More than 21 percent of Israel’s citizens, including over 755,000 children, live below the poverty line, among the highest poverty rates within the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Israel’s National Insurance Institute (Bituach Leumi) estimates that about 18 percent of Israeli households are food insecure. In other words, they lack what the World Health Organization defines as access to “sufficient, safe, nutritious food [essential] to maintain a healthy and active life.”
This “burning” issue returns to the headlines time and again, only to be forgotten once more. The government has yet to act on the findings of the National Council on Food Security which the government itself mandated, and which recommended a budget of 500 million shekel for food aid to the 110,000 households and more than 400,000 individuals in the greatest need. As Pesach approaches, I want to share three insights from my research on the response by a non-governmental organization to this need, that have a bearing on the Passover Seder and the crisis of food insecurity here in Israel.
We are all in this together
The Haggadah begins by stating, “From the beginning, our ancestors worshiped idols.” This is a blunt reminder that we aren’t inherently better than anyone else. When we celebrate the festival in bounty we can too easily forget that the focus of Seder is not on the abundant meal but on the matzah (unleavened bread), the “lehem ‘oni”, literally “the bread of poverty” our forebears ate when they left Egypt. We are required to eat this dry and simple food (made even less palatable with bitter herbs) so that we symbolically experience and reflect on the shared human condition of bondage, of want, and of our collective need for redemption. The text explicitly addresses us: “YOU were once a stranger in the land of Egypt” — you were once “the other” and but for the grace of G-d you might still be.
This inclusion of all of us, across our generation, is central. Debating whether certain people “deserve” help divides “us” from “them”, making those who are hungry and needy seem like the “other.” Whether consciously or subconsciously, we tend to disparage people who are forced to rely on food banks and charity. It is easy to imagine they just aren’t working hard enough, and if “they” worked harder, the way “we” do, they could make ends meet.
Here in Israel, discussions of poverty often turn to Haredi, Bedouin and Arab populations. Their high birth rates, employment and housing patterns, and other factors are faulted for their poverty and food insecurity.
Political discourse resulting in policies to address these problems is necessary. But debates on the virtues of those in need and how we ought to react must not delay immediate action to fix food insecurity. The most vulnerable members of society are children, children who are at risk of irreversible harm through no fault of their own. Nutritional deficiencies in childhood lead to impaired brain development, slower growth, fatigue and an inability to learn. Leket Israel, a non-governmental organization (NGO) and the nation’s largest food bank whose name comes from the Biblical law to leave some of the grain harvest for the poor, has stepped up and is doing something to solve the problem. As nutrition scientists, we have been studying its work and results, its successful efforts to stop the waste of valuable agricultural food surplus and its organization of an army of volunteers to redistribute surplus fruits, vegetables and other food donations to the hungry.
All who are hungry
The ancient Aramaic prayer recited at the start of the Passover Seder,—Ha Lachma Ani’a”, “This is the bread of affliction”– invites “All who are hungry, let them come and eat.” The word “all” includes diverse communities. With Israeli society fractured along religious and ethnic lines, questions of policy have typically delayed urgently needed decisions on how to get essential foods to every community.
We are following the work of Leket Israel because it is not enough to distribute food; we have to determine what communities need. Merely providing fruits and vegetables may not be enough. For example, Leket Israel supplied eggplants to recently arrived Ethiopian immigrants living in absorption centers. When field workers visited, they found children kicking around the large purple “balls.” In other words, providing people with a food item doesn’t ensure they are familiar with it and will know how to use it! This means that in order to effectively combat hunger and malnutrition, we have to be aware of cultural needs, food preferences and more. One of our research aims, then, is to investigate how the foods are being used so as to provide a diet with an adequate supply of micronutrients, vitamins and minerals.
I am working with Leket Israel to investigate where it is most effective and to identify what food resources are most crucially needed to maintain their recipients’ health. Many food banks give out staples such as flour, pasta, dried legumes, oil and sugar, which are easy to store and distribute, but lack nutrients. Fruits, vegetables, dairy and meat, rich in micronutrients, are often the most expensive and least accessible to food insecure people. They’re also perishable and difficult for food banks to distribute. Unlike other food banks, Leket Israel’s emphasis on rescuing, growing and distributing fresh fruits and vegetables aims to meet this critical health and nutrition need.
Working with organizations that serve Arab, Ethiopian, Russian, Druze and other minorities, Leket Israel functions as an umbrella, responding to the different needs of various communities and helping local leadership respond to the country’s food crisis. They give out food in a way that’s as egalitarian as possible. As in the Haggadah, their goal is to make sure that all who are hungry can “come and eat.”
In every generation
The Haggadah points out that “in every generation, we must see ourselves as if we had come out of Egypt.” As we point out repeatedly throughout the Seder, the story of Passover doesn’t only apply to a single generation or a single group of people, and neither do issues of food security.
Any one of us could become dependent on donations at some point in our life. The issues of food insecurity need to concern all of us, even if we are currently secure.
Among Israel’s poorest are Holocaust survivors who are once again struggling to survive without adequate social support. A significant elderly population from Russian-speaking countries, individuals who have lost their income due to medical emergencies and abrupt changes in circumstances, and individuals who are physically or mentally incapacitated find themselves unable to pay for rent, electricity, medicine, and have enough money left over to buy nutritious food.
My research will help Leket Israel reach out to “all who are hungry.” The data we collect will make fine tuning possible, so that nutritional needs are gauged and met. It will help improve efforts to alleviate the insidious effects of the chronically poor diets that result from food insecurity, which lack essential nutrients even if basic energy needs are met.
Hunger is not a thought experiment. Without experiencing it, we can’t imagine what it’s like for a child to go to bed hungry and wake up hungry, day after day after day after day, or what it it must be like for the parents when their children cry out for food that they cannot provide for them. At Passover we’re asked to renew our commitment to freedom, including a freedom from hunger and need.
Hunger, malnutrition, and issues of food distribution are not unique to Israel. You won’t find a first world country without food banks. However, different societies pursue different solutions, and Israel does face unique challenges, like its diverse ethnic and cultural landscape.
At Hebrew University, one of Israel’s leading nutrition schools, we take the problem of food insecurity and the response to it within Israeli society very seriously. We’re training student dietitians and future nutrition scientists who will soon be engaged in the field. Our research will demonstrate how Leket Israel, other NGOs, and most importantly government, in Israel and elsewhere, can confront the scourge of hunger and assure the food security of all citizens.
As we assemble at the Seder this year, and after my children ask the Four Questions, I will remind our family and friends that when we invite all those in need to join us, and “All who are hungry” to partake, we are assuming an ongoing responsibility for food security for Israel’s poor and for those who are hungry in every part of the world.
Aron Troen is a researcher with the Institute of Biochemistry, Food Science and Nutrition at the Robert H. Smith Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Environment, at Hebrew University and an expert on nutrition in brain and cognitive function. Aron was a member of the National Council on Food Security Research Committee, and is currently working in collaboration with Leket Israel to investigate the role of food banks in alleviating food insecurity and its deleterious consequences for human development, health and wellbeing.