Calling caterers and rescuing carrots, Leket Israel hopes to feed Israel’s poor

RAANANA, Israel (JTA) — 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, however, is a vegetable sorting machine and several large boxes of produce: carrots, pomelos and a green turnip that looks like the torso of a toy alien figurine.

The vegetable is kohlrabi and Joseph Gitler’s organization is about to rescue it.

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 groups in all. According to Leket’s research, Gitler says the organization is on pace to rescue one-fifth of the country’s total wasted food this year, a total of 22 million pounds. 

“The fact that we’re a wealthy Western country that can afford to waste food, let’s call that a positive,” Gitler said. “The bad is all the people who’ve been left behind.”

Israel’s only food rescue service, Leket has a budget of $7.5 million, employs 90 people and has 45,000 volunteers a year — among them corporate retreats, high school students and American tour groups. Gitler says he would need much more funding to reach all the unused food in Israel. A recent government report said that nearly a third of Israelis have to strain their budget to purchase food or other essential goods.

“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 Israel. Volunteers begin assembling school sandwiches by 7 a.m. Food brought to the warehouse is put back on the truck as soon as possible — either the same day or early the next.

The manager of Leket’s picking team, Guy Yehoshua, says his biggest challenge is dealing with the farmers.

“A lot of farmers don’t like that you go into their field,” Yehoshua said. “Maybe you’ll do him damage. 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, and one 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 Raanana and Kiryat Shemona,” a small town in Israel’s North, he said. “The Raanana 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, Leket has founded its own farm in the Galilee that is staffed largely by volunteers and aimed at 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 Leket’s 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, said Gitler, is not to address the root causes of Israeli poverty but to relieve some of the financial burden on the working poor. Nearly one in four Israelis lives below the poverty line, but Gitler says that the numbers, however large, do not discourage him.

“In our day-to-day work, does it matter if there are a hundred thousand that need or a million that need?” he said. “No. It’s never enough.”

Need to know? Sign up now to get JTA’s free e-newsletters!

Click to write a letter to the editor.