In the United States there are many nutritional security programs helping families and children eat a well balanced diet: food stamps, W.I.C. which provides healthy and high protein foods for women, infants and children, subsidized school lunches and milk boxes to name a few. While in Israel no such program exists. Poor families and individuals rely on a diet high in simple carbohydrates such as white bread and pasta, and high fat foods such as oil and margarine. Yad Eliezer steps in to provide much needed sustenance for more than 20,000 people each month, but that is only a small fraction of the individuals living below the poverty line.
When will the Israeli government step in to provide nutritional security for all?
2011: The National Nutritional Security Council is launched – and then...
In 2011, Israel's Welfare & Social Services created the first National Nutritional Security Council (NNSC) to "promote food security among Israeli citizens with the spirit of human dignity and the principles of equality, justice and fairness." In early 2014, the Council issued its recommendation: The federal government should institute a National Food Security Program to provide "food security" for the estimated 110,000 Israeli families, encompassing over 400,000 adults and children, who suffer from an inadequate food supply on a regular basis. (The law defines food security as “the possibility to regularly consume food that includes all the nutritional components required for proper human development.”) The NNSC recommendations were widely and enthusiastically accepted – and then ignored.
2012–2014: More Years Pass, More Plans Made
December 2014 saw the program finally being launched – and then immediately shelved when early Knesset elections were called. Nearly one year later, in June 2015, NNSC chairman Prof. Dov Chernichovsky met with Social Affairs Minister Haim Katz to once again try to set in motion a program designed to balance nutritional and economic considerations by ensuring that families on the lower ends of the income spectrum receive access to basic healthy foods. “Poor people shouldn’t have to eat food that is totally different from the rest of society,” asserted Chernichovsky.
To that end, the Health Ministry formulated a basic list of nutritional foods that includes: dairy products such as cheese and cottage cheese (up to 5% fat) and yogurt (up to 3% fat); chicken and turkey; legumes like beans, chickpeas or lentils; tuna and other fish; whole grains (rice, wheat, buckwheat or couscous); pasta and whole-wheat bread; basic fruit and vegetables (cherry tomatoes, avocados and cherries are not classed as basic, so don’t appear); eggs, milk and fresh soy drink. The NNSC plans to organize these products into different food basket categories organized by families’ size, ages and genders to ensure that each recipient enjoys an increase in the quality, quantity and variability of food accessible to their household. The Council is also examining the possibility of providing baskets adapted to various ethnic communities.
A few years earlier, a National Insurance Institute survey had reported that some 330,000 households suffer from a “subjective feeling of ‘food insecurity’; with more than half of these families, some 10.5% of Israeli households, revealing that they experience “severe food insecurity,” defined as food insecurity that may be accompanied by feelings of hunger.
The NNSC proposes eligibility criteria for households based on family income and expenditures, rather than on “subjective feelings,” and therefore will limit eligibility to about one-third this number, or 110,000 households. Families whose budgets from all income sources – jobs, allotments and pensions – do not exceed 150% of the poverty line would be eligible to apply for assistance. In addition, families who receive income support from the National Insurance Institute (due to family or disability status, for example) would be eligible for aid. Single-parent families and families that have exhausted their earning capacity, meaning couples who work a minimum of 125% in the labor market (e.g., one parent works full-time and the other quarter-time), yet remain within the low-income bracket, would also be eligible. Once a family who meets the eligibility criteria – which will likely be families close to, but not necessarily under, the poverty line – applies for assistance, its budget will be examined, with its net income calculated by subtracting necessary expenditures such as rent, utilities and medical expenses. If the remaining available income falls short of the proposed minimal budget required for food security, that family would be eligible to receive a nutritionally balanced basket of food itemsamounting to an average of 320 NIS ($85) each month.
A family of five, for example, (two parents in their forties and three children aged 3-16) will receive a "basket" (either the actual food items or vouchers exchangeable for these items), that will be distributed by food charities nationwide. The basket will consist of six main food groups: grains, vegetables, fruit, dairy products, high-protein products and healthy high-fat foods. The council calculated the portions required for appropriate nutrition. For example, a loaf of whole-wheat bread and half a kilo of rice will provide the daily need for forty-six dishes of grain. A carton of milk and five yogurts will provide the daily need for nine portions of milk and dairy products. A similar calculation was made regarding the other nutritional categories.
“The food basket is based on nutritional considerations,” explained Chernichovsky. “The idea isn’t to give the needy a minimal food basket. We’re looking for a regular basket that doesn’t consist of luxury products but offers a good, reasonable variety ... we wouldn’t support eating steaks in a restaurant, for example,” he added.
Once again the project began to fall into place – and once again nothing happened.
This Year: Will Nutritional Security Finally Be Achieved?
Several months later, in April 2016, Social Affairs Minister Haim Katz finally got the ball rolling once again, with a collaborative plan aimed at generating a sense of joint responsibility amongst every sector of society in the battle to reduce food insecurity. To that end, Minister Katz approved establishment of a multiagency program encompassing the State ministries of agriculture, finance, health and environmental protection, local authorities, the National Nutritional Security Council, food distribution organizations, farmers associations and major players in the food industry. The government, in cooperation with local authorities, will be responsible for implementing policy, allocating a budget, regulation and enforcement. The welfare departments in each municipality will determine and checking eligibility requirements; these local authorities, together with nationally recognized food charities, will then distribute the food baskets/vouchers to families accepted into the program. In a country in which hundreds of thousands of foods, worth billions of shekels, are thrown out every year, an integral part of the program will be collecting food from farmers that would otherwise go to waste and using it for distribution within the context of the nutrition security program.
Now all that’s left is for the government to provide the funding for this revolutionary new approach in ensuring the health and welfare of all its citizens. So far, the NNSC has since received no budget for its nutritional activities and its members are volunteers. Various sums have been allocated to the program since its inception but for various technical and political reasons never used. Now, however, all that may be about to change. “The basic requirement for nutritional security cannot be dependent on budgetary considerations,” Minister Katz was quoted as saying. “There is an opportunity to create a system, at minimal cost and with maximum effect, that will guarantee food on the table throughout the year for low-income families,” the minister added. The NNSC recommends that the program begin by targeting with single-parent families and families with large numbers of children suffering from food insecurity, whose numbers it estimates at between 20,000 and 25,000 families, with Stage 1 costing approximately 100 million shekel. The total cost for the program is estimated at 500 million shekel. With this money, Chernichovsky asserts, the State of Israel can help ensure “healthy food on every table in Israel.”