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Coronavirus is driving thousands of people into hunger. Where is the state?

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Natali Digora, 48, moved to Israel from Moldova in 1997, and worked until last March as a soprano at the Israel National Opera. She lost her job when the Health Ministry restricted the number of singers who could be onstage because of the coronavirus. Natali went home and eventually found she did not have enough money to buy food. At first, she made do with what was in the house. But when the food and the money ran out, she went for several days without eating. “I was too embarrassed to ask for help,” she said.

Tel Aviv native Avi Ohanan, 31, was managing the dairy kitchen at Eilat’s Prima Music Hotel when COVID-19 struck and the hotels were forced to close. Used to eating good food at the hotel or taking it home, he suddenly had to decide how to spend his limited cash. His landlord threatened to evict him if he didn’t pay the rent. “I didn’t know what to do,” he recalled. “I had no money for rent, my electricity was turned off, and I had nowhere to go.”

Digora and Ohanan are just two examples of successful, working people driven by the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic to no longer having enough money to eat.

Helped by Leket, the National Food Bank, which rescues food for distribution to the needy, they are among an estimated 124,000 new people who have joined the 1.87 million Israelis (465,000 households) already facing what the professionals call food insecurity.

That they were rescued by a charity rather than the government comes as no surprise to those working in the field. According to one estimate, the state contributes just 2.5 percent of the more than NIS 2 billion ($600 million) invested in food aid, with charities shouldering most of the burden for this population.

Food insecurity has been defined as the inability to ensure a constant supply of food that contains all the nutritional elements necessary for proper development and health. While it can lead to malnutrition, it is not the same thing. Indeed, it is a prime cause of obesity. It is closely linked to the development of disease and to increased vulnerability to illnesses such as COVID-19.

On Friday, the Haaretz newspaper ran a lengthy profile about a new charity, Culture of Solidarity, born out of the pandemic. A nucleus of three volunteers has grown into an organization of 3,000 that has distributed more than 30,000 boxes of food across the country since the coronavirus came to Israel.

The three founders were shocked to discover that they were being approached by social workers, teachers, even mayors, to help people with nothing to eat. Lists of hungry people that they drew up and gave to social welfare departments were not being acted upon. Nine months after starting what they saw as a short-term project to do a little good, all three have realized that nobody is going to take over because, as they say, nobody is there.

“I’ve been in this job for 13 years and it’s always been the same,” Gidi Kroch, Leket CEO, told The Times of Israel. “People turn to the not-for-profit organizations, not the social welfare departments, because they [the latter] have no solutions. Many social workers don’t even open case files for people who are food insecure.”

With Israel’s move from a socialist to a capitalist economy over the last few decades, investment in social welfare has nosedived, employment has become less secure and food prices have risen. Today, socioeconomic gaps in Israel are among the widest in the developed world, a phenomenon that sparked massive social justice protests in 2011 that brought almost half a million Israelis onto the streets demanding change.

That year, the government established a National Food Security Council and made the social welfare minister responsible for the issue. In 2012, the Social Welfare Ministry launched the National Food Security Project (NFSP) under the Food Security Council’s guidance.

In 2014, the Food Security Council calculated that NIS 500 million ($130 million) would be needed annually to support 120,000 families. (Today it estimates the number of families at 150,000.) But by the time the project got off the ground, in 2017, it had been whittled down to a three-year “pilot” project of NIS 50 million ($15 million) per year. Extended for a fourth year (with talks ongoing to extend it further until June next year), it currently has a NIS 55 million ($16.5 million) budget, to which the........

© The Times of Israel

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