Israel Must Take Food Insecurity Seriously, Expert Panel Warns, Calling to Increase Aid

The National Food Security Initiative assists about 11,000 families, but council estimates that there are about 150,000 families in need of such aid

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Food packages being organised to be delivered to those in need, Tel Aviv, April 6, 2020
Food packages being organised to be delivered to those in need, Tel Aviv, April 6, 2020Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
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The National Nutrition Security Council has recommended more than doubling the number of Israeli families who receive governmental food-security assistance, from 11,000 families to some 25,000. 

The Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services Ministry is in the process of discussing the possibility of increasing funding for the national food security program. However, even under the most optimistic scenario, in which the recommendation is approved, food-security assistance will cover less than 20 percent of the families who need it, the council's chairman, Prof. Dov Chernichovsky, said.

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“The claim that there is no hunger expresses a lack of recognition of the reality,” Chernichovsky said, referring to a remark made by Minister Tzachi Hanegbi on Friday that it was “nonsense” that people don’t have enough to eat because of the coronavirus crisis, and that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was not to blame for people’s economic distress due to the crisis.

“In many conversations and meetings with politicians in recent years about the program I could see a mental and political difficulty in admitting that there is a problem of food insecurity in Israel. Some of them are simply disconnected,” Chernichovsky added. The government has a food-security program which began about four years ago, however it has never been part of the basic budget.

Soldiers deliver groceries to residents in lockdown in Bnei Brak, April 7, 2020
Soldiers deliver groceries to residents in lockdown in Bnei Brak, April 7, 2020Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

A lack of food security in developed countries like Israel is defined as a “lack of consistent access to enough food to allow a healthy and active life.” According to the National Insurance Institute, some 18 percent of families in Israel – about 440,000 families – were suffering from food insecurity. Those figures, from 2016, show that more than 90 percent of families have been in a state of food insecurity in the five previous years. The institute says that the phenomenon “is not only characteristic of families living in abject poverty, but is also seen in families near or slightly above the poverty line.”

The National Nutrition Security Council estimated that in 2014, 120,000 families required food assistance, based on a calculation of the amount of income available for food in contrast to expenses such as rent. The budget required at the time was about 500 million shekels ($145.5 million). Based on population growth and the coronavirus crisis, Chernichovsky estimates that today approximately 140,000-150,000 families require food assistance, most of them families with children.

According to a recent National Insurance Institute study, the major spike in unemployment sparked by the coronavirus crisis has led to increased poverty. “It’s almost certain that the lack of food security has gotten worse in all the families,” Chernichovsky said.

At present, the National Nutrition Security Council’s program assists some 11,000 families. The families receive a card to purchase food at supermarkets at a value of up to 250 shekels (about $70) a month, excluding the purchase of alcoholic beverages and tobacco products. They also receive food baskets delivered to their homes to the value of another 250 shekels. The program receives government funding of 25 million shekels, but Chernichovsky recommends doubling this figure to meet demand for the service.

According to officials with knowledge of the issue, the state also assists some 100,000 families through various non-profit groups that deliver monthly food baskets of a lower monetary value, as well as “distribution operations” twice a year during the High Holidays and before Passover. “The state is trying, but the needs are much greater, especially today,” Chernichovsky said.

Remarking on the difficulty politicians have in recognizing the problem of food insecurity, Chernichovsky said “We see ourselves as a welfare state where all of Israel are responsible for each other. It is unpleasant to say that there are families that need to think a few times how they divide up food. There are politicians who are disconnected, who don’t understand what’s happening on the ground.”

Chernichovsky added that the fact that funding for the food-security program is not part of the basic budget shows that this is “a stepchild of the Israeli welfare system. Like the compulsory education law and the compulsory health insurance law, the state must also take responsibility for food insecurity.”

In regard to Hanegbi’s remarks about economic insecurity, National Economic Council chairman Prof. Avi Simhon, who is also the prime minister’s economic adviser, said on Sunday that the remarks did not infuriate the public, but “only resulted in a few ‘tsks.’"

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