Nutritional Council Set to Relaunch Food Program, Even Though It’s Living Off Scraps Itself

The National Nutritional Security Council believes it can provide healthy food for every table in Israel. Now it just needs the government to release the funds it keeps promising.

Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The council that sets the state’s nutritional policy is hoping it will be third time lucky as it attempts to roll out a program that provides basic healthy foods for some 110,000 needy Israeli families, balancing nutritional and economic considerations.

“Poor people shouldn’t have to eat food that is totally different from the rest of society,” says National Nutritional Security Council chairman Prof. Dov Chernichovsky. He met Social Affairs Minister Haim Katz this week in a bid to restart the program, which was launched last December but immediately shelved when early Knesset elections were called. The program was first unveiled at the beginning of 2014.

The estimated budget required for the products, either in food packages or via food vouchers, is some 500 million shekels (about $131.1 million) a year.

The basic list of products, formulated by Health Ministry officials, consists of dairy products such as cheese and cottage cheese (up to 5 percent fat) and yogurt (up to 3 percent fat); chicken and turkey; legumes like beans, chickpeas or lentils; tinned tuna and various fish; whole grains (rice, wheat, buckwheat or couscous); pasta and whole-wheat bread; basic fruit and vegetables (cherry tomatoes, avocados and cherries are not classed as basic, so don’t appear); eggs, milk and fresh soy drink. The list doesn’t include dairy desserts like Milky, the subject of a storm in a dessert bowl last year over its inflated Israeli price.

The nutritional council aims to put together several kinds of food baskets, according to families’ size, ages and genders. The council is also examining the possibility of providing baskets adapted to various ethnic communities.

In the plan, a family of five (two parents in their 40s and three children aged 3-16) will receive a basket consisting of six main food groups: grains, vegetables, fruit, dairy products, high-protein products and healthy high-fat foods. The council calculated the portions required for appropriate nutrition. For example, a loaf of whole-wheat bread and half a kilo of rice will provide the daily need for 46 dishes of grain. A carton of milk and five yogurts and strained yogurts will provide the daily need for 9 portions of milk and dairy products. A similar calculation was made regarding the other product groups.

“The food basket is based on nutritional considerations,” says Chernichovsky. “The idea isn’t to give the needy a minimal food basket. We’re looking for a regular basket that doesn’t consist of luxury products but offers a good, reasonable variety ... we wouldn’t support eating steaks in a restaurant, for example,” he adds.

Established by the Social Affairs Ministry in 2011 following Knesset legislation, the council was tasked with setting the government’s nutritional policy. The law defines food security as “the possibility to regularly consume food that includes all the nutritional components required for proper human development.”

Situation deteriorating

In a recent conference at Tel Aviv University dedicated to nutritional security, Chernichovsky said that surplus weight and malnutrition were the main risk factors for death and loss of bodily function. He said the situation in Israel regarding nutrition was deteriorating – due to food shortage and malnutrition – compared to neighboring states with a healthy “Mediterranean diet” like Greece and Cyprus.

Last year, the council developed a national nutritional security program of food packages or food vouchers that would be distributed by NGOs nationwide. Eligibility for a food basket was based on the income of families close to the poverty line, from which utility payments like water, housing and electricity had been deducted. If the remaining sum was lower than the required expense for food (based on a minimal food basket, according to the number of family members), then the family was entitled to an average monthly assistance of 320 shekels.

The council calculated that some 110,000 such families are living in Israel, consisting of more than 400,000 people.

The new program recommends using both food packages and vouchers, although each method has advantages and disadvantages. “Vouchers save the cost of organization and distributing packages, provide consumers with freedom of choice and are better for their dignity,” the council’s report says.

“On the other hand, there are problems of misuse and even illegal trading with the vouchers, and it is difficult to supervise,” it adds.

Social workers and needy families usually prefer food vouchers, which enable greater flexibility in handling the family budget. They also save the cost of organization and package distribution. However, NGOs can make the most of the government budget and increase the assistance with packages.

A National Insurance Institute survey from 2012 found that one in five Israeli families – some 330,000 households, three times more than the number of families targeted by the new program – suffer from nutritional insecurity. Chernichovsky says the difference in the numbers stems from “different measuring systems and a different approach.

“The NII asked people about their feelings. It’s very difficult to determine eligibility to state aid on the basis of subjective feelings, because the sky’s the limit. We tried to build a clearer, more measurable criterion, based on households’ income and expenses,” he explains.

The Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel released data on Tuesday setting the monthly food expense for people in the third to fifth deciles at some 660 shekels. The Taub Center called this “the normative food expense,” i.e. a higher sum indicates the consumption of luxury products, while a lower one indicates “underconsumption, indicates the buying of lower quality products.”

The second decile’s food expense is about 560 shekels per month, while the lowest decile’s expense is about 470 shekels. On the other hand, the top decile’s monthly food expense totals about 1,430 shekels.

At a news conference at the beginning of 2014, Yesh Atid ministers announced the allocation of 230 million shekels to the nutritional security program. However, some 170 million shekels of the money found its way to other, existing, programs (like funding school nutrition or supplying food to old age centers). Only about 60 million shekels were actually earmarked for the nutritional program, and even this sum was never used – probably because of the Justice Ministry’s demand to issue tenders for contracts with the NGOs.

“Sometimes, a Machiavellian thought sneaks into the mind that the Finance Ministry declares fund allocations for various purposes, while knowing there is no way to use them,” observes Chernichovsky.

Now he has to restart the program, although since its formation the council has not received any budget for its nutritional activities and its members are volunteers. Chernichovsky believes that with money, the state could help ensure “healthy food on every table in Israel.”