While thousands of Israelis have been grilling steaks and flipping burgers for hungry IDF soldiers across the country, the non-profit Vegan Friendly is providing 2,000 hot vegan meals every day to those who steer clear of animal products.
“During normal times, the army has relatively good solutions for this population,” said the organization’s founder and CEO, Omri Paz.
But the sudden addition of some 300,000 reserve soldiers to the regular 150,000 conscripts to fight the war against Hamas has created a situation in which hundreds of people on such diets were going hungry.
Israel has more vegans per capita than any other nation, with Tel Aviv often cited as the vegan capital of the world.
Paz said that one in 10 Israelis are thought to be vegetarian or vegan, translating to 45,000 people currently serving in the army, with a tilt toward conscripts, who are younger and more likely to have chosen these dietary options.
Most of these were getting the food they needed, he said.
But once the war started, he received calls from soldiers who were in the field, away from their bases, and either had nothing to eat at all, or no suitable army rations, or only cooked food such as rice but nothing to go with it.
During the first few days after Hamas’s deadly rampage through southern Israel on October 7, Vegan Friendly’s 30-strong staff collapsed into depression.
Most of the team are in their 20s and knew people who had been murdered and kidnapped during the terror onslaught.
During the first week, many restaurants that had closed their doors used their food stocks to prepare free meals for soldiers, including vegetarian and vegan ones.
But Paz realized that the donated food would slow as people returned to work and restaurants either went bust or reopened, while the war was likely to last months and the soldiers would still need solutions.
By the second week of the war, Vegan Friendly was working with hundreds of volunteers to operate a nationwide infrastructure to supply meals to soldiers on the Gaza border in the south, the Lebanon border in the north, and those stationed throughout the West Bank.
One department deals with soldiers wanting vegan food, who need to fill out a form. Another is in touch with a constantly changing list of restaurants, all of which are trying to cover costs and not take any profit, according to Paz. A third arm of the operation recruits volunteers to transport the food and coordinate with the army. To pack the meals requires 50 volunteers at Vegan Friendly’s Tel Aviv offices, he said.
The meals aim to provide protein in the form of tofu products or alternative meats, as well as fresh fruit and vegetables. Much of this is donated (as are the cardboard boxes used in delivery), allowing Vegan Friendly to help cut restaurant costs. In addition, the organization subsidizes each meal.
Where bases lack the facilities for cooked food, Vegan Friendly sends cartons full of dried products. The plan is to dispatch 1,000 to 1,500 such cartons once a month to ensure that 2,000-4,000 soldiers have nutritious food.
“An army fights on its stomach,” said Paz. “The soldiers must be healthy. We cannot reach a situation where soldiers have to eat meat because there’s nothing else.”
He added: “We need soldiers to know they can turn to us, we want volunteers, and if people think what we’re doing is important, we’d be happy to get donations.”
“During the first days [of the war], I was broken,” Paz continued. “What lifted my spirits and gave me strength was to see so many amazing people getting involved to do the best they could.”
The non-profit Freedom for Animals has meanwhile distributed around 5,000 vegan meals cooked in the kitchens of volunteers in the central Sharon region.
Vegan Rabbi Akiva Gersh, originally from New York, has meanwhile been working with the vegan bakery and cafe Yugelach in Pardes Hanna, central Israel to get some 2,000 vegan meals out to the field, some of them via Vegan Friendly’s network.