Israeli Soup Kitchens 'Can't Keep Up' With Rising Demand Amid COVID-19 Poverty

Demand for food help has soared as the economy suffers its worst drop in output ever, with an unemployment rate still hovering above 14%

Lior Dattel
Lior Dattel
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The Lasova soup kitchen in Tel Aviv, March 2020.
The Lasova soup kitchen in Tel Aviv, March 2020.Credit: Meged Gozani
Lior Dattel
Lior Dattel

Soup kitchens across Israel are preparing thousands of meals every day, painting a grim picture of the reality for those who have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Before the coronavirus, we didn’t prepare meals – that wasn’t our main job. Today we can’t keep up with the demand,” said Ilanit Hafuta, who runs local operations for the Israeli nonprofit Meir Panim.

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“We are distributing prepared meals, prudence and food basic to the area around Hadera, Or Akiva, Pardes Hannah and even (the wealthy community of) Caesarea,” she added.

The nonprofit prepares 3,500 meals a day for the needy every day, with the number rising to 5,000 on Fridays.

“What’s happening here is a testament to poverty in the State of Israel,” she said. “It shouldn’t happen. I’m not giving out gold and diamonds. I’m distributing food. When people come to us we want to cry. People who used to donate to us. Business owners now need to rely on us and get food aid. People who were kings of the land come for bread. We try to give help to everyone who turns to us, but we can’t help them all.”

Hafuta asserted that the government was failing to step in to help families in crisis – or the organizations that help them. “I accept that in the first month or two it was difficult to devise solutions because the coronavirus hit the world hard. But a lot of time has passed since then and they could have figured out by now how to help families,” she said. “The worst thing in my eyes is that the government took away their self-respect.”

Demand for food help has soared as the Israeli economy suffers its worst drop in output ever and as of early November the broad measure of unemployment was still above 14%. The ranks of the traditional poor have been swelled by the newly unemployed.

Ravit Reichman, director of the Lasova soup kitchen in Tel Aviv, said that the number of people coming to soup kitchens had more than doubled since the onset of the coronavirus.

“The makeup of our diners has changed completely,” she said. “In the past we were distributing food to street people and the elderly; today we’re distributing it to anyone who has no other way to eat. We’re talking about people who were fired or put on unpaid leave. Every day, 1,000 to 1,200 people come. Before the coronavirus it was 400 to 500 a day,” Reichman said. 

Ravit Reichman poses for a photo outside the Lasova soup kitchen in Tel Aviv, March 27, 2020.Credit: Meged Gozani

Her anecdotal evidence is backed up by figures in last week’s annual Alternative Poverty Report’ issued by the Latet (To Give) nonprofit that provides food and other aid to the impoverished. It found that the poverty rate in Israel has jumped from about 20% of all families to more than 29%, or 268,000, since the outbreak of the pandemic this year.

Latet arrived at its numbers based on surveys taken in September and October of families reporting that they didn’t have enough money to cover the cost of their basic food needs.

Close to 80% of nonprofit managers participating in the Latet survey indeed reported demand for their services. Some 62% said that the situation of the needy they were serving had turned for the worse during the crisis. Among the needy, 80% reported that when it came to food, they were reliant on nonprofits to a large or very large degree. More than 21% of those seeking food assistance never had to before the pandemic crisis.

Reichman said double-digit unemployment and the closure of many small businesses has led to longer lines at facilities like hers: “The saddest thing is the children. Before the coronavirus, children didn’t come at all. Today, scores of children come after school to get food for their families.” 

“Some of the children come barefoot, in pajamas and hungry. Some come to take food to their parents, because they are ashamed to come and do it for themselves. We see people who come with a hat covering their face so no one will see them. We see nicely-dressed people coming who would not have come in the past,” Reichman said.

Using the U.S. Department of Agriculture definition of food insecurity (which has been adopted by Israel’s National Insurance Institute), Latet estimated that 656,000 families in Israel, 22.6%, aren’t able to provide themselves with a balanced diet and suffer from food insecurity.

Of those, 286,000 families are experiencing severe food insecurity, meaning they feel hunger on a regular basis and can’t consistently provide enough food for all family members. The numbers have risen by 13.5% since the onset of the pandemic.

Latet said its survey found that Israeli Arabs were the hardest hit by rising poverty over the past year, with 86.6% of families saying they were suffering financial distress. That was almost three times the rate for Jewish families.

More than half of all families that have sunk into poverty had had two breadwinners, and many were well educated – 12% had at least one member with a masters degree and 30% had a bachelor’s.

“The coronavirus will pass, or we’ll learn to live alongside it, but the economic crisis, social disparities, distress and poverty will be present in the lives of millions of Israelis in the coming years, affecting their mental state and ability to create a normal future for their children,” said Eran Weintrob, Latet’s executive director, who accused the government of not doing enough to alleviate the economic impact of the pandemic.

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