With school out for months, hundreds of thousands of kids face food insecurity

400,000 children eligible for hot school meals are stuck at home due to coronavirus, falling between cracks as ministries fail to take responsibility, Knesset committee hears

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

Illustrative picture of a child. (Xavier_S, i-Stock photos at Getty Images)
Illustrative picture of a child. (Xavier_S, i-Stock photos at Getty Images)

With most schools shut for months due to the coronavirus, hundreds of thousands of needy school-age children have not been getting the hot meals they are entitled to because government ministries and local authorities have been incapable of coordinating distribution, despite funding being available.

The government’s inability to get its act together is seeing food aid charities doing what they can to fill the void, the Knesset’s Special Committee for the Rights of the Child heard on Tuesday.

Even the captain of Jerusalem’s Beitar soccer team, Idan Vered, has gotten involved, inspired by the example of Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford, who has kickstarted a campaign in the UK to end child food insecurity.

“I’m a father,” Vered told the committee. “From March until today, some 400,000 children aren’t getting the meals to which they are entitled because of bureaucracy, not money. It’s infuriating. Some of them can’t study because they’re hungry.”

Vered added, “Can’t our startup nation, which knows how to fight wars, find some way for these children to be able to eat?”

Maccabi’s Idan Vered scores against Schalke keeper Ralf Faehrmann, left, during the Europa League Group J soccer match between FC Schalke 04 and Maccabi Haifa in Gelsenkirchen, Germany, Thursday, Sept. 29, 2011. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

Around 420,000 pupils in kindergartens and elementary schools are eligible for a daily hot meal by law.

At the beginning of this year, the Finance Ministry budgeted NIS 600 million ($180 million) for the program.

Then on March 12, the government announced that schools would close until after the Passover break because of the coronavirus pandemic. Since then, some grades have returned, only to be sent home again, with different rules for different age groups being applied in different parts of the country depending on COVID-19 infection rates.

From the first lockdown on, the Education Ministry stopped distributing meals. Meanwhile, the Social Welfare Ministry told the committee that the meals it has distributed to 100,000 homes included some 35,000 children and youths, of whom around 18,000 were on the Education Ministry’s lists.

Michal Menkes, vice president for Education and Community Administration at the Israel Union of Local Authorities, said that it was the Education Ministry’s responsibility to ensure that the meals reached the right children and that the local authorities, which are helping with distribution, needed not only the right lists of names (they have separate lists from the Education and the Social Welfare ministries) but also physical assistance on the ground. The food security situation was only getting worse, she added.

Menkes said she had no idea how many needy children had received meals under any framework, just that “rising numbers of hungry people are turning to us but we don’t have the budgets [to respond]. The charities are doing what they can but they shouldn’t be replacing the state.”

Haim Halperin, the Education Ministry official responsible for the school meals program, was unable to provide any figures on the number of schoolchildren who had received meals. He said he understood that the authority to distribute the food had been transferred to the Israel Defense Forces’ Home Front Command, but had not received reports from them.

When an official from the Defense Ministry said it had been made clear that the IDF would not be providing assistance during the second lockdown, Halperin said, “We will cooperate with whoever wants to lead this, once the government has decided who takes responsibility.”

Halperin continued, “A child at home is a child with a family. To bring just one meal is worse than not bringing anything. The solution during the first lockdown lay with the local authorities, who knew which families were receiving food aid from the Social Welfare Ministry.”

MK Yousef Jabareen at a committee meeting in the Knesset, December 13, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“If you told me these children were getting food through a different framework, I’d say fine,” said committee chairman Yousef Jabareen (Joint List), “but you can’t say that because you don’t have the figures! Tens of thousands of hungry children got hot meals for years, and today, nobody can tell me what’s happening with them? This should keep all of us up at night.”

Halperin confirmed that whatever of the NIS 600 million allocated for school meals is not used goes back to the Treasury. He was unable to say how much of that money had been used so far this year.

Sigal Shpitz-Toledano, the volunteer parent responsible for food security at the National Parents’ Association, said that with computerized systems, the Education Ministry’s claim that it had no figures showed contempt. “The schools know where the hungry children are, including those who are new to hunger as a result of the coronavirus. The ministry could get the information in a week.”

Sigal Shpitz-Toledano of the National Parents’ Assocation. (Courtesy)

In the absence of official figures, the association has joined forces with an academic, Hebrew University’s Prof. Aron Troen, to mount its own survey of children with food insecurity. Bar from money from the Health Ministry to translate the survey into Arabic, it is all being done voluntarily.

“We’re not the ones supposed to be mapping this,” Shpitz-Toledano said.

She added that the Education Ministry had also just withdrawn subsidies for afterschool frameworks, which include meals, for third-graders.

This follows new rules sent to local authorities a couple of days ago mandating that from now on, children in afterschool groups must remain within the same pods that they are in during the mornings at school. Smaller numbers of third-grade children are registered for afterschool frameworks and if they have to be in pods it becomes economically less viable to employ staff, which is why the government is withdrawing its subsidies.

In some locales, there are not even enough first- and second-grade children in the afterschool pods to make those frameworks viable.

Shpitz-Toledano told the Times of Israel after the meeting that in some areas, afterschool frameworks had collapsed completely, with none of the children getting their daily hot meals.

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