Recognizing the need, and reasoning that “the best the way to run a food bank is to start your own,” that’s what Joseph Gitler did.
Despite the Jewish state’s remarkable transformation since its establishment seven decades ago from a fledgling state to an economic and military powerhouse, a substantial number of Israelis are living below the poverty line.
That’s what makes the work of Leket Israel – which serves to rescue and distribute nutritious food to those in need – so important, says Joseph Gitler, who founded the charity after witnessing significant food wastage at a time of rising poverty. Leket Israel is now the country’s largest food bank, and Gitler continues to serve as its chairman.
Israel today has more than 800,000 children – 10 percent of the population – living below the poverty line, notes Gitler, who studied at Yeshiva University and Fordham University Law School in New York City before making aliyah (immigrating to Israel) in 2000. He spent three years working in software business.
Settling down in Raanana, “I got very concerned about what I was hearing. People were knocking on my door, asking for charity. In religious communities, it’s very common. I was so disturbed that someone could work full time and still need poverty assistance.”
The problem, he came to understand, was in some ways related to the Second Intifada. Tourism and ancillary industries suffered, and people were laid off or had reduced incomes.
Apart from the interrelated political and security problem, “the biggest issue in this country is the cost of living vis-a-vis salaries,” he says.
Recognizing the need, and reasoning that “the best the way to run a food bank is to start your own,” that’s what Gitler did.
‘A Leader in Food Rescue Nationwide’
“Leket Israel is the largest food bank in Israel and has been a leader and expert in food rescue nationwide since 2003. The organization sources, collects and redistributes fresh, high-quality food from farms, hotels, military bases and catering halls to aid the quarter of Israel’s population that lives below the poverty line,” he continues.
The name Leket means gleanings. It alludes to the biblical story of Ruth: “And Ruth the Moabitess said to Naomi, Let me now go to the field [of Boaz], and glean ears of corn after him in whose sight I shall find grace.” (Ruth 2:2-3.)
Such was the importance of distributing food to the needy in the Bible that Ruth became the great-grandmother of King David, from whom the Messiah will come, Gitler explains.
Leket Israel follows the 2010 merger of two former food bank organizations – Table to Table, which Gitler founded in 2003 to rescue and redeliver surplus food that would otherwise be discarded to people in need, and Leket Food Bank, which was founded in 2007.
With Leket Israel rescuing 2.4 million hot meals annually from hotels, IDF bases and corporate cafeterias for distribution to its 195 nonprofit partners, it meets the need to supply hot lunches in “last chance” high schools for kids who have fallen through the cracks in the education system.
“These children were finding it hard to concentrate on their classes during the long school day because of their hunger. Through Leket Israel’s hot meal rescue program, these students now receive a fresh, nutritious meal daily,” says Gitler.
‘We’d Like to be out of the [Food Bank] Business’
While as a charity Leket serves as a food distribution network, the organization has a deep ideology, he adds.
“I think that at a very basic level, it’s a very Jewish value to be appalled by food waste. Some farmers find it unprofitable to harvest all their produce while others cannot pick their entire crop before it begins to rot. In both cases, tens of thousands of tons of fresh fruits and vegetables are wasted each year. Israeli farmers invite Leket Israel to harvest their fields and to donate their surplus produce to needy people around the country. More than 56,000 volunteers took part in Project Leket in 2016.
“What better way to do this than by encouraging everyone to go outside and get their hands dirty,” Gitler states. “We are providing the massive amounts of food that we do at very low cost. That’s a few hundred shekels people can use for something else.”
What of the future?
Gitler says wistfully, “We’d like to be out of the [food bank] business. I’d like to see a world where food waste is reduced, and food producers are better connected to those who need it.”