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Waste and want: Dumpsters overflow with the food poor Israelis can’t afford

If schoolkids learn that dumping food is wrong, they'll bring that message home, discipline their families gently, and reform the country naturally, from within
Image: www.wrap.org.uk

Israel’s dumpsters are bulging with food, headed to trash facilities at great public expense. Meanwhile, in more and more Israeli homes, cupboards are bare, as pandemic poverty makes even grocery shopping a struggle.

Not bulging with scraps, but edible and nutritious food.

My organization Leket Israel just released the grim statistics on food waste, finding that our country consigned to trash a third of all the food it produced last year. Half of it was fit for tables, and given there are 465,000 households that lack money to eat properly, there are plenty of tables where it would have been welcome. 

These findings come from our annual waste report, conducted in association with the consulting company BDO and, for the first time, with government backing. Our number crunchers calculated that the market value of food wasted in 2019 was NIS 20.3 billion (US $6 billion). 

Food waste hurts us all. Each of us shells out more money for our food, and not only because we waste on a household level, but because there is massive waste at every stage — production, distribution and in stores. We’re all paying a premium to live in a society with a culture of food waste. And then there’s the cost to our environment. 

In a country where it is totally taboo to waste water, and it is increasingly frowned upon to leave a car engine running, dumping food — an act that combines both of these green sins — is hardly discussed. 

When we irrigate food that will go in the trash, we may as well take precious water and throw it down the drain. Actually, throwing to the drains would be better because at least it would get recycled. 

Then there is the wasted land, human effort and fuel. The gas used in 2019 to transport food destined for dumpsters could have powered every car in Haifa and the surrounding areas for the whole year. Land is so precious that it makes the price of homes sky-high and young people unable to get their own place – yet swathes of land are being used to grow food for trash cans. 

I’m deeply saddened that food waste is so ingrained in the way the country operates, even as organizations like mine are scrambling around for donations. But the release of our report comes with a glimmer of hope. 

When Leket published food waste reports in past years, we found ourselves knocking on the doors of politicians, urging them to pay attention. Now, they have actually teamed up with us to commission and issue a report. It was released jointly by Leket and the Ministry of Environmental Protection.

This reflected a massive moment in our war on waste. Now, the report we started as a critique of the country’s food management isn’t just read by policymakers; they have decided to get involved in producing it. This shows that, along with others who care about the issue, we have successfully pushed food waste on to the agenda enough for the government to care. 

Now the state cares, it’s time for the state to act. There is much it can do, but let’s start with two high-impact steps that could happen immediately. 

The pandemic has shown the power of our youngsters. The country has a coronavirus czar, but in many homes young kids have become the family’s own coronavirus czar, telling the parents to keep the rules “just like we learn them at school.” 

The importance of mask-wearing and hand hygiene are oftentimes learned by adult Israelis from their school-aged kids school children, who have it drilled into them in the classroom. So let’s deploy the Great Israeli Youth against food waste. 

There are other examples of youth as agents for change. Israelis used to roam around the countryside picking wild flowers, leaving areas damaged for  the next visitors. The great change came in the 60s. There was legislation, but much of the compliance was owed to schools, which were instructed to teach kids this is wrong. Children started challenging, and gently disciplining, their parents. 

Similarly, education campaigns that have run via kids are largely to  thank for the taboo on water wastage. The pride (or worry, depending on the time) at the water level of the Sea of Galilee, national aversion to long showers, and abhorrence of Israelis upon learning that in other countries people leave water running while brushing teeth, owe much to school teachers talking to parents via kids. 

We now need our educators to teach Part Two of this lesson, namely it is great that we try to not waste water; now we need to cut down food waste. Serving food carefully so we take the right amount isn’t stingy, it’s sensible. And compositing leftovers isn’t the green path — it’s just a less-bad option than the landfill. The green path is, of course, to serve them again. 

As young people challenge us to change, we need the grown-ups in government to also play their part. The first step should be to simply prompt people to think more about the amount they throw away.

It can opt for carrots, sticks, or a combination. Refuse collection can be charged on more differential rates, with a pricing structure intended to make householders and businesses aware of their wastage. This would discourage waste. 

Incentives are likely to have a strong impact in Israel. Businesses would be motivated to better handle surplus food received tax breaks or other benefits based on every kilogram of food that is donated. Currently, many foresee only hassle when they consider doing anything with  surplus food beyond tossing it away. 

Should the government give businesses a vested interest in ensuring this food finds its way to hungry mouths – via my organization or others — it would have a transformative effect. Any cost to public funds will be outweighed by the economic benefits of boosting food security among the neediest Israelis.

Economists say it could take years to overcome the financial impact of the pandemic. There has never been a better time for the government to invest in combating waste and, in doing so, countering want.

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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