Israel’s food rescuer to spearhead Vic JNF Blue Box campaign

March 12, 2018 by Hila Tsor
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J-Wire talks to Joseph Gitler, founder of Leket Israel, Israel’s largest food rescue organisation. Gitler is coming to Melbourne for the Jewish National Fund (JNF) Pesach Blue Box Campaign as JNF will be partnering with Leket Israel.

Joseph Gitler

Leket Israel works like the Australian Oz Harvest organisation by rescuing excess foods and redistributing it. Leket volunteers deliver to 175,00 people a week in Israel.

Gitler founded Leket Israel in 2003 after making aliyah in 2000. He is both a graduate of Yeshiva university and Fordham University Law School in the U.S. After seeing food wastage at a heightened time of crisis, Gitler was inspired to start Leket Israel.

Leket Israel begun as a hopeful one-man operation and grew significantly since. Gitler speaks to J-wire about his inspiring journey and the work Leket Israel does.

 

JW: Where does the name ‘Leket’ come from?

JG: Leket is a biblical term, it is one of the commandments in the bible which talks about how farmers are meant to react to poverty in the community. There are three commandments, in the bible: Leket, Shikhhah and Pe’ah which talk about leaving a corner of the field for the poor. Leket technically means ‘gleaning’. In those days, it was commanded on the farmers [to give the poor a portion]. Today it’s different – for economic reasons, for business reasons, for reasons of modern food culture. Food is left in the field because they aren’t going to be sold or because they don’t look right. Our job as an organisation is to make sure healthy, nutritious and safe food that would go to waste ends up being fed to human beings who need it.

JW: Did part of your inspiration for Leket Israel come when you were at Yeshiva University and possibly studying the concept of Leket?

JG: I certainly want to give credit to my upbringing which is a typical American Jewish day school upbringing. I went to private Jewish day school my whole life and then Yeshiva University. Certainly my Jewish background played a role in starting Leket. I think equally if I had never made aliyah, the likelihood of having started something like this would have been next to zero. I think it’s a combination of my upbringing, but not just the Jewish upbringing. I think much of the Zionist upbringing, coming to Israel and seeing something missing that perhaps in the U.S I may have not.

Being honest, I think part of it was coming to the Jewish homeland, the state of Israel and seeing all this need and all this waste. If I was living in the States I would have probably given a financial donation to an organisation if I were thinking about helping in that area.

Here, I found that there were so many pieces missing and how could it be that in Israel, [the country] that we love and is such a success story that there was so many people who needed help? That’s what it was for me.

JW: What inspired your vision for the Leket Israel initiative?

JG: I would say that the inspiration was a few faults. What I got into my head was that the poverty situation in Israel was much greater than I thought. What hit especially hard is that during the Intifada things have gotten worse. Even people who had been able to provide for their families suddenly were struggling to make ends meet. People lost their jobs, their hours have been cut back. Lots of people were already in poverty, due to the income they were making or the profession they may have had. Suddenly, you had people who in their lives never imagined that poverty would hit them. They were people who had taken out mortgages, and suddenly they were out of a job. These are middle class people. That, together with mass abundance that we see in Israel everyday.

There is tremendous abundance and wealth next to Western poverty. For me, it was abundance on one hand and need on the other hand.

Lastly, charities told me that they were not getting enough donations of food. Part of the issue was that it wasn’t their focus. They were dealing with the battered, the beaten, the sick, the survivors and the youths at risks. They simply did not have time to sit down and think about the logistics of getting food…

So for me there was a hole and a yearning gap for someone to fill it in. That truly was what it was.

JW: You left your career at age 25 to pursue your vision, what advice can you give to young adults looking to change or influence the world in the same way you did?

JG: I think that’s a really interesting question. Answer one number, I don’t think that you need to drop everything that you are doing to pursue something and I don’t think you necessarily have to start something on your own. That is great to do if you have the capacity and entrepreneurial spirit, but the world is filled with initiatives that fail. There are so many incredible initiatives that already exist which I hear about everyday. These initiatives that are constantly looking for leadership.

My piece of advice is to find your passion. I think that there has always been something within me personally about food wastage. There are other things that I could have also dropped everything for, but there was something in this [Leket] specifically. The combination of many factors – my upbringing, Zionism, to being bothered by waste, to the unfairness of life – all these things [that attracted me to this cause]. Don’t jump into the first problem that you hear about unless that is your passion and you want to commit to it. When people congratulate me, I see Leket as a great idea but more importantly is that it succeeded. The road is littered with great ideas that never succeed. That’s a big part of it. Only do something that you are willing to make a long-term commitment to.

JW: Leket begun as a one man operation, can you describe it’s humble beginnings and how did you expand Leket into what it is today? 

JG: After we discovered from the charities that they were not able to collect donations of excess food, I felt like the best way to get started was with low hanging fruit, by that I mean, in the sense of catered events.

I started to call up caters and asked them if they were willing to donate from what had been served at weddings, barmitzvahs and corporate events. Almost everyone said ‘our pleasure’. Not a lot of questions about my ability, not a lot of questions about food productions. It was all about ‘how can we help?’ This response was a great push for me. Imagine if the first 50 phone calls I made to caters were negative.

So I started. I started going at night in my car and picking up excess meals, storing them overnight at the refrigerator in my house and refrigerator in my garage. I started to deliver directly at night to agencies who would then store it in their refrigerators. After two month of doing that on my own, by night and by day, I realised I needed to start recruiting volunteers.

Once I had some volunteers who could help me I realised I needed to recruit a little bit of money and then a little more money… And then, I started to draw up business plans and ripped up a lot of business plans. A lot of what was done over the years has been opportunistic. For example ‘we’re dealing with catered events at night but what about corporate cafeterias? Or hey, we hear from a lot of soldiers about food waste in the army, let’s see what we can do in the army.’

It snowballed from there. There was no grand plan. Now that we have grown and gotten bigger there’s a lot more planning. But for the first few years we were more about opportunity.

We were doing cooked food at the beginning but begun to think that maybe there are other areas. And then, we went from there. We really invest in what was going on in the world of fruits and vegetables. I live in Ra’anana, while driving and biking around the area, I would see so many fruits that are sitting on the grounds, having fallen off the trees, not being picked. I started to ask around in order to understand how agriculture works and discovered this world of food waste in agriculture. About 40% of all food is wasted.

JW: Many Evangelical Christians volunteer for Leket, how did they begin to get involved and what do you think interests them about Leket?

JG: It begun organically. I think a lot of these Evangelical Christians actually found us through the different wars that have happened since Leket has started and were looking for ways to help Israel financially. Since then we have done lots of outreach to the Evangelical world. They love the name Leket, they love the concept, they love the opportunity to connect with the land. For Evangelicals, the possibility of helping the poor of Israel with their own hands while fulfilling a biblical commandment is very powerful. We have a lot who come but it is still a small amount, part of the reason being is because they’re so busy on their trips. We’re happy to have as many come as possible.

JW: How do you see Leket growing and expanding in the next few years?

JG: Over the last few years we have put out very intense reports on food waste in Israel. What the reports have shown us is despite the size of Leket, despite the fact that in 2018 we hope to distribute over 3 million cooked meals and over 20 million kilos of fruits and vegetables, we are only doing 5-10% of what’s available. That being said, I don’t see us changing course too much or expanding our goal outside of ‘let’s go from 3 million meals, to 5 million meals, let’s go from 20 million to 30 million.’ The main goal is to get 50 thousand tonnes of food by 2020, which is more then doubling what we are doing today.

To get there we need a lot of help – we need volunteers and we need money.

Joseph Gitler will visit Melbourne ahead of Pesach and will visit schools and launch the Victorian JNF Blue Box appeal.

 

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