Israeli volunteers send gleanings to the hungry

BEERSHEBA, Israel, March 21 (JTA) — An Israeli organization devoted to feeding the needy is updating a biblical concept as it goes about its mission. “With Pesach just ahead, we’re gearing up our gleaning operation,” says Joseph Gitler, founder of Table to Table, Israel’s leading food rescue organization. “We’re signing up new farms every day. “Yesterday a farmer offered one tomato field now and said he’d have another in about a month, which is perfect timing, because during the holidays — and Pesach in particular — there’s always a huge demand for donated food.” The concept is spelled out clearly in Deuteronomy 24:19-22, where the Israelites are ordered to leave unharvested food and grain in the field for “the stranger, the orphan and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all your undertakings.” Through Table to Table, a nonprofit organization based in the city of Ra’anana, volunteer gleaners from all over the country come to designated farms and cull excess fruit or vegetables. Drivers then pick up the food packages and deliver them to food service agencies that staff the nation’s soup kitchens, school systems serving needy children, the elderly and agencies that distribute food boxes for the holidays. Table to Table added gleaning to its food rescue services just before Chanukah. Already, volunteer pickers have harvested more than 50 tons of clementines and 13 tons of persimmons. Gleaned foods include citruses along with potatoes, carrots and other vegetables the volunteers regularly collect from warehouses. The group’s regular operations began three years ago, when Joseph Gitler, then a 28-year-old immigrant from New York, went to a bar mitzvah. He noticed that perfectly good leftover food was being thrown away, while at the same time, people in the streets outside were hungry. He realized that it would make sense to match the extra food with the hungry people. “Why not rescue the leftover untouched, unserved, food and bring it to soup kitchens so it can be used to feed the hungry?” he remembers thinking. There are organizations in other parts of the world –– including an American organization also called Table to Table — that also redistribute food to the needy. With his wife’s encouragement, Gitler began to spend many evenings collecting excess food in his own car and delivering it to nearby food charities. As Gitler’s nighttime activities became known, volunteers began pouring in. “Now over 500 people volunteer in our evening food pickups from locations all across the country,” Gitler says. Table to Table also employs six workers; three of them work part time. The group picks up extra food from about 180 events a week, providing about 10,000 extra meals, according to Gitler. The gleaning started last fall, when a farmer in Kfar Chaim, outside Tel Aviv, called the organization and said he had extra persimmons that he couldn’t sell. Later, the farmer invited the group to pick persimmons directly from his trees. Now, says gleaner Helene Mittman, who made aliyah from Brooklyn 13 years ago and now lives in Zur Yigal, near Ra’anana, “It’s not just fruit. We pick vegetables, too. Every Tuesday morning I go to a packing shed and spend an hour picking potatoes, selecting the ones we can use from a huge bin.” “Gleaning is great for someone like me,” Mittman says. “I’m a stay-at-home mom with three teenagers and one younger kid, and I have time in the mornings. The physical labor is great — helps me work off stress. And it’s fulfilling to help feed people who are hungry.” Table to Table’s assistant director, Daniel Swartz, who is from Chicago, said, “We work to prevent waste of all kinds. Food rescue is one part, but we’re concerned about maximizing human potential, too. “When we compose our gleaning teams, we work to mix all segments of Israeli society, religious and secular, sabras and immigrants. We mix big companies — Intel was just here — with college students and elementary schools, we mix Ashkenazi and Sephardi families. We love it when new immigrants from absorption centers come. Everyone works side by side.” “We work with anyone who shows up to glean,” Gitler says. “We don’t necessarily get their names, and we don’t ask anyone for their family background. “So the truth is, we don’t always know which people, within which groups, are immigrants, and which are sabras.” Hunger manifests itself differently in Israel than it does in less developed parts of the world, Swartz says. “Hunger isn’t the right word. It’s not little kids with bloated tummies,” he says. “What we do have is nutritional insecurity — a clumsy phrase — but it means single mothers who have to choose between a nutritional meal for their kids or paying the rent. A senior citizen who has to choose between food and medicine. The unemployed or working poor. People who can’t afford nutritional foods, like meat and vegetables, and try to live on cheaper foods, like rice and pasta. “Of those kinds of people, unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be any end.” For more information on Table to Table, email info@tabletotable.org.il. For the gleaning operation, check the Web site at http://www.tabletotable.org.il/fruit.

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