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Watchdog says Interior Ministry has ‘sewn up’ food aid criteria to suit Haredim

As 3rd lockdown looms, Movement for Quality Government petitions High Court against ministry’s decision to award NIS 700 million of food vouchers on basis of city rate discounts

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

Interior Ministry Aryeh Deri in an interview with the ultra-Orthodox news site Kikar HaShabbat, broadcast on May 9, 2020. (Screenshot/Kikar HaShabbat)
Interior Ministry Aryeh Deri in an interview with the ultra-Orthodox news site Kikar HaShabbat, broadcast on May 9, 2020. (Screenshot/Kikar HaShabbat)

With the country heading for a third lockdown that is bound to exacerbate already deepening poverty, the Movement for Quality Government on Thursday petitioned the High Court of Justice to address “grave concerns” that Interior Ministry criteria for distributing NIS 700 million ($210 million) in food aid had been “sewn up” to benefit the ultra-Orthodox population.

An analysis presented to the court showed that the condition for receiving food vouchers — qualifying for a municipal rate discount of at least 70% — would benefit 45 percent of Haredi households, 25% of Arab ones, and just 3.8% of Jewish homes that are not ultra-Orthodox.

Interior Minister and Shas party leader Aryeh Deri managed to secure this large sum earlier this year from the government’s coronavirus budget — even though food security has not been the responsibility of his ministry to date.

Deri beat to the honeypot the weaker Social Welfare Ministry, which has been gaining experience in the field of food security by running a pilot National Food Security Project. That project’s current budget is mainly financed by charitable contributions, with the government chipping in just $6 million.

An Interior Ministry tender for the distribution of food vouchers was awarded earlier this month to the Shufersal supermarket chain but the plan was then delayed after Eli Cohen — director of the charity Pitchon Lev, which seeks to break the intergenerational cycle of poverty — charged that it put Shufersal into a conflict of interest position and strengthened its monopolistic hold on the food sector.

A Shufersal supermarket in Jerusalem (Nati Shohat/Flash90, File)

The petition asks the court to order the government to explain the basis for distributing the vouchers, “in view of the grave concern that these criteria have been ‘sewn up’ to fit a certain part of the population.”

It charges that the criteria were determined without consulting relevant professionals and on an inadequate factual basis.

And it presses the court to issue an interim order to freeze the ministry’s tender and to hold an urgent discussion so that the case can be decided as quickly as possible and the food aid given out to all those who are truly in need.

Interior MInister Aryeh Deri speaks to reporters after receiving a COVID-19 vaccine in Jerusalem, on December 20, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Meanwhile, the Israel Forum for Sustainable Nutrition scorned the Interior Ministry for failing to take into account the experience accumulated during the pandemic by bodies ranging from the National Emergency Authority and the Home Front to other ministries, local authorities and charities.

Instead of the voucher program, it called for the pilot National Food Security Project to be expanded. Discounts on municipal taxes are not a measure of food insecurity, the forum pointed out. Rather, it is essential to use objective criteria, like those used by the pilot scheme, and to have measurable targets, all aimed at making healthy basic foods available to those in need, it insisted.

Restricting eligibility to households with tax discounts will miss many of the people who have only recently experienced food insecurity because of the pandemic and are still paying normal rates, the forum noted.

Earlier this month, the food aid charity Latet issued a report saying that over a quarter of a million households in Israel have fallen below the poverty line since the start of the pandemic — an increase of nearly 50 percent — with the total
portion of Israeli households living in poverty having risen from 20.1% to 29.3% in 2020.

File: A young Jewish boy seen eating at the Yad Ezra V’Shulamit center in Jerusalem, which serves hot lunch every day to more than 1,200 children under the poverty line; September 27, 2011. (Uri Lenz/FLASH90)

Children are particularly vulnerable, given the permanent developmental problems that can result if they do not eat properly.

Despite this, the Education Ministry has failed to deliver hot meals to disadvantaged pupils who are at home because of the coronavirus and has no idea how many may have been fed through Social Welfare Ministry programs or local initiatives involving municipalities and charities, outside of the National Food Security Initiative.

During regular times, some 420,000 pupils are eligible for school meals.

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