COVID-19 is about to force a food insecurity reckoning in Israel

the strain on Israel's piecemeal network of food banks and charities is growing daily...

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For much of the past 30 years, the Israeli economy has continued to grow by leaps and bounds. It has developed into a high-tech, knowledge-based ecosystem that has featured high income growth rates. That's one of the reasons that Israel achieved the status of a high-income nation in 2014, and has continued on an upward trajectory from there.

But all along, right underneath the surface, there's been a persistent problem. It's an issue that has plagued Israelis, much like it has citizens of other advanced economies: food insecurity. And the ongoing coronavirus pandemic is complicating matters in a way that nobody could have predicted. Right now, the strain on Israel's piecemeal network of food banks and charities is growing daily, creating an uncertain future for the hundreds of thousands of people who rely on them for their next meal.

The numbers are quite shocking to the conscience, especially when viewed through the prism of the broader economic good times. By the end of 2019, the data showed that almost one in five Israelis was living with food insecurity and that there were at least a million children included in their number. It's the kind of statistic that one might expect to find in a less-privileged society, or a region suffering political or economic instability. And yet, that was the situation before the coronavirus dealt Israel the serious economic blow it's dealing with today.

The pandemic has had an immediate and debilitating effect. According to the national food bank Leket Israel, demand for their services has spiked in recent months. Among other troubling metrics, they've announced that six times as many local authorities (compared to pre-pandemic levels) have asked them to distribute food since the emergency began, which has translated into 60% more fruit and vegetables and 50% more hot meals being delivered to those in need,

At the same time, the forced closures of hospitality businesses and other supportive organizations have robbed Leket of some of its most reliable sources of surplus foodstuffs. In short, they're being asked to do far more with far less than they had under normal circumstances. It's a worst-case scenario that charities and food banks all over Israel are confronting every day.

The only bright spot, if it can be called that, is the fact that charitable donations from overseas Jewish organizations continue to pour in. The funds, although earmarked for specific projects within Israel, have increasingly been allocated to coronavirus relief, which frees them for use to bolster food distribution and other pandemic-related temporary assistance programs. The US, in particular, has been a primary source of charitable aid to Israelis in recent months.

In the US, charities have deployed a variety of Jewish fundraising ideas to increase their intake as they scale up to meet the new demand both at home and abroad. And those efforts are being paired with increased advocacy meant to pressure the Israeli government to step in to make up for whatever shortfalls remain. One primarily US-based organization called MAZON has been leading the charge on that front.

They, along with five other nonprofit food distributors have been calling for additional government aid since at least March, which they hoped would be forthcoming. As they waited, however, Israeli farmers stepped in to provide a much-needed supply of food to keep food bank shelves stocked. All told, the effort resulted in the donation of over 1,000 tons of produce, which, when combined with easing restrictions after the first two months of lockdowns, brought some relief to the overtaxed organizations.

But now, as the coronavirus shows signs of a resurgence in Israel, many expect a quick return to the same desperate situation that existed just a few short months ago. And this time, very few predict the same short lockdown that accompanied the first wave of infections. That means Israel's food insecurity problem is once again set to explode, this time with no relief in sight.

So that leaves Israel's network of charities and food banks in uncomfortable, unfamiliar territory. With few new resources available to gird for another surge in demand, they're facing the prospect of a second wave in an already-weakened state. And given that they made it through the first wave by relying on a patchwork of donations and plain old good luck, it's anybody's guess how things will play out this time.

The one thing that seems certain is that the coronavirus pandemic is about to lay bare Israel's under-the-radar food insecurity in a way that's going to force a reckoning for a nation that believed itself prosperous and socially secure. In a way, that could prove to be a good thing in the long run. But in the meantime, there's likely quite a bit of pain, suffering, and hunger in the offing for a large number of Israelis – and one can only hope that the country comes together to resolve to fix the problem for good.



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