Leket Israel “Steps Up To The Plate” to serve food to those in need
By David E. Kaplan
Inspired by the proverb, ‘Want not, waste not’, the passion and drive of one young man back in 2003 to put food on the table for Israel’s needy, created an organization – Leket Israel – that is today the largest food rescue organization in the country.
From the trunk of his private car and a fridge housed in the car’s garage, Joseph Gitler has come a long way – feeding over 9,000 mouths daily.
Today, more than ever, this organization is needed during the Corona crisis as people battle with economic uncertainty and increasingly something as basic as “putting food on the table.” Undeterred by the national lockdown, Leket Israel has not stopped from endeavoring to collect, package and deliver food packages to the needy across the country.
If the situation today is grim, it was grim too when the organization was founded in 2003 by Gitler, then still in his twenties and working in hi-tech.
“It was a difficult time in Israel,” explains the Manhattan native and graduate of Yeshiva University Fordham University Law School who had immigrated to Israel only two years earlier. “The Intifada was raging, tourism was down, hi-tech was in the doldrums and coupled with all this, there was an ever-worsening poverty situation throughout the country. While I was well aware of this from statistics I picked up from the media, it was literally brought home to me when people were knocking at my front door, collecting money for food.”
“I could not accept this,” says Gitler. “I came here with notions and values about the country and realized I had been living in a little bubble in Ra’anana. Sure I was aware of poverty, but it was ‘elsewhere’, not that it prevailed all over the country, and on my doorstep, effecting ‘regular Joes’, who, for whatever reasons, could not make ends meet.”
Noting the success of certain food rescue organizations in North America, Gitler set about his task. “No one was thinking big on how to rescue food here beyond soup kitchens reaching out to local bakeries for leftovers.” So Gitler dove straight into the Yellow Pages turning to event caterers. Despite economic fluctuations, there is rarely a slump when it comes to family celebrations – “life has to go on” – and Gitler started working the phone. “I must have called over 60 catering halls and asked:
“Do you have left over food after an event?
“What do you do with it?
“Well, we throw it away.”
“So, if I come at night with packing material and distribute it to needy folk, would you be willing to give it to me?”
And so he began, prowling the streets at night with his car collecting food that would have gone to waste.
It soon dawned on Gitler: “Why only focus on night caterers?”
Far more food was being destroyed during the day at army bases, manufacturers, restaurants, shopping malls and large hi-tech companies, and so over the next seven years “we expanded our hunting ground to wherever quality mass food was going to waste.”
Standing alongside his ‘captain’ on the bridge of Leket Israel, is its CEO, Gidi Kroch. No stranger to being at the helm, Kroch is a retired Lieutenant Commander in the Israeli Navy, having served as the head of a Fast Attack Missile Boat unit and the celebrated Fast Attack Patrol Boat division. He joined Leket Israel in 2007 after two decades in hi-tech. He readily admits that he initially took the position “as an interim measure thinking it would be a relaxed 10.00am – 4.00pm Amuta (non-profit organization) type job” while he eased back into the job market after an absence of seven years in the US. After three months – noting the hours he was working – his wife asked in jest:
“Honey, are you sure you are not still in hi-tech?”
Kroch has never looked back. “I have never enjoyed such job satisfaction, knowing that I can use my skills and expertise in truly helping people. We are an organization that is constantly growing and evolving rising to new challenges all the time.”
Right now with the Coronavirus and an end to tourism and events for the foreseeable future – that challenge is HUGE!
So while on a daily basis, Leket Israel rescues surplus cooked food from corporate cafeterias, IDF army bases and hotels and distributes it to 9,000 people in need throughout Israel, “with the outbreak of the Coronavirus,” says Kroch, “these food sources suddenly dried up leaving thousands of elderly and vulnerable people without a hot meal. As a result, we launched an emergency operation to purchase prepared meals for the upcoming weeks of closure period set by the Ministry of Health.”
The fundraising campaign was initiated through a one million shekel donation made by the Family Foundation of Inbar & Marius Nacht, to be doubled and tripled by other donors from Israel and abroad. Additionally, US Ambassador David and Tammy Friedman donated $50,000 USD to Leket, specifically earmarked to support needy families on Passover.
This will enable Leket Israel to purchase over 50,000 meals and provide much needed sustenance to those in need across the country.
There is more good news emanating from a bad situation.
On the produce side, Leket Israel is seeing an increase of 1,000 tons in donations of agricultural produce. “This comes as a result of the drastic decline in the purchase of agricultural goods by restaurants, hotels, catering companies and more,” explains Kroch.
Tal, a farmer from the Ben Shalom farm in Rishon Lezion, recently donated 12 tons of cabbage to Leket Israel. He grew this harvest to be sold in the marketplace but that was not to be, thanks to Corona!
“The Corona crisis has affected every step of the entire food chain,” explains Tal. “The company that normally purchases my produce closed overnight since it had nowhere to sell to. I have no way to market my cabbage in such a short time frame.” So while donating these cabbages fails to provide an economic solution for Tal, it does however, “gives me great comfort knowing that people in need, without access to fresh vegetables, can enjoy my goods. I am truly grateful that it will not all end us as waste.”
Says Kroch: “We thank the farmers, like Tal, who during this difficult time, when they are unable to sell their produce, are showing great humanity by donating it to ensure that it is being given to the people who need it most. We at Leket Israel could not continue to provide for Israelis in need without the incredible support of the Israeli farming community, especially with the Passover holiday soon approaching.”
Says Lillian Levitt an Assisted Living Resident in Jaffa, “It’s a blessing from heaven. The food is of great quality.”
Over and above its distribution to individual homes, Leket is responding to requests from all over the country and supplying not only to its partner agencies but also to municipalities and community centers throughout Israel.
‘Rooted’ in the Bible
Originally called Shulchan le’Shulchan (‘Table to Table’), as this writer remembers it when he volunteered at a warehouse in Ra’anana packing meals for the needy in the Sharon region, the organization changed its name to Leket Israel “to be more connected to the roots of the Jewish people,” explains Gitler.
“Leket in Hebrew means ‘gleaning’, which is the act of collecting crops from a farmer’s field after its been commercially harvested or where it was not economically profitable to harvest. Our forefathers in biblical times, promoted gleaning as an early form of a welfare system.” Gitler refers the writer to the passage in Deuteronomy:
“When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all your undertakings.” (Deuteronomy 24:19)
In the words of Lilian Levitt from Jaffa, the work of Leket Israel is like “a blessing from heaven.”