The Social Start-Up Nation: New Chain of Food-Co-Ops to Bring Change to Less-Advantaged Areas of Israel

12370866_10156403565525341_3354892702716548837_oBy Inbal Freund

Taking some friends from the U.S. on a trip to Jerusalem, basking in the glory of this amazing place we live in, we went into a supermarket to get a few things and started a conversation about how it’s so hard to make ends meet here, in the land of milk (I drink soy milk; that’s $3.40 per liter) and honey ($12.30 per kilo).

What was I doing? I was trying to tell them how great this place is, how proud I am to be an Israeli, a Zionist whose heart and soul and family’s blood is embedded in this land.

But no. I found myself apologizing and even ranting about how hard it was to make ends meet and then came pure jealousy about their quality of life, when I heard how much they were paying for things compared to their salaries. It became clear that milk and honey were very expensive here. That the old joke about what you need to do in order to be wealthy here (come with lots of money) was really true. That if you weren’t part of the few families in Israel that controlled the main industries, you were left to live in a constant struggle.

In the summer of 2011, we took to the streets to protest housing prices. Summer 2011 was when we protested exaggerated food prices. In winter 2011 things calmed down. Conclusions were drawn. Some new faces appeared in politics, and a new discourse about social gaps, the future of the next generation, and poverty evolved.

Many ideas came into play. Social networks made it possible to share taxi rides, to rent rooms on Airbnb, and even to raise money via the web to fund new and exciting projects. All you need is a laptop and an internet connection. The notion that the power of an ever-connected community is growing became evident with every passing day.

One of these ideas was maturing slowly within the corridors of The Jewish Agency, as we worked with young communities representing a broad range of ideologies: opening a network of community-based food co-ops. It was not a new idea – food cooperatives have been out there as individual phenomena for a long time. However, the notion of social businesses has been growing and strengthening within young communities, and it was clear that a food cooperative could serve as a great model of a social business around which a community could focus its efforts. It was time for action, big time.

The idea developed into a concrete plan: opening 40 co-ops across Israel, all part of a new chain called Tzarchaniyat Ha’Ir (“CityMart”), lowering food prices by about 20% in the less advantaged areas in Israel. This resonates particularly in the peripheral areas, where one chain supermarket usually sets the benchmark very high, as there is no competition.

This concept also includes a strong communal component: within the stores, about 20-30 square meters are set aside for activities by the community that will form around the cooperative. The community, which provides the volunteers who work at the store and operate the center, will benefit from the profits of the store. There is no single store owner, but rather a whole community benefitting from funds funneled through this joint effort.

On Monday, December 21, we celebrated the chain’s launch at its first branch in Sderot. The local community has invested heavily in the co-op. Aside from providing low-cost rental space, the owner of the property, Meir Ben Hamo, also donated the 30 meters needed for the community space. This is local empowerment.

Now, one can ask, what does The Jewish Agency have to do with food co-ops? Aren’t they focused on Aliyah?

The answer, of course, is yes – Aliyah remains the core of our work. But no less important is our role as a bridge between Israel and the Jewish world. The Jewish Agency connects Jewish communities around the world with Israeli communities, strengthening and empowering both. It’s an enhanced model of social networking. Without UJA-Federation of New York and the United Jewish Endowment Fund of Greater Washington’s contributions and involvement, this new venture would never have existed. The support of these communities enabled the joint work of professionals from both The Jewish Agency and the Israel Venture Network to reach fruition. This is a new model of partnership: direct, visible, and effective.

We are here to empower communities, to promote the notion that the new form of philanthropy is not about “handing out fish,” but rather about teaching people how to catch fish on their own. This is the new phase of the Start-Up Nation.

Inbal Freund is the resource development director of the Social Activism Unit of the Jewish Agency for Israel. The Unit harnesses social activism in service of vulnerable populations and trains young Israelis to become leaders, social entrepreneurs, and skilled volunteers who work to make Herzl’s vision of a model society a reality in Israel.