unemployed (850,000 people are jobless, including 530,000 on unpaid leave) or working from home, company dining rooms are also not the source of salads and cooked food that they were before the coronavirus struck. There, too, the buffets have gone and businesses are ordering the exact number of pre-prepared food trays that they need.

Army bases, opening and closing according to coronavirus outbreaks, are also increasingly using sealed food trays.

And while unused prepared food has dropped by half, demand for meals is only rising.

“Non-profit organizations are coming to us for more help. There isn’t a day when we don’t get asked,” Kroch said. “Yesterday, for example, someone called to inquire whether we could provide food for youth in distress.”

Leket volunteers sort fresh produce. (Courtesy, Leket Israel)

He added, “We don’t expect things to improve soon. Maybe by the end of 2021 things will return to normal.”

The 1.1 million meals distributed between March and July signified a 50% rise over the same period last year.

Leket operates as a kind of wholesaler, delivering food to organizations such as non-profits and local councils.

It is currently delivering to some 270 organizations, down from 350 during the lockdown but up from 200 during normal periods.

The National Food Bank is unique in that its sole focus — during normal times — is on rescuing surplus food in good condition and delivering it to those in need through partner organizations.

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