Fighting Hunger Through Food Rescue

Leket rescues food to fight hunger; photo courtesy Leket.

Let All Who Are Hungry: fighting hunger through food rescue
by Asher Weiss

From the Middle East to Eastern Europe to the Americas, Jews are known for placing a very high premium on food. And even if jokes about Jewish mothers and their tendency to ply their children (and everyone else in the vicinity) with an unending supply of food are a bit overblown, the stereotype of the food-loving Jew exists for a reason. It should come as no surprise that food is central to a people whose religion includes ritual meals on the first two nights of Passover, a Purim feast, the prescribed diet of kashrut, and whose sacred text tells the famous story of a hungry first-born son who sells his birthright to his younger brother – for a bowl of soup.

Perhaps it is because a food-centric culture breeds among its adherents an acute awareness of the importance of food that many at the forefront of the international war against hunger are Jews. In fact, Jews have been obligated to fight hunger for at least as long as the Torah has been around – approximately 2,500 years. Leviticus 19:9-11 commands: “And when you reap your land’s harvest, you shall not finish off the edge of your field, nor pick up the gleanings of your harvest. And your vineyard you shall not pluck bare, nor pick up the fallen fruit of your vineyard. For the poor and for the sojourner shall you leave them.”

Jewish anti-hunger activist Joseph Gitler honored the injunction to leave the poor gleanings – leket in Hebrew – in naming the organization he founded Leket Israel.

Leket is an Israeli organization that employs a hunger-fighting strategy called food rescue, which, as its name suggests, involves the “rescue” of nourishing food that would otherwise be thrown away by restaurants, catering halls, and cafeterias. Leket was inspired by City Harvest, “the granddaddy of food rescue,” according to Gitler. Indeed, since City Harvest’s founding in New York City in 1982, the food-rescue model has steadily gained traction. Now, alongside the more established model of donation allocation, employed by a variety of prominent organizations including the American Jewish organization Mazon, food rescue has become accepted as one of the most effective methods for combating hunger.

Leket (formerly Shulchan leShulchan or Table to Table) was founded in 2003 when Gitler began phoning local catering companies and restaurants, asking if he could “rescue” untouched nutritious food that would go to waste. The response was overwhelmingly positive, and soon he was delivering the rescued food to Israeli soup kitchens and food banks. Only seven years later, Leket is Israel’s National Food Bank. It has a $5 million budget, 80 paid employees, several thousand volunteers at any given time, and provides at least one meal a day to 20,000-30,000 people at over 230 soup kitchens, homeless shelters, senior-citizen centers, and other social service organizations throughout Israel.

Gitler, a 36-year-old American-born Jew, made aliyah in 2000 and settled in the affluent city of Ra’anana, with a job as a marketing executive at an Israeli high-tech firm. Despite or perhaps because of his relatively comfortable life, Gitler could not overlook the poverty he saw all around him. “Poverty in Israel is similar to poverty in the US,” he says. “People aren’t starving but have to make sacrifices in what they’re eating or how much they’re eating.”

It is small consolation to Gitler that this “Western poverty,” as he describes it, is not as severe as poverty in many parts of the developing world. He may not be seeing starvation, but malnourishment, especially for babies and young children, is a persistent concern. “I’m not focused on above or below the poverty line,” he says. “As much as we’re doing, you never reach everyone who needs a hand.”

photo courtesy Leket

One might assume from its biblical name that Leket is a Jewish organization, but Gitler is less sure. “We are impacted and influenced by Jewish culture, but Leket is an Israeli organization,” rather than a religious one, Gitler says. Most of the staff and volunteers are Jewish, and food and fundraising drives are often planned around the Jewish calendar, but this is a function of the fact that Leket exists in a society that is predominantly Jewish. In fact, Leket is intentionally multicultural: 20 members of its paid staff are Israeli-Arab women who for the first time are earning more than the minimum wage and have full health benefits.

“The mission of this organization was never coexistence, but we’re proud that we seem to have created it through our work,” says Moshe Kinderlehrer, director of development for American Friends of Leket Israel, Leket’s presence in the United States.

Moreover, Leket’s goal is to help as many communities in Israel’s ethnically diverse society as possible. “We really believe that the goal of this organization is to serve the Israeli-Arab, Druze, and Bedouin populations” in addition to Jewish ones, says Gitler. Leket also provides food for a group of around 10,000 Christian and Muslim refugees from Eritrea and Darfur who recently arrived in Israel.

That the food-rescue strategy has resonated beyond the US and Israel is evidenced by Australia’s OzHarvest, Canada’s Second Harvest, and Germany’s Berliner Tafel, among many others. Food rescue is successful in many parts of the world because it simultaneously fights food insecurity effectively and maintains low organizational overhead – Leket, for example, claims that every $1 donated generates $5 worth of food – making it highly effective anywhere there is a surplus of food.

Such surpluses exist, according to Gitler, in all of the developed world and even large parts of the developing world. Hence, food rescue is likely to become a leading strategy in fighting hunger. While it’s difficult to imagine that the world will see an end to hunger in Gitler’s lifetime, with the continuing success of food rescue, it’s reasonable to dream.

Asher Weiss is a Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter who also writes on politics and the Middle East. He plans to attend a master’s program in international relations in Fall, 2011.

This post is from the just-released PresenTense Jewish Social Action Now issue; you can also subscribe to PresenTense Magazine and receive this, and future issues, delivered directly to you.