Tackling the Issue of Food Waste in Israel and Beyond

Written by Travis Hare on . Posted in Features

Spring has finally sprung, and with the change of season many of us welcome the sense of growth and renewal.

For the homeless population in our region, however, leaving the debilitating winter months means much more than renewal. The changing season signifies survival, with easier access to shelter and increased opportunities to attain nutritious sustenance.


In Greater Washington, for example, 700,000 people — 16 percent of the population — live in a state of food insecurity, meaning they are without reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food. While members of our community are struggling to find their next meal, up to 40 percent of all food from farms, restaurants, catering companies, supermarkets, etc. is deemed “bad” and thrown out. The volume of this “food waste” is an astonishing epidemic, which local organizations like DC Central Kitchen, Capital Area Food Bank, and several others are working to fix through food “rescue” and redistribution efforts.

After making aliyah (moving to Israel) 15 years ago, New York native Joseph Gitler was bothered by the same widespread issues of food insecurity and food waste that was completely neglected in Israel. What began as a one-man mission conducted out of the back of his Subaru, rescuing food from catering halls and restaurants and delivering them to local nonprofits that serve the needy, has now become the largest food-recovery operation in Israel. In 2003, Gitler founded Leket Israel, The National Food Bank, working with 200 partners to collect and redistribute more than 28 million pounds of fresh, perishable, quality food that would otherwise be considered waste from farms, hotels, military bases, and catering halls. Gitler’s operation now delivers nutritious meals to more than 200,000 food-insecure Israelis every week.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington recently hosted Gitler as part of Federation’s Imagine Israel programming, an initiative that connects Washingtonians to Israel and Israelis through the lens of social change. Gitler spoke as an “Israel Changemaker” to a number of constituencies during his visit to Greater Washington, and sat on a panel alongside DC Central Kitchen’s Andrew Finke to talk about food rescue in DC and Israel and the Jewish values of food justice.

Gitler shared some tips on reducing food waste and what prompted him to get into food rescue and redistribution with Kol HaBirah:

When you first began collecting food waste, did you have the dream of developing Leket or any organization devoted to food recovery?

Our first two years of aliyah were the beginning of the intifada. Many people were losing jobs or getting their hours cut. I saw educated Israelis struggling to make ends meet. It really got to me, so I started to ask around and visit charities to see what was missing. They would say to me, “We know there’s so much wasted food, but we’re not focused on it. We’re taking care of the homeless, or battered women, or another group in need,” they would explain. “We don’t have time to tend to food collection.” Israel is rich in charities, but this specific area was lacking. I became aware that there was a gap in this charitable market.

What sets Leket apart from other hunger action efforts in Israel?

We’re not the only game in town, but we’re the largest and the most focused. We don’t accept non-nutritious food, for example. If I take a truck full of junk food, it means I’d have to give up a truck of tomatoes or fresh food.

We found that the thing that no one else will do is cook food and go directly to farms for agriculture collections. We go directly to the farmers and packing houses and receive bulk donations because of Israel’s high-yielding agricultural capabilities … and customize the goods to fit the specific needs of the recipient agency. In general, we view the world as filling in the gaps. We live to serve our agencies.

What are two simple things people can do to reduce food waste?

Firstly, be very careful in your purchasing. There are lots of traps set by supermarkets, but if you think in financial terms, resourceful grocery shopping means you’ll save money and save waste.

Secondly, everyone should commit to eating leftovers. We live in a shared society where no one has a right to waste food.

By Travis Hare