Building on Progress to Ensure Equitable Food Support in Israel

June 21, 2023

In May, the Israeli Knesset passed a two-year national budget, including significant increases in funding for food security programs. This historic win follows last year’s first-time investments in anti-hunger programs in the base of Israel’s national budget, which was a direct success of MAZON and our network partners’ leadership to elevate hunger. This new budget includes 46 million shekels (NIS) for Israel’s charitable food distribution network and an additional 90 million NIS for the National Nutrition Security Program administered by the Welfare Ministry. The budget includes a historic one billion shekels of discretionary funding for food assistance cards (400 million in 2023 and 600 million in 2024). However, more than 1.5 million Israelis still face hunger, and the way in which these new funds are distributed will be critical in ensuring all of those who need it receive support.

The equitable distribution of this one billion shekels in food assistance is now the issue confronting MAZON’s network and the 522,000 families in Israel struggling with food insecurity. A January 2023 report from the National Insurance Institute of Israel shows that hunger disproportionally impacts Arab Israelis. In 2021, 42.4% of Arab families experienced food insecurity. This rate was three times higher than the national average. About 11% of Jewish Israelis struggled with food insecurity during the same time. Other historically marginalized communities in Israel experience similar, disproportionately high rates of hunger including the families of Bedouin women, Haredi women, and women living in Israel’s economic and geographical periphery. 

It is critically important that Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government uses fair and equitable criteria in determining who can access this new assistance. This is essential to ensure effective targeting of severe food insecurity, the goal of the food card program. Unfortunately, in the past, there has been deep inequity in food distribution programs, particularly among ultra-Orthodox Israelis and Arab Israelis — two of the populations that experience significant rates of food insecurity. In 2020, while about 11% of the general population was food insecure, that rate among ultra-Orthodox Jewish Israelis was 165% and the rate among Arab Israelis was a staggering 42%. However, because of the criteria used to distribute the Israeli government’s food cards, only about 32% of Arab Israelis were eligible for assistance, despite accounting for more food insecurity, while 32% of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish Israelis were eligible for the same assistance.

Now, the Israeli government is preparing to administer a similar program at a much bigger scale, and they must not repeat mistakes of the past. MAZON and our partners fear that Prime Minister Netanyahu plans to distribute the one billion NIS in food assistance through the Ministry of the Interior based on lists of taxpayers that receive a substantial reduction (70% or more) in their local property taxes. These lists would be collected from municipalities and prioritize families with many children, a common household characteristic of ultra-Orthodox Israelis. The Israeli government must allocate funds more equitably through the Ministry of Welfare to ensure that benefits will reach all of the communities facing food insecurity rather than deeming certain groups more worthy of help. Welfare databases include more households who qualify for various safety net programs due to their high needs. Fair allocation of these critical food benefits will ensure that support reaches all Israelis in need — including vulnerable groups in society like those experiencing homelessness, older adults struggling with utilities, single-parent families, widows, and people with disabilities among other more marginalized groups.

The Israeli government must also commit to extending food assistance in nuanced ways to reach those who are frequently denied welfare programs like Bedouin women, asylum seekers, and refugees. While it is dubious that the government is committed to equitable distribution of food assistance, either pathway for implementation always requires significant input from municipalities to provide either taxpayer lists or welfare rolls. Mayors, municipal leaders, and local agencies, should also commit to providing the national government with lists that ensure equitable distribution of the food assistance cards. Ultimately, failure to distribute cards in an equitable way is illegal and advocates are preparing petitions to the Supreme Court.

In recent years, MAZON and our partners have achieved historic advancements in Israel. Even during this time of great political instability, we have successfully raised the visibility of hunger in Israel and policies to address it. We will continue working to ensure that all Israelis facing hunger can access the support they need and deserve. Because regardless of circumstance, no one deserves to be hungry.