January 03, 2007

Reflections From Israel

By Joel E. Jacob

I have just returned from leading another MAZON mission to Israel.  For the past decade, MAZON has been a leading entity in targeting strategic grants to struggling Israeli-based anti-hunger organizations from Beer Sheva up to Haifa.  For the past three years, MAZON has played a central catalytic leadership role in the Forum to Address Food Insecurity and Poverty in Israel.  Our goal for this mission was to advance a business plan and organizational alignment for the establishment of a National Israel Food Bank.

Why a national food bank, and why now?  Let me take the second part of the question first.

From our field observations, talking with a myriad of experts, food providers, humanitarian and social workers, politicians, journalists and food recipients themselves, it is apparent that conditions have worsened vis-à-vis the provision of basic nourishment and nutritional needs to an estimated one-quarter of Israeli society (and that was even before the ramifications of the Lebanese war and its estimated $5.8 billion in damages).

In Jerusalem, we saw seniors (some in wheelchairs and with walkers) lining up for lunch at one of our grantee’s soup kitchens – at 9 a.m.  That is how desperate they are for what in many cases will be their only real meal for the day.  We also visited a food co-op in another area of Jerusalem, where the community has organized itself to do bulk food purchasing (thereby providing cheaper prices) and is sustained by all-volunteer labor, yet the shelves were partially barren and need outstripped supply.

In Jaffa, our delegation witnessed a few model programs that validated the simple premise that a well-fed child is more apt to academic success on a full stomach.  Yet, countless underprivileged school-aged children throughout Israel are not gaining access to school-based lunch programs or the handful of after school food/education enrichment programs.

In Haifa, we heard more fatalism from those who did not flee south during the war.  Teachers spoke to us about diverting funds previously earmarked for nutrition programs in order to hire more therapists to treat children for post-traumatic syndrome.  We stood in front of a bombed-out house in central Haifa that was hit directly by a rocket fired from Lebanon.  The irony here was that the home belonged to an Arab Israeli family.  Rockets are an equal opportunity killer of both Jews and Arabs.

Throughout Israel, over 400 struggling independent charitable bodies distributing food have been the “thin-green-line” assuring daily survival and the basic right to eat.  Tragically, many have been forced to transform themselves from simple feeding centers into multi-service entities to treat the myriad conditions that result from living in a state of poverty.  Most recently, these feeding organizations have been establishing dental clinics (manned by volunteer dentists and hygienists); Israel does provide health insurance, but only from the neck down.  This increased need for services highlights the challenges facing charities in providing basic welfare entitlements.  Their capacity makes them no more than small band-aids to a much deeper problem that only government, with its scale and resources, will ever adequately address.

Speaking of the Israeli government’s role in shaping public policy on food insecurity, our delegation had a series of productive dialogues at the Knesset.  We met directly with Gilad Erdan (Likud Party); Israel Katz (Likud Party, Former Minister of Agriculture); Nissim Slomiansky (National Religious Party); Michael Malchior (Labor-Meimad Party, Chairperson, Knesset Education Committee); and Yuli Tamir (Labor-Meimad Party, Minister of Education).

So why establish a National Israel Foodbank?

The question has a straightforward answer:  food insecurity affects 22% (2003 data) of the Israeli population, almost double the food insecurity rate of Americans as measured by the USDA.  Our estimate is that meeting Israeli food insecurity needs would require access to 140,000 tons of food per year.  We estimate that currently, approximately 25,000 tons of food are distributed through donations from manufacturers, the Israel Defense Forces, farmers, gleaning projects, and through food purchasing.  This gap – between what there is and what we need, the “haves” and “have nots” of the food equation – is large and is only growing bigger.

The purpose of the National Israel Foodbank is to create an efficient and effective infrastructure that will enable the country”s food assistance organizations to work together (along with the public sector, business section and philanthropic community) to provide higher quantities of more nutritious food to the growing ranks of the food insecure.  The National Israel Foodbank’s core activity will be the operation of a logistics and distribution center for food distribution, making use of global and local know-how.  The food bank will:

  • Ensure a sustainable stream of food services and cash donations;
  • Optimize utilization of all resources;
  • Build capacity of food assistance organizations and adherence to good governance and food safety issues;
  • Create a strong voice for advocacy and public awareness in Israel.

I know the MAZON mission is not mission-impossible.  There is a clear path to address more systemically the problem of food insecurity in Israel.

“If you offer your compassion to the hungry and satisfy the famished creature, then shall your light shine in darkness and your gloom shall be like noonday.” –Isaiah 58:10