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Holiday food drive gets backing of Israeli celebs, including stars of ‘Shtisel’ and ‘The Boys’

National food bank Leket Israel and Nacht Philanthropic Ventures team up to provide healthy meals to 350,000 Israeli families struggling with hunger ahead of the High Holidays

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic Leket Israel has pivoted to bring meals directly to elderly and other at-risk recipients. (Courtesy Leket Israel)
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic Leket Israel has pivoted to bring meals directly to elderly and other at-risk recipients. (Courtesy Leket Israel)

Israeli TV stars and cultural icons are calling on the public to help with a new holiday food assistance initiative that seeks to provide meals to 350,000 Israeli families, among them many Holocaust survivors, suffering from food insecurity this High Holiday season.

The campaign was launched and funded by Nacht Philanthropic Ventures – The Inbar & Marius Nacht Family Foundation, in cooperation with Leket Israel, the National Food Bank. Among other well-known Israeli personalities, it’s being backed by actor Michael Aloni, who stars in the hit television series “Shtisel,” celebrity chef Meir Adoni, and actor Tomer Capon, who is currently starring in Amazon series “The Boys.”

“With so many Israelis struggling more than ever, I am proud to be part of this initiative to ensure that families in need have a hot meal this Rosh Hashanah,” Capon said.

Nacht Philanthropic Ventures CEO Nachman Rosenberg said that “Israel’s social solidarity flourishes especially during times of crisis,” adding that “Leket’s outstanding infrastructure shines hope for thousands of families who aren’t able to purchase food for the holidays.”

Since 2003, Leket Israel, founded by Joseph Gitler, an immigrant from the United States, has rescued surplus produce and catered food — all of it nutritious — and coordinated its distribution by nonprofit groups, with the aim of simultaneously eliminating food waste and food insecurity in Israel.

Volunteers for Leket Israel deliver food to needy recipients. (Courtesy Leket Israel)

As of last year, the organization had made major headway in its goal – 105 employees and 37,000 annual volunteers were working with over 200 nonprofit partners to deliver healthy food to more than 175,000 needy Israelis a week. But with the onset of the pandemic, Leket Israel’s traditional prepared food resources temporarily dried up. Corporate cafeterias, caterers, hotels and army bases were themselves forced to change their models to accommodate government health regulations and the “new normal” of the pandemic era, and the excess of prepared healthy food abruptly disappeared.

Leket Israel realized that it would have to pivot in order to continue on its mission. Along with the diminishing supply of cooked meals, the need for food assistance has grown exponentially as unemployment skyrockets and many find themselves having difficulty putting food on the table for the first time.

Leket Israel stepped up to the task. Through the generosity of Nacht Philanthropic Ventures, the organization has delivered 1.1 million meals to hungry families since March. The organization’s produce rescue activities paradoxically increased to 11.8 million kilograms (26 million lbs.) in the last six months as farmers lost their markets due to the lockdown.

The Times of Israel spoke to Leket Israel founder and chairman Joseph Gitler about the new initiative, how the organization is adapting to the COVID-19 era, and why everyday people are so essential to the effort to prevent food waste and alleviate hunger this holiday season.

The pandemic has had a negative impact on pretty much the entire economy, but the food industry has really taken a hit. How has this affected Leket Israel?

Since the middle of March, we saw the writing on the wall very clearly and realized that what we thought was going to be a short-term situation was unfortunately going to be with us a lot longer than we expected on many fronts. Corporate cafeterias, army bases, and hotels that we work with were starting to limit the number of workers, to cut back, and were changing their businesses – and we felt it because the number of meals we received started to slide.

Leket Israel founder and chairman Joseph Gitler. (Courtesy Leket Israel)

Our whole modus operandi at Leket is to utilize the excess that we expect when we go to hotels, events, corporate cafeterias – everything is predicated on the fact that the buffet always has to be full whether you’re the first or last person there, and therefore Leket is able to “take advantage” of the fact that there’s always a lot of surplus food at all these types of institutions. But by the middle to the end of March this had basically disappeared, and here we are at a time when there’s tremendous unemployment, tremendous pain, especially for people who were in need before COVID, and now there’s a host of new people.

So we, together with the Nacht family and our own decision-making apparatus, came to the conclusion that we have the logistics, we have the goodwill, we have the volunteers, we have partners all over the country, and if we can get our hands on food, we’d better do it. And that’s when we, together with the Nacht family and others, launched this ongoing campaign which supplements what we can’t rescue. And it’s really simple — we’re buying high-quality food at bulk prices from caterers, hotels, event halls and restaurants who normally give us food for free, and trying to create a win-win, which is getting food to the poor while helping hundreds and hundreds – if not more – people to keep their livelihood and survive hopefully for better times.

Leket Israel doesn’t receive government funds and is supported almost entirely through private donations, but the COVID-19 pandemic has also caused many people to suffer financially – and many are finding themselves in need of assistance for the first time. Has this been noticeable for you in your role as head of Leket?

We’re struggling like everyone between today’s need and tomorrow’s need. And unfortunately as things are going in Israel, with them talking about further lockdowns, the economic pain of that is only going to increase in people who need help from us. And that’s why we’re once again pushing the campaign we began in March to give us the ability to rescue and to purchase meals for the High Holidays, and to have the financial backing to continue doing what we do at least through the end of the year and hopefully beyond.

I get at least five to 10 personal text messages a day from people in need, or organizations that need help, and most worryingly, from organizations where giving out food was something they never did. This morning I received a call from a person who helps IDF soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. And food provision, or giving out food certificates — they never dealt with it before. And this person was with me on the phone talking about a group of soldiers who are very fragile, who have fought as heroes in so many wars, and they’re just breaking.

Volunteers for Leket Israel deliver food to needy recipients. (Courtesy Leket Israel)

That’s what’s most concerning for me is the new poor, or getting calls from agencies where food was never part of what they do, and now boom — because of what’s going on, they’re hearing from their clients, who might normally be dealing with mental health issues or physical disabilities, that now they need help just to put food on the table as well. And that’s very scary.

How have Leket’s operations been affected?

Normally, we work with 200 charities throughout Israel, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, and we provide them with the meals and produce which they distribute. These organizations include soup kitchens, homeless shelters, battered women’s shelters, after school clubs for kids, shelters for the elderly, just to name a few.

And we continue to do that, but due to the COVID crisis that’s no longer plausible for everyone. For example, for a lot of the elderly it’s preferable for them to stay home for their own safety. So there we’re doing a lot of door-to-door deliveries, and it’s done by our own team together with volunteers, municipalities who found volunteers through us, during the height of the lockdown the army was helping, there were corporations helping us — so it’s really been a team effort to get those meals to people. Because you’re talking about thousands of elderly people who need to get meals from us — if not daily, then at least multiple times a week where we deliver a few days’ worth of meals at any one time.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic Leket Israel has pivoted to bring meals directly to elderly and other at-risk recipients. (Courtesy Leket Israel)

What can the average person do to help alleviate hunger?

It’s been great to see the solidarity and all the help — but when a war is fresh solidarity always remains, and when we enter a war of attrition, which is what we’re sort of in now, that becomes much more difficult. It’s always important not to waste food, but in a way it’s even more urgent now. And even people who are struggling mightily during COVID could still be wasting food.

And for those who are spending less money than they normally do because they’re not traveling and they’re not going out to eat — you’ve got to step up to the plate now. Even if you just share this article with a friend or a family member it’s a huge help, but if you can, I urge you to contribute yourself to help people who need it.

To contribute to the campaign, visit the Leket Israel website and click Donate Now. $36 will provide 36 hot rescued meals for a family.