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Cases spike, stomachs rumble: New COVID wave leaves Israelis scrambling for food

There are more people in need, and fewer sources of food to nourish them. Worse, it's going to get worse before it gets better
Leket staff and volunteers geared up for deliveries. (courtesy)

Israel’s coronavirus cases are at an all-time high. We’ve entered a harsh new reality, and it’s not just a story of health; it’s a story of hunger too. We’re entering a second wave of want. 

It’s a disaster for many thousands who could well be headed towards hunger. Already, entertainment and catering venues and other places where some of the lowest-paid Israelis work have closed, sending staff back to furlough. 

I’m worried and I’m not easily flappable. When COVID-19 hit, I said it’ll be okay — we’ll carry on and help keep poor Israelis nourished. But now, I’m daunted.

Whether or not there is a second lockdown, we’re on the path towards more hungry stomachs. The new atmosphere in Israel and the latest steps that put a damper on the economy are already starting an economic domino effect. It is likely to push people over the line — to push some people who have managed until now to a situation of need and poverty. My colleagues and I at Leket Israel, our national food bank, have seen it before, and we are gearing up to see it again. 

 But let’s be clear that facing this new wave isn’t like fighting a new battle, once the previous battle is finished. It’s like fighting on two fronts at once. This is happening as the first wave is still hitting the country hard.

 Israeli society hasn’t recovered from the impact of the initial lockdown. For many of those who lost jobs in March and April, work hasn’t restarted. And to make matters worse, we’ve seen 130,000 new jobseekers in recent weeks, even before the second wave. 

 Hungry people from all over the country are turning to us at Leket and  to understand their circumstances is to get a better picture of the fall-out that this crisis is having on vulnerable citizens. 

 A few days ago in Akko, I sat with David, a 55-year-old man, who has been looking for work for a few months, but isn’t succeeding in the job market that has suddenly shrunk. Eloquent and willing to work hard, he is reduced to nourishing himself on donated meals.

 Here’s the first challenge to what we think about pandemic poverty — that it just affects those who lost their jobs during the crisis. It doesn’t. It is badly slowing the ability of those who were looking for work when this hit, and who in normal circumstances may have found employment by now. 

 While in Akko, I visited Miriam, a single mom who works in an elderly care home. She is one of our heroes, helping to keep our elderly happy and safe through the instability. Yet when she gets home, she doesn’t have the means to meet her bills and buy enough food. 

 Miriam earns below the minimum wage, and brings home under 3,000 shekels per month. She cannot afford to buy food and cover her other bills. “If I go shopping once a week that’s a minimum of 500 to 600 shekels weekly, which is 2,000 shekels,” she said. 

 Lockdown left many of us feeling unkempt, having been kept away from the hairdresser for a few weeks. But Miriam told me: “I haven’t been to a hair salon or restaurant for 10 years.”

 Miriam’s story highlights another challenge to how we think of the pandemic poverty problem. We’re all focused on the figures of how many people are becoming newly-poor that we forget that the coronavirus crisis has left people who always struggle — even in the “good” times —feeling less stable. 

  A third assumption that doesn’t necessarily fly is that we’re over the worst. There is a sense that things couldn’t be more dire for the needy than they were during the strict coronavirus measures of March and April. 

But in a sense, it’s harder now than it was at the start of the pandemic. 

 Many people have burned through what little savings they had, and now need help to keep their families nourished. Three months ago, donors were in a better financial state, but now many of them have been affected in one way or another by coronavirus. 

 In this crisis, every policy decision has an almost-instant impact on Israel’s most vulnerable. We normally prepare food trays for about two shekels (50 cents) a piece using leftovers that we collect from corporate cafeterias, hotels, event halls and other places where we avert food waste. 

 For weeks of lockdown, we lost this source, and had to buy food for about 18 shekels ($5) per meal. Now, this source of food is shrinking in front of our eyes.

 New government rules reduce dining in almost all of the settings that provide Leket with excess to collect.  Hotel dining halls are subject to restrictions. Workplace cafeterias are operating less, as employers are being told to have 30% of people work from home. 

 All of this is happening as we are bracing ourselves for the economy to shrink and more people to be furloughed. 

 Will there be another full lockdown? None of us knows, and this uncertainty is one of the hardest things about this pandemic for people like me, working in non-profits that care for the vulnerable: the inability to plan and prepare with a sense of what is coming.

Unfortunately, our main guiding principle is a depressing one. It is going to get worse before it gets better.

About the Author
Joseph Gitler is the founder and chairman of Leket Israel -- The National Food Bank, the leading food rescue non-profit organization that rescues fresh, perishable food, working with 195 non-profits throughout the country to distribute nutritious food to over 175,000 Israelis weekly.
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