Gleaning fields and catered leftovers to feed Israel’s poorby ben sales, jta
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ra’anana, israel | From the outside, it looks like any other warehouse: imposing, gray and rectangular, with trucks idling outside and hundreds of crates stacked in the driveway.
Inside, the largely empty main room is occupied by a vegetable-sorting machine and several large boxes of produce: carrots, pomelos, kohlrabi. The vegetables are about to be repurposed by Leket Israel.
Joseph Gitler, 38, is the founder of Leket Israel, an organization that salvages unsellable crops from farmers and unused food from caterers, and ships them to soup kitchens, homeless shelters and other institutions that can use them — 200 organizations in all. According to Leket’s research, the nonprofit is on pace to rescue one-fifth of the country’s wasted food this year, a total of 22 million pounds, Gitler says.
According to a recent government report, nearly a third of Israelis have to strain their budget to purchase food or other essential goods.
Israel’s only food-rescue service, Leket has a budget of $7.5 million, employs 90 people and utilizes 45,000 volunteers a year — among them corporate professionals, high school students and American tourists on Birthright trips, celebrating b’nai mitzvah, or traveling with Jewish organizations.
Gitler said he would need much more funding to collect all the unused food in Israel.
“At the farm, crops are left to rot,” Gitler said. “A hailstorm damages the fruit, the guy can’t export it. Heat waves, too much rain, too little rain. We’re not getting everywhere.”
At the warehouse, the crate of carrots contained mostly stubs, useful for a soup kitchen but not for a grocery store. Still, Leket has the feel of an industrial operation. Teams of pickers head out as early as 4 a.m. to farms across the country. Volunteers begin assembling school sandwiches by 7 a.m. Food brought to the warehouse is put back on the truck to go out as soon as possible — either the same day or early the next.
Guy Yehoshua, the manager of Leket’s picking team, says his biggest challenge is dealing with growers. “A lot of farmers don’t like that you go into their field,” he said. “Maybe you’ll do him damage.” But he says they have nothing to fear: “We do exactly what we agreed to, and the farmer sees that.”
Leket operates two call centers. One reaches out to farms to see if they have excess crops to donate, the other coordinates which food to direct to which organizations.
“They’ll call and say, ‘Can you use some dairy products?’ ” said Elizabeth Homans, who coordinates research and development for Be’er Sova, a Beersheva group that makes 200 meals a week for the needy and receives most of its produce from Leket. “Without it, it would be extremely difficult to do what we do, close to impossible.”
While Leket’s food goes to all sectors of Israeli society, Pini Seffer, who runs one of the call centers, said he sends a disproportionate amount to Israel’s peripheral communities because government services are weaker there.
“We know that there are needy people in Ra’anana and Kiryat Shemona,” a small town in Israel’s North, he said. “The Ra’anana municipality’s ability to deal with poverty is much greater than in Kiryat Shemona.”
Gitler, who moved to Israel from the United States in 2000, founded Leket in 2003 by calling caterers to pick up their leftover food. At the time, the second intifada’s punishing effects were his main motivation.
“The intifada exacerbated poverty issues, killed tourism, business was down … You had a lot of service people who were suffering,” he said. “There were a lot of people feeding the poor, but no one thinking about the big picture.”
Now, in addition to the food-rescue operation, Leket has founded its own farm in the Galilee that is staffed largely by volunteers and tasked with raising crops needed by nonprofits.
Pleasantly surprised by Leket’s growth, Gitler recognizes that his organization strikes two chords with the overseas donors who provide most of its funding: feeding people and eliminating waste.
“It’s an easy sell,” he said. “We all waste, but we hate it and we feel guilty about it.”
Leket’s goal, he said, is to relieve some of the financial burden on the working poor. According to Leket’s website, statistics place nearly one in four Israelis below the poverty line. Gitler is not discouraged, however.
“In our day-to-day work,” he said, “does it matter if there are a hundred thousand that need or a million that need?
“No. It’s never enough.”
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