Leket Israel | Hot Meals in Hard Times

One of the sad outcomes of the Covid-19 crisis is that more Israelis than ever are experiencing nutritional insecurity. Leket Israel – Israel’s leading food rescue and distribution organization – is finding innovative ways to provide healthy meals to as many people as possible during this global emergency

Rebecca Kopans
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 Leket Israel staff and volunteers distributing meals directly to people’s homes during Covid-19
Leket Israel staff and volunteers distributing meals directly to people’s homes during Covid-19Credit: Leket Israel
Rebecca Kopans
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Since it was founded in 2003 by American oleh Joseph Gitler, Leket Israel has become synonymous with rescuing wasted food and providing nutritious meals to thousands of people every day. “We live in a buffet society,” says Gitler, adding that people buy and prepare too much food, and then throw away much of it. Leket Israel has built an operation that collects excess food from institutions such as hotels, caterers, corporate cafeterias and IDF army bases, as well as fresh fruit and vegetables from farmers and packing houses. The rescued food is sorted at the NGO’s logistics centers and distributed all over Israel to soup kitchens, shelters, after-school programs for at-risk youth and other places, for the benefit of those who would not otherwise have regular access to nutritious meals.

Supply evaporated as demand surged

Before the pandemic struck, Leket’s staff and volunteers were providing approximately 10,000 meals a day with its fleet of refrigerated trucks. But when the country went into lockdown, almost overnight the hotels, high-tech dining halls and other sources of excess food had to shut down. At the same time as Leket’s supply withered, demand surged. Nearly one million Israelis lost their jobs and many people faced financial crises that suddenly made it very challenging to feed their families adequately. The newly needy come from all over the country, from all sectors of society and from every age group.

Leket Israel lost no time. Realizing that they were more indispensable than ever, the NGO decided to purchase meals for the first time. “We changed our business model. We’re about rescuing excess food, not purchasing, but we had no choice. During Covid, we have been raising money to purchase meals in bulk to distribute to people who counted on us before as well as to new people who never imagined they would need such support,” Gitler elaborates. Using whatever funds they could, Leket approached caterers and restaurants that were at risk of shutting down due to the pandemic, and hired them to produce healthy and safe meals. This arrangement saved numerous food businesses and prevented their workers from losing their jobs. During the first lockdown, Leket purchased and delivered approximately 80,000 meals a week.

A Leket Israel logistics center for rescued foodCredit: Leket Israel

Most of the purchased meals are prepared by large catering companies that are grateful for Leket’s business. They produce a variety of individually packaged ready-to-eat meals that have long shelf lives, and each recipient receives a set of seven different meals once a week. “We have a nutritionist who works with the caterers and plans healthy menus. We try to supply high-quality balanced meals,” says Janir Gabay, manager of Leket Israel’s food distribution for Northern Israel. Leket also purchases meals from small restaurants in financial distress, thereby helping these businesses as well as the people receiving the meals.

12,000 meals directly to people’s homes

But sourcing wasn’t the only necessary change to be made. Delivery had to be completely overhauled as well, because all of the organizations that used to distribute the meals, such as shelters for battered women and centers for Holocaust survivors, were closed too. Suddenly, all the meals had to be delivered directly to people who were homebound. “We enlisted drivers, staff members and volunteers to go door to door,” says Gitler. Leket Israel also partnered with dozens of municipalities all over Israel; the municipalities provide volunteers and lists of those requiring meals and Leket supplies the food.

Although prior to the pandemic Leket did not have much direct contact with the people who actually ate the meals, since  local partners were responsible for distributing the rescued food to those in need, during Covid-19 individuals began contacting the NGO directly. “People started to call Leket and ask for help with food. Sometimes we referred them to local organizations but often we added them to the list of those to whom we distribute meals directly,” notes Kfir Levi, manager of Leket Israel’s food distribution for Israel’s Central and Southern regions.

When Leket Israel made the decision to start delivering meals directly to people’s homes, a large wave of volunteers took part in the huge logistical operation, especially during the first lockdown period. Leket employees demonstrated a remarkable willingness to help with the massive effort. “Everybody was all-in,” confirms Gabay. “Our drivers worked as many hours as needed, picking up food and distributing to people’s homes.” Gabay recalls that one driver was particularly distressed when he saw the living conditions of one elderly recipient, who had no air-conditioning in the sweltering summer heat. The driver talked to some of his friends and together they arranged to install an air-conditioning unit in the man’s home. This incident is typical of the spirit of Leket.

‘War of attrition’

An important part of Levi and Gabay’s jobs is to continuously look for new sources of rescued food. Both point out that the IDF has been a crucial partner over the years, and the army has made a special effort during the pandemic to help Leket as much as possible. “The IDF saved us. They opened their gates to us with open arms,” says Levi.

Prior to Covid, Leket Israel was primarily a very efficient logistical operation that supplied food to partner organizations. The NGO’s 12 drivers had daily routes, which consisted either of picking up rescued food from institutional donors and driving them to central hubs for processing and packing, or else picking up meals from the hubs and delivering them to partners all over Israel. The seven logistic hubs are spread out geographically – from Safed in the North to Beer Sheva in the South – and each contains a large central kitchen where food is sorted, stored, heated and packed.

While food insecurity has increased significantly all over Israel, the southern city of Eilat has been particularly hard hit. Eilat’s economy relies almost entirely on the tourist industry and since there were no tourists for most of 2020, unemployment in the city reached a record high of over 40%. It wasn’t long before its soup kitchens became overwhelmed, mostly with people who never imagined they would be in such a position. “The situation in Eilat is very difficult,” confirms Levi. “These days we supply around 1,200 meals a day to Eilat.”

Recently, some of the former suppliers, such as restaurants and hotels, have started to reopen, but buffets are not permitted, which means that they have less excess food to donate. “We are now in a ‘war of attrition,’” concedes Gitler. “These are uncertain times, demanding extraordinary determination and effort on our part to ensure an ongoing supply of food to the growing number of people in dire need.”

Leket Israel launched a special worldwide campaign to pay for the purchased meals and reach as many people in need as possible throughout the duration of the coronavirus crisis. “The Israeli public has been very generous and there has also been an outpouring of help from the Diaspora. People responded quickly. We are spending the money as fast as it comes in. 17 years of goodwill, respect and hard work are paying off,” Gitler notes proudly.

Food Waste and Rescue in Israel

For the first time, the 2019 Food Waste and Rescue in Israel Report was funded by Israel’s Ministry of Environmental Protection – signaling that the government is starting to pay attention to this important issue. The report estimates that in Israel, 2.5 million tons (5.5 billion pounds) of food, valued at NIS 20.3 billion (US $6 billion), was wasted last year, meaning that approximately 35% of domestic food production was lost. Of this amount, around 1.2 million tons (2.65 million pounds), worth NIS 7.1 billion (US $2.1 billion), was rescuable. Food waste occurs when food that is fit for human consumption is either destroyed or becomes spoiled instead of being eaten. Food loss occurs at all stages, from manufacturing through consumption.

Although it is based on pre-Covid-19 data, the recently released report includes a detailed model for calculating the environmental impact of food waste – estimated at NIS 3.2 billion ($945 million). It highlights the importance of food rescue policy as a socio-economic tool that facilitates both rescuing food at one-third of its cost, and substantially reducing the loss of natural resources. The findings indicate that food rescue is beneficial from economic, social, and environmental perspectives, and that every shekel invested in food rescue produces food with a direct value of US $3.6.

For information about how you can support Leket Israel, visit: yearend.leket.org. Every dollar donated through this campaign will be matched $1 for $1 thanks to the generosity of the Scheinberg Relief Fund.