War-linked hikes in prices of fruits and vegetables worsening food insecurity – report

Leket Israel’s annual report says half of discarded agricultural produce is fit for human consumption and should be saved, claims imports only raise prices

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

Sorting cabbages that would otherwise go to waste at Leket's center in Gan Haim, central Israel, November 2023. (Amir Yaakobi)
Sorting cabbages that would otherwise go to waste at Leket's center in Gan Haim, central Israel, November 2023. (Amir Yaakobi)

Israel’s war against Hamas is making things even worse than they normally are for the 1.4 million Israelis who can’t afford healthy food, according to an annual report published Monday.

Less food can be rescued and distributed to the needy, says Leket Israel, which published the Food Waste and Rescue Report, because of damage to agriculture along the Gaza border in the south and Israel’s northern border with Lebanon, where the IDF is involved in daily skirmishes with the Iran-backed terror group Hezbollah.

The relative scarcity of blue-and-white agricultural produce, and the doubling of imports to 60,000 tons since the war began, has sent prices rising by double-digit percentages, making fresh fruit and vegetables even less affordable than usual, said the document, released in cooperation with the health and environmental protection ministries.

Food insecurity is defined as the inability to ensure a constant supply of food that contains all the nutritional elements necessary for proper development and health.

According to the National Insurance Institute, 16.5 percent of households suffered from food insecurity in 2022. This translates into 1.4 million people, or 14.5% of the total population.

Leket rescues food that would otherwise be thrown away and distributes it to those in need via some 200 nonprofit organizations.

Leket Israel distributes rescued food to those in need. (Amir Yakoby)

Around 2.6 million tons of food was wasted in 2022, worth roughly NIS 23.1 billion ($6.5 billion), and representing around 37% of the total amount of food produced in the country, the report said.

Those figures are similar to ones from previous years, as are the still-unanswered calls on the government to help the economy, the environment, and the poor by developing a policy to save the roughly half of that wasted food that according to Leket is fit for human consumption.

The report covered 2022 but included a special foreword on the impact of the war, which began when thousands of Hamas terrorists breached the Israeli border on October 7 and killed some 1,200 people and abducted 240 to the Gaza Strip.

About 20% of Israel’s agricultural land is located in the Gaza border area. This includes 60% of the potato fields, 50% of tomato fields, and 40% of the areas where carrots and cabbages are grown. Around a third of the farmland in areas close to the Gaza border has been off-limits since October 7 for security reasons.

Noga Spielberg (left) and Ofer Spielberg (right) take a break from volunteer work picking tomatoes with owner Avner Davidian in Moshav Shibolim, southern Israel, November 9, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Another 10% of agricultural land is close to Israel’s northern border with Lebanon, the report said. This region includes around 60% of the apple orchards and more than 35% of orchards growing peaches. It also produces a large proportion of the country’s eggs and turkey meat.

Countrywide, around 40% of the agricultural workforce (30,000 people) has been lost. Foreign workers, largely from Thailand, went home after the war began, while Palestinians are not presently allowed to enter the country.

The thousands of volunteers who have been helping to harvest fruit and vegetables have not managed to replace hired hands.

In the first week after the outbreak of war, tomato prices rose by about 50%, and by December the wholesale price was still 33% higher than it had been just before the war, the report said. The price of cucumbers increased by about 90% during this time. The price of potatoes rose by about 40% in the first two weeks of the fighting, and by December the wholesale price was still about 20% higher than the prewar price.

Israelis shop at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem, on December 28, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/FLASH90)

The report cited predictions that this winter will see a 30% drop in the average production of tomatoes, a 10% shortage of cucumbers, and 20% fewer cabbages.

“Higher food prices, especially the prices of fruit and vegetables, alongside damage to the economy as a whole, and especially to small, independently owned businesses, the families of military reserves, and evacuated families, plus higher unemployment rates, will exacerbate food insecurity among disadvantaged populations, and increase the number of people lacking food,” it warned.

Calling for greater efforts to reduce food waste, it added, “Experience has shown that replacing local production with imports does not resolve the problem of food insecurity caused by damage to agriculture, because it is accompanied by a sharp increase in prices.”

For the first time, the annual report estimated that 5% of the country’s health budget is spent on people whose problems stem from not eating sufficiently nutritious food. This translated into NIS 5.2 billion ($1.5 billion), or NIS 3,700 per person (just over $1,000).

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