HomeDecember 2023Amid war, food rescue group switches from relying on farmers’ generosity to...

Amid war, food rescue group switches from relying on farmers’ generosity to helping them survive

Students participating in a special wartime program run through Leket Israel with corporate partners in which students who spend at least 160 hours doing volunteer farmwork earn a yearlong academic scholarship. (Courtesy of Leket Israel)

Yariv Hagbi, a farmer whose family has been growing produce in the area of southern Israel near Gaza for generations, spent part of Oct. 7 fighting terrorists who broke into his family home in the town of Yakhini.

That Saturday, his brother, Yizhar Hagbi, and several other relatives were killed. Since then, the entire community of Yakhini has been displaced, but Hagbi stayed behind because he’s determined to save the family farm — despite all the grief, shock and devastation.

“At a certain point, you have to get back to life,” Hagbi said.

A range of produce grows at Hagbi’s farm in Nir Moshe, including broccoli, potatoes, cabbage, melon, tomatoes, corn and chickpeas. Until the war, the farm relied on Thai farmhands — part of an agricultural workforce of tens of thousands of foreign laborers in Israel. But most fled their places of work after Hamas’s brutal attack left dozens of foreign farmworkers dead or abducted and turned a large swath of southern Israel into a war zone. Without the 20 Thais who had worked at Hagbi’s farm, Hagbi’s produce was left unpicked and was starting to rot.

Hundreds of other farms in southern Israel — the source of approximately 75% of the country’s vegetables — were in similarly dire circumstances.

Joseph Gitler, Founder and Chairman of the Israeli food rescue organization Leket Israel, quickly pivoted his organization’s focus to address the crisis.

In normal times, Leket Israel collects surplus produce from farms around the country — and excess cooked meals from institutions such as hotels and army bases — and distributes the food to needy families via a network of nonprofit organizations. In 2022, Leket rescued 58 million pounds of agricultural produce, and the 20-year-old organization was on track to increase those numbers in 2023.

Then came Hamas’s attack and the war in Gaza.

“We immediately understood that the Oct. 7 attack would bring an upheaval to our work,” Gitler said. “We realized that our food sources were about to dry up.”

First, Leket shifted gears to aid Israeli farmers, who until the war had been Leket’s primary donors of surplus food. The organization began recruiting volunteers from Israel and around the world to help fill the gap left by the absence of farm workers, organizing 15,000 to 20,000 volunteers to farms amid a nationwide movement of volunteers helping pick, plant and protect produce from weeds.

Leket also began purchasing produce from farmers rather than just collecting surplus. The need is particularly high because Israeli farms have lost many export customers due to the challenges of harvesting and transporting the produce at a time when workers and overseas flights are both in short supply (most international carriers have canceled all their Israel flights).

Volunteers with a sign reading “United until victory” pause for a group photo amid work on a farm. (Courtesy of Leket Israel)

At the same time, Leket has been continuing to provide meals to needy Israelis even as some of the organizations it works with to distribute those meals have suspended operations during the war due to logistical difficulties — or, like the army, don’t have surplus food anymore. Today Leket provides about 15,000 meals per day — 50% more than before the war — all via purchased rather than donated food.

“The situations of people we help hasn’t gotten any better since October 7,” Gitler said. “In some cases, they have gotten worse.”

For farms in the vicinity of Gaza, the challenges are tremendous. Almost all farming families in the south are mourning loved ones or friends, have been evacuated from their homes, or have family members doing military reserve duty. The farms themselves have suffered significant damage, including incineration by Hamas terrorists, fields torn up by military vehicles, structures damaged by rocket or mortar fire, and locations commandeered by the army. Farms within four kilometers of the border must obtain special permission from the Israeli Defense Forces to continue operating amid the fighting. Then, of course, there’s the loss of the farmworkers themselves.

That problem is afflicting farmers all over Israel, not just those in the war zones.

Yuval Shargian, a farmer in Tzofit, north of Tel Aviv, whose 100-acre tract grows broccoli, zucchini and leeks, for years has donated his surplus to Leket. But when his entire workforce of Thai and Arab workers disappeared after Oct. 7, he became reliant upon volunteers.

“It’s been amazing with the volunteers,” Shargian said. “They have a lot of good will and a desire to help. My farm will survive because of them.”

Debbi Hirsch Levran, a retired social worker and lawyer living in Jerusalem, is among those who have has been volunteering on farms during the war, and she frequently helps organize buses of volunteers through her synagogue, Kol Haneshama.

“We have worked in cauliflower fields and strawberry fields. We picked sweet potatoes, oranges and tomatoes. We planted broccoli,” Levran said. “It has been therapeutic for us — not only to be in the fresh air and to be with friends, but also to assist people who we’ve never met before but who are part of our larger community of Israel.”

Dan Greenberg, 51, joined a Leket volunteer group on a recent visit to Israel from his home in Brooklyn, New York, picking tomatoes and pomegranates near Gaza.

“The work was tough and exhausting. Every muscle hurt at the end of the day,” Greenberg said. “And it was the most fulfilling work I have ever done.”

Volunteers are helping keep Israeli farms afloat amid a dearth of farmhands and other problems resulting from the war in Israel. (Courtesy of Leket Israel)

Leket has set up a series of partnerships to create new avenues to support farmers and volunteers. A new partnership with Bank Leumi, the Israel Student Union and the Keshet media company will give 800 students who volunteer on a farm for 160 hours a yearlong academic scholarship. In a new partnership with Strauss foods, farmers can receive a debit card through which they get direct funding.

Supporting the farmers is vital not just to keep them in business but also to support Israel’s entire food system. If the farms in southern Israel were to collapse, Israel would have to embark on a major food import campaign with long-term repercussions for Israel’s economy and the national ethos of being self-sustaining.

“That would start a difficult path to come back from,” Shargian said. “Had the volunteers not helped with the planting, Israel would be having a real food crisis now.”

Levran and Hagbi both say planting is critical at this moment.

“The most important thing is to keep planting; it is about preserving our way of life,” Hagbi said. “My family has been farming here for generations, and our enemies want to erase our entire way of life. We are fighting for our very existence. Planting is our way of ensuring our long-term survival here in a Jewish, democratic state. We are doing this for all of Israel.”

Through Leket, tourists to Israel may volunteer for as little as several hours planting, packing or harvesting.

“We need all hands on deck right now,” Gitler said. “Leket is doing what we can. But we need more help. If you’re coming to Israel, be ready to roll up your sleeves. Everyone has to participate.”

This story was sponsored by and produced in partnership with Leket, Israel’s leading food rescue and relief organization. This article was produced by JTA’s native content team.

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