Comfort food

Marking 20 years of service, Leket Israel looks to get even bigger to fight food waste and insecurity

Founder Joseph Gitler says he hopes to salvage over 66 million pounds of produce and 2 million prepared meals this year to help country’s most vulnerable

It began with a few refrigerators in Joseph Gitler’s driveway in 2003.

It was the height of the Second Intifada and Gitler, a lawyer by training and a recent immigrant to Israel, saw that many of his fellow countrymen were suffering from a byproduct of the terror attacks and general instability that shook the country in the early 2000s.

“Suddenly there were new people who hadn’t historically had poverty issues, but because hospitality was shut down and people weren’t coming to the country, this whole new breed of people who worked and made a living – maybe not a great living, but made a living – they were struggling just to make ends meet,” Gitler, the founder and chairman of Leket Israel, told eJewishPhilanthropy.

Around the same time, Israel’s start-up scene was taking off, which benefited the country overall, but also left some people behind. “For those who are not part of the success of ‘Start-Up Nation,’ Israel has actually become a much more difficult place to live in financially. The ‘Start-Up Nation’ has increased salaries but only for some and also increased the cost of living for everyone dramatically,” Gitler said.

He quickly latched onto the issue of food insecurity and food waste as an area where he could have a significant impact. “This isn’t gonna change the salary structure. But if a family can save NIS 1,000 ($275) a month on their food bill, because they’re getting free fruits and vegetables, well that’s NIS 1,000 that they now have for other needs. And that’s really what we’re after here. We’re trying to help the poor survive, utilizing existing partners,” he said.

Gitler first focused on the food wasted by places like hotels and corporate cafeterias. He’d pick up the trays of prepared food and bring them back to his refrigerators for storage before transporting them to a handful of organizations that provided food to their clients, either ones specifically aimed at addressing food insecurity or places like after-school programs, where the food was just a component of their work.

“When I started it was really kind of a lark: I’m concerned about this issue, let’s see what can be done,” he said.

According to a recent study by Israel’s National Insurance Institute, nearly 1 million Israelis – out of a population of just over 9 million – were living with food insecurity in 2021, the last year for which such data are available.

Professor John Gal, chair of the Welfare Policy Program at the Taub Center think tank and a lecturer in social work and social welfare at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, told eJewishPhilanthropy that food insecurity disproportionately affects large families, specifically ultra-Orthodox and Arab families well beyond their proportion of the population. Nearly one-in-five families with children had some degree of food insecurity in 2021 and almost one-in-10 – 8.5% – experienced severe food insecurity that year, according to the NII study.

This is driven by both income inequalities and high food prices. “There are several policies in place to insulate Israeli food producers from outside competition. Israel is a relatively small market with several monopolies with regards to many of the basic food products. Of course, all that leads to higher prices,” Gal said.

There are few direct government interventions in place to specifically address this issue – along the lines of the American government’s SNAP program save for one small-scale food voucher program by the Welfare Ministry and occasional one-off food assistance initiatives, according to Gal. Though, he said, this is not necessarily a bad thing as the government instead gives general income assistance that families can use however they see fit. Nevertheless, this leaves hundreds of thousands of Israelis without the means to buy healthy or sufficient food.

Within just a few months, Gitler’s initial “lark” – then called “Table to Table” – expanded significantly and within a few years became a major force in addressing food insecurity in Israel. In 2009, it merged with another organization, Leket-the Israel Food Bank, to become “Leket Israel.” Since then, the organization has largely stuck to the same fundamental model – collecting fresh produce and cooked food from commercial cafeterias that would otherwise be thrown out and delivering them to non-profits, who distribute them to clients. But it has expanded dramatically.

Today, 20 years after its founding, Leket Israel employs 136 people and operates 67 trucks out of its new 66,000-square-foot logistics center in Sde Warburg in central Israel. It works with 271 nonprofit organizations to provide food to over a quarter of a million people across the country each week. In 2022, the organization collected over 58 million pounds of fresh produce and nearly two million hot meals.

In terms of its prepared food, Leket Israel hit it big in 2014 when it started partnering with Israel Defense Forces bases, which are required to produce enough food for everyone who serves on them plus a certain amount extra even though this is almost always more than what actually gets eaten. The organization also gets large quantities of prepared foods from hotels in Eilat, Gitler said.

The fresh produce comes from a variety of sources. In some cases, it’s from farmers who have a bumper crop and find themselves with more carrots or oranges or beets than they can sell or who can’t sell their vegetables because of purely cosmetic problems. (For instance, a recent hail storm caused tiny dark dents to form on zucchini, making those perfectly edible vegetables to become unmarketable.) In other cases, it’s from packing facilities that wind up with vegetables that require a bit too much work than they are worth. When eJewishPhilanthropy visited the logistics center, there were massive wooden crates filled with potatoes that were just starting to sprout. For a packing plant, removing the eyes from those potatoes would take too much time, so instead they gave them to Leket Israel, whose volunteers could do it instead.

The often unpredictable nature of agriculture means that Leket Israel has to be prepared to transport massive quantities of produce at a moment’s notice. “A farmer can say, ‘We have a thousand tons of carrots but you have to pick it up in the next four days.’ We’re going to do it,” Gitler said.

In a given year, nearly 30,000 people will volunteer with Leket Israel, mostly sorting and repacking fruit and vegetables from massive industrial bins into smaller plastic containers. These volunteers can come from large companies, schools, or foreign tour groups who work for a few hours in Leket’s logistic center. According to Gitler, these volunteers save the organization somewhere between $5 million and $10 million a year. “As of last year, we were the second largest volunteer organization in Israel,” he said. (The Magen David Adom ambulance corps was bigger.)

In addition to its food distribution work, Leket Israel has started doing some lobbying work, mostly related to its core mission of food rescue. For instance, in 2018, the organization helped get legislation passed that protects people who donate food from criminal and civil liability. Gitler said he was torn on lobbying for issues that would more directly address the underlying causes of food insecurity, like changing Israel’s tariff policies to allow for cheaper produce imports from abroad, a move that would almost surely bring down food costs but at the expense of hurting Israeli farmers – the same people who provide Leket Israel with those millions of tons of produce each year. 

“Our biggest donors are the farmers of this country so what do I do? There’s Joseph, private citizen, and there’s Joseph, chairman of Leket. I’m not trying to be wishy-washy but it’s an excellent question and very complicated for us,” he said. “At the very least when prices are sky-high on products we would definitely call the government to allow imports and lower those prices temporarily. We also call the government to ensure that there’s no destruction of crops (to artificially reduce supply and drive up prices).”

The organization has also been offering nutrition workshops, primarily to low-income families, in order to teach people how to maintain a healthy diet and, for new immigrant groups, how to prepare foods that they may not be familiar with, Gitler said.

Last year, the organization raised NIS 84 million ($25 million), with roughly half coming from the United States, 35% coming from within Israel, 10% coming from Canada, and the rest coming from elsewhere, according to Gitler. That was an 8% drop from the previous year, which Gitler said was the result of several large one-time donations during the COVID-19 pandemic, which completely upended Leket’s operations, as the army bases, corporate cafeterias and hotels that supplied its prepared food shut down, forcing the organization to purchase prepared meals for the first time in order to supply its clients.

“We did run a bit of a deficit last year. It was less dramatic than I expected, about 5% by the end of the year,” he said. “We’ve tried to keep our budget steady. I think the general trend going into 2023 is challenging, not just for us, I think in general in the philanthropy world.”

Gitler said he was constantly on the lookout for “the donors who appreciate us more than we appreciate them,” the ones who are excited by the work his organization is doing.

He said his organization was insulated somewhat from the usual Sturm und Drang around Israel because Leket Israel is “pareve,” it’s neither left-wing nor right-wing when it comes to Israel’s most controversial issues. It operates throughout the country, helping Israelis of all religions, affiliations and ethnicities.

“So we attract people from across the spectrum, from almost all sectors of the Jewish world. Our top supporters are a total mix, people from Israel and abroad, from people who go to shul three times a day to one of our donors who told me that one of his favorite days was when his temple started streaming Yom Kippur services so he doesn’t even have to go on Yom Kippur,” Gitler said.

Though he does not necessarily expect Leket’s budget to increase in the coming year, Gitler said the organization was nevertheless looking to expand through increased efficiency. This includes maintaining a smaller fleet of its own trucks and instead renting vehicles only when necessary. He said his goal is to increase the amount of produce that Leket Israel collects from 58 million pounds in 2022 to 66 million pounds in 2023.

Gitler also hopes to expand Leket Israel’s distribution. Currently, the food is only given to people through the nonprofits that it works with, but Gitler said the group is thinking of ways of directly providing food to people in need who are not served by those 271 organizations. He imagines something like a food truck that can be dispatched to communities in need on a regular basis to distribute packages of food, without an intermediary.

“We want partners because they’re already doing God’s work and they’re set up and it’s easy for us,” Gitler said. “But the flip side is there are places in need that don’t already have a nonprofit set up (to help them). We’ve always shied away from that. We don’t want to create a new nonprofit for them, but if we have a mobile operation, we don’t need to. That’s a goal we’ve set for this year. That’s going to be really the next step in our evolution as an organization.”