Over 1 in 3 Hungry Families Are Unknown to Welfare Authorities in Israel

Bar Peleg
Bar Peleg
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Volunteers make food packages for people in need
Volunteers make food packages for people in needCredit: Emil Salman
Bar Peleg
Bar Peleg

The overwhelming majority of families living with food insecurity – the lack of reliable access to sufficient, affordable, nutritious food – are not known to the welfare authorities. This is the finding of a new study conducted by the Hebrew University in conjunction with the Health Ministry.

The study shows that 17 percent of Israeli families suffer from food insecurity, but only 11 percent of those families are known to the authorities. Another study published recently shows that more than half of needy families are single-parent families.

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The first survey, published by Prof. Aron Troen of the Hebrew University’s Agriculture Faculty in cooperation with the Health Ministry’s nutrition department, which was conducted in March, showed that around half of the needful who participated in the survey got help from relatives, and a third said they got help from nonprofit associations and private organizations.

Only 6.7 percent said they were getting financial help from the local authorities while 12.7 percent said they received food packages from the welfare authorities. When asked why they didn’t get help, most of the respondents – 60 percent – said they didn’t feel comfortable asking for help, while 28 percent said they didn’t know how to apply.

The other study, by researchers from the University of Washington and the Hebrew University, showed that more than half the families suffering food insecurity are single-parent families – 31.7 percent headed by women and 23.1 headed by men. When the researchers asked the participants how their children coped with the situation, 48 percent told of violent incidents by their children, while 64 percent report sleeping problems.

Volunteers preparing food packages for people in needCredit: Tomer Appelbaum

The survey revealed other details about the underprivileged: 31.4 percent said they were unemployed, while 19.5 percent are self-employed. Only 12.3 percent had an academic degree. Welfare sources said that over the past year there had been a sharp rise in the requests for food assistance. A longtime social worker in the central region estimated that 70 percent of the requests submitted this past year to the welfare department where she works were connected to food. “The numbers went up in an illogical fashion,” she said. “We are seeing more children coming to school hungry. The number of sandwiches we’re supplying has gone up four to five times.”

The state comptroller warned as far back as 2014 that the state is relying too heavily on charities to deal with food insecurity. A report published by then-Comptroller Joseph Shapira stated that the situation “points to a very small government commitment to dealing properly with advancing food security.”

Ariel Schwartz of the Jerusalem Food Security Forum agrees. “The State of Israel today doesn’t provide a proper solution to a situation in which hundreds of thousands of families live with food insecurity,” said Schwartz. “The food nonprofits do holy work, but we have to remember they are not the solution. The solution is the state taking responsibility and creating a national initiative for food security.”

The latest official figures published by the state with regard to food insecurity are from 2016, when a study conducted by the National Insurance Institute found that 18 percent of Israeli families – some 440,000 families, needed assistance, and that 90 percent of them had needed such assistance five years previously. An updated survey is expected to be published in a few months.

A volunteer hands out meals to people in need in Tel Aviv Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Following the cabinet’s approval of the state budget, the Social Affairs Ministry said that 110 million shekles ($34.4 million) will be allocated for food security. However, in the budget bill approved by the Knesset in its first reading, only 46 million shekels were allocated for this purpose. The ministry explained that the rest of the amount – tens of millions of shekels that are expected to go to food distribution nonprofits – will come from other budget sources that are not in the state budget base.

At the request of the Food Organizations Forum, several Knesset members last week appealed to the Finance Ministry to increase the budget dramatically. “The state budget reflects the priorities and gives tangible expression to the state’s commitment and responsibility to people living in poverty,” said Becky Cohen Keshet, of Rabbis for Human Rights.

The number of families who will be helped by the National Initiative for Food Security, which has been operating on a limited basis since 2012, will double with the new funding, but this is still only a partial solution. Right now the initiative has been providing food coupons and packages worth 500 shekels a month to 11,000 families.

Troen, who conducted the survey with the Health Ministry, said the data shows that the solutions the state is offering are inadequate. “One of the arguments for not providing assistance during the lockdowns was that the poor would in any case turn to the welfare authorities,” he said, but noted that not everyone known to the welfare authorities is known due to food insecurity or poverty. “The idea that the most needy families have a safety net is mistaken. And the ones hurt the most are the children.”

His study included 1,731 participants, 85 percent of them Jews (9.3 percent of those were ultra-Orthodox) and 15 percent Arabs. The survey showed that 32 percent of Arab families suffer from food insecurity, compared with 13.2 percent of Jewish ones. Troen stressed that the findings only partially represent Arab society (due to under-representation in the survey), and that the actual situation is probably much worse. According to the survey conducted by the NII in 2016, about 42.2 percent of Arab families live with food insecurity, compared with 13.5 percent of Jewish families.

A recent study published by the Sikkuy NGO cited several barriers that affect Arab society, from stereotypes on the part of service providers to the language barrier. The association recommended that the Social Affairs Ministry invest resources in making information accessible to Arabs by translating materials and publications. In addition, the researchers demanded that the criteria that discriminate against members of Arab society in receiving assistance be changed, such as denying allowances to families who own cars because they live in areas without public transportation.

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