For two decades, Be’er-Sova has been providing free hot meals and basic food supplies to those in need in the Israeli southern city of Be’er Sheva. But the coronavirus has changed the way such organizations operate. Since the start of the pandemic in March, people have not been permitted to enter and dine on the premises. Instead, food distribution is done from a counter by the entrance.
One afternoon this week, G. went up to the counter. Like those before and after him, he received a packaged meal and a bagful of vegetables. Having brought along an extra bag, he asked if he could get a double portion today – and he did.
'I’m 62. It’s hard for young people to find work these days, and even more so for me'
Before the coronavirus hit, he was employed as a security guard at a local mall. But then he was furloughed and eventually laid off. G. says he never needed help before, but it’s been several months since he last received a salary. “I’m 62. It’s hard for young people to find work these days, and even more so for me,” he tells Haaretz. “I applied to lots of different security companies, but no one got back to me.”
The people behind the counter at Be’er-Sova have certainly noticed the pandemic’s impact of late. Executive Director Erez Nagawker says there’s been a sharp rise in demand, and “our reserves are starting to dwindle.”
He sees a correlation between the demand and the two lockdowns that were imposed on Israelis in the spring and October. “We were used to distributing between 200 and 240 meals a day, but now it’s 300 every day,” Nagawker says. “And in the past, when the restaurant was open, we were serving elderly people with welfare issues, but now there are other kinds of people too.”
Nagawker says there’s also been a big increase in the number of food packages distributed to families: from 150 to 200 in the past, to about 500 now. “And it’s still not enough,” he says. “If I had more, I would give out more.”
He says those new clients include parents who’ve been furloughed from their jobs and people who’ve had to shutter businesses. “You see people who until a few months ago were living a completely normal life coming and asking for food packages – people who until this happened were solidly middle class,” he observes. “We received emergency grants from the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, which helped us keep our head above water. But if this situation continues I don’t think we’ll be able to keep meeting the demand, which will surely rise.”
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A major shift
Fellowship President Yael Eckstein tells Haaretz that the loss of livelihood for hundreds of thousands of families since the pandemic began “is creating a sharp increase in the number of Israelis who are unable to provide an adequate amount of healthy food for themselves and their children.
“It’s heartbreaking to see how many requests are coming in,” she says. “We all have to do what we can for these families, until Israel’s economy recovers.”
Some 230 kilometers (145 miles) to the south, the situation is much the same. Zilli Nehemya-Grossman has been running the Beit Raphael soup kitchen in Eilat for the past 20 years. She’s the founder, director, fundraiser and living spirit behind the institution. Before the coronavirus hit, her organization mainly served the elderly and sick, as well as single mothers who were struggling to put food on the table.
But then she, too, noticed a major shift. “We started seeing recently discharged soldiers, hotel workers and people from totally normal families who had fallen on hard times, families like we’d never seen before,” Nehemya-Grossman says. Most of them were impacted by the huge blow the virus dealt to the city’s tourism industry, she believes. “As soon as that lifeline was closed off, thousands of people here were furloughed, and now some have lost their jobs altogether,” she says.
This means that Nehemya-Grossman has to provide more meals – and that’s not so simple. “Before the coronavirus, we gave out 400 meals a day. We received lots of food from the hotels and we managed,” she says. “People received a first course and main course, and an evening meal too. Now we’ve had to cut down drastically: We’re only giving out one meal per person, and it’s very tough.
“On average,” she adds, “we’re now preparing about 1,500 meals a day. We’ve never experienced anything like this.”
She says the added costs come to about 2,500 to 3,000 shekels ($750 to $900) a day. The main donors are prominent aid organizations like Leket Israel and the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, while plenty of individual donors have also made small donations of 100 or 200 shekels for the cause. The local municipality provides Beit Raphael with a yearly budget of 150,000 shekels, but the government is nowhere to be found.
Like many others in the field, Nehemya-Grossman is upset by how the state is ignoring the needy and the organizations that serve them. As she sees it, the government has abandoned organizations like hers and essentially left them to seek donations from private individuals.
“It kills me to see the way money is spent in this country,” she says. “How can they give money first to basketball and soccer, but not to children?” she asks. “A child can’t run after a ball if his stomach is empty. He can’t be happy if he has no shoes. And these mothers who aren’t able to provide for their children – they’re so sad. It’s been this way for too long, but the coronavirus really exacerbated things.”
Although her soup kitchen has only two paid employees, it’s still struggling to stay afloat. “Everyone really likes us – but it’s money, not smiles, that makes the world go around,” Nehemya-Grossman says. “We have so many families and children to look after. How much longer will I have the wherewithal to do this? I’m 60 and right now I’ve got tons of energy. But desire is one thing and the hard reality is another.”
‘The numbers are crazy’
Chabad Rabbi Mendy Blau, 54, has an even broader perspective on the dire situation. For the past 30 years he’s run Eshel, which operates 23 soup kitchens across the country and distributes food packages. Eshel is also one of the organizations chosen to run the government’s food security initiative, which includes distributing food vouchers to some 11,000 families.
“Before the coronavirus, we were delivering meals to the homes of 1,500 people and serving another 3,000 people at the soup kitchens,” Blau reports. “But now the demand has doubled. We get thousands of requests – the numbers are crazy.” He estimates that about half of those now requesting a hot meal are people who never needed any help from his organization before March.
But the challenge doesn’t stop there. The logistics have become a lot more complicated too, since the soup kitchens can’t operate as usual these days. While some clients still come to pick up meals, many others are requesting that the food be delivered to their home. “We can’t keep up with it,” Blau admits. “It’s not easy to find enough volunteers to bring food to people’s homes for a long period of time. At first we had a fleet of volunteers, but it gradually shrank. We still put out calls for volunteers sometimes when we need more people.”
Ravit Reichman, director of the Lasova soup kitchen in Tel Aviv, describes a similar situation. “The type of person we provide food to has completely changed,” she says. “We used to give out food to the homeless, but now anyone can come. There are tons of people on unpaid leave, as well as lots of people who are working but still come to us every day to get food.”
She says the Tel Aviv branch of Lasova is serving between 700 and 1,000 people a day; it was 400 to 500 a day before the pandemic struck. And many of the newcomers are having a hard time accepting their current situation.
“A lot of people are embarrassed to come here, so they send their children,” Reichman says. “I see the parents standing to the side, across the street. Sometimes the parents come with the children and I’ll hear the kids say: ‘Don’t be embarrassed, Dad, they have food here. Get us something to eat.’ This is something we never saw before.”