Profile: Leket Israel

–by Hannah Lee

Just in time for the holiday of Shavuot with its agrarian setting and the message of hachnasat orchim (welcoming the stranger), I got to hear a presentation by Paul Leiba, the new Director of Development for Leket Israel.

Founded eight years ago by Joseph Gitler, Leket Israel combined two formerly small food-rescue organizations into an enterprise that now serves 55,000 clients daily.  Fully supported by private donations, it employs 80 people, operates nine trucks that do food runs by day from corporate kitchens, and deploys thousands of volunteers for the nightly runs for pick-up from catering halls and restaurants.  Their field-rescue missions help farmers by harvesting produce from the fields that the farmers cannot sell because the items do not conform to consumer expectations for color and size.  Because volunteers tire easily in the field, Leket Israel also employs 22 full-time pickers who are mostly Israeli Arab women.  Leket may well be the only organization in the world that offers health insurance and a pension plan for its field workers.  It’s also a living model of the Biblical mitzvah (commandment) for paying your workers on time.  In 2010, Leket rescued 9 million pounds of fruits and vegetables from over 300 farms throughout Israel.  All was delivered free of charge to 290 non-profit agencies serving the poor.

More after the jump.
Leiba quoted from Jonathan Blum’s book,American Wasteland, in which the author offers the powerful image of the 90,000-seat Rose Bowl stadium in Pasadena, CA filled to capacity being equivalent to the amount of food being wasted each day in this country.  And scholar Tim Jones has estimated that 40-50% of food being grown is not even harvested from the ground, because it would not be worth the effort by the farmers because of declining prices or changes in consumer demand.  And 90% of the water used in the U.S. is used for agriculture, so the critical issues of food and water usage is intimately connected.  Finally, the methane from decaying crops in the field may be more harmful than car exhaust, according to Leiba.

Leket’s clients are about 85% Jewish and 15% Arab, majority immigrants, and mostly elderly.  Originally, they’d planned on dealing only with kosher food, but Gitler consulted with his Rabbi and was advised that it would be a shanda (shame) if they neglected the non-kosher food when there are poor people who need food.  Now, they pick up non-kosher food from restaurants and, in the south of Tel Aviv, every Friday afternoon, Leket serves the food to about 400 African refugees encamped there.  (The official statistic is 30,000 refugees from the African nations of Sudan, Eritrea, and the Ivory Coast, but Leiba estimates that there may well be twice as many Africans.)  He reports that the shopkeepers in the nearby neighborhoods are grateful because they’ve experienced fewer thefts of food from their shops since this feeding program has begun.

I was curious that this Biblical mitzvah of leket (gleaning or leaving the dropped grain in your field for the poor) was brought to life by an American oleh (immigrant)  and modeled on a gleaning project of an evangelical church in New England.  It is a continual logistical challenge and, maybe only possible in a country that’s less litigious than ours.