Bottom of the Food Chain: Hundreds of Thousands of Israeli Kids Go Hungry at School

More than 660,000 Israeli children suffer from food insecurity, and around half are hungry. The only hot meal many of them get is at school, but the Education Ministry’s feeding program is only for children in primary schools. The food disappears as soon as a child is in seventh grade, and the implications, including violence and attrition, can be severe. The first in a two-part project, published in collaboration with Calcalist: A journey to the last-chance highs schools that are forced deal with the education system’s rumbling stomach

More than 660,000 Israeli children suffer from food insecurity, and around half are hungry. The only hot meal many of them get is at school, but the Education Ministry’s feeding program is only for children in primary schools. The food disappears as soon as a child is in seventh grade, and the implications, including violence and attrition, can be severe. The first in a two-part project, published in collaboration with Calcalist: A journey to the last-chance highs schools that are forced deal with the education system’s rumbling stomach

More than 660,000 Israeli children suffer from food insecurity, and around half are hungry. The only hot meal many of them get is at school, but the Education Ministry’s feeding program is only for children in primary schools. The food disappears as soon as a child is in seventh grade, and the implications, including violence and attrition, can be severe. The first in a two-part project, published in collaboration with Calcalist: A journey to the last-chance highs schools that are forced deal with the education system’s rumbling stomach

Daniel Dolev

Illustration: Moran Barak

October 20, 2022

Summary

Meital, not her real name, completed her high-school studies in Ramle two years ago, but even today, as a soldier, she well remembers the hungry that accompanied her adolescent years. “I come from a family with many children, a household that has seen tough times financially. There were periods when our electricity would be cut off, and sometimes we had whole days without running water. When that happened, we would split up – I would sleep at my grandmother’s, and my siblings would sleep over at the friends’ homes.”

Hunger, as described by Meital, is an elusive phenomenon. Sometimes, it takes the form of not knowing where dinner will come from; many times, the lunch provided by the school is the child’s only meal of the day. Sometimes, hunger can manifest itself in obesity since the most readily available food is the cheapest food – carbohydrates like bread and pasta. Sometimes, hunger is an intense and painful physical sensation.

“I’ve experienced it many times, and it is incredibly difficult,” says Meital. “At least at school, I knew I would have a meal at lunchtime, and even if it wasn’t tasty, I had something to eat, no matter what.”

Poverty – especially as a high-school student – obligates people to make tough choices, and adolescents will do almost anything to ensure that no one finds out about the difficulties they are experiencing. “Sometimes I would see the other girls going out to the movies or the mall, and I couldn’t go because I didn’t have any money,” Meital says. I had one friend with whom I would talk about it [the financial problems], but that’s all. I didn’t share. At first, the whole issue didn’t really matter to me until I reached the age where I wanted to connect with friends and everybody. To feel that I belong.”

Meital is far from an exceptional case in Israel. According to a survey commissioned last year [Hebrew link] by the National Insurance Institute, 16.2 percent of Israeli families – including around 665,000 children – suffer from food insecurity. This broad term covers a spectrum of conditions, from concern about the possible food shortage in the household to long-term hunger. Around half of those children, according to the survey, fall into the very low food security category. Although that survey was not published in full, the previous one, conducted in 2016, found that 352,000 children in Israel suffer from severe food insecurity, including actual hunger.

Watch Daniel Dolev summarizes the report

Finished Elementary School? Go Hungry

In order to tackle the problem of food insecurity among children and adolescents, Israel established a feeding program to ensure that every child was given one hot meal a day within the framework of their school. However, with only a few exceptions – such as the schools for Arab students at risk of dropping out, which are covered below – the project only operates in elementary schools. From the moment children finish sixth grade, the state provides them with no solution.

Israeli governments over the years have been well aware of this problem. In April 2018, for example, reports reached the Education Ministry that students in the ORT networks of schools in northern Israel were going hungry. Delegations from the education and health ministries visited some of the schools and returned with extremely worrisome conclusions. “After visiting these schools, and talking to principals, teachers, students, and parents, we get the impression that there is indeed an objective problem of daily hunger which the highest levels of government must address,” the report summing up the visit stated. It is evident that hunger is the primary and fundamental problem in the schools we visited. It is vital, first and foremost, to take care of the most existential needs of the students – food. Food keeps the children in school, which becomes a safe space for them, physically and mentally, and encourages them to study.”

Although the document only covers schools in northern Israel belonging to the ORT network, visits and conversations conducted in recent months by Shomrim reveal that this is not the exclusive problem of that network and is not an issue that is limited to one geographical part of the country.

“I can tell you that 90 percent of the families with children in my classes, from first grade to sixth grade, are in very severe financial distress,” says Nurit, who asked that we use a pseudonym and who works at an after-school childcare facility in Kiryat Gat. “Most of the children here come from schools where they are fed, but still, before they go home, they have to eat and, if possible, take food home with them. You see children eating after they’re full because there is food here and at home, there is not, so they prefer to eat as much as they can, even if they are satiated.

“Most children only eat meals here or in school. If they eat anything at home at all, it’s usually just bread with something spread on it. During the coronavirus pandemic, we operated in capsules, and kids would show up and wait for a sandwich, even on days when their capsule wasn’t scheduled to come in.”

You also work with at-risk youth. What’s the situation like in that age group?

“We work with youths aged 15 and over, so there is ostensibly less hunger because they are in a different situation. They are at an age when most of them are working, but you can still see there is deprivation. If I bring snacks and soda to an activity, the kids will ask to take the leftovers home with them. When I was their age, I did not encounter anything like that. Nobody wanted to take the almost-empty bottles of Coke home with them. You see that kind of thing today among youths, but not as much as you do with younger children. Teenagers are embarrassed by it so that they won’t tell you, ‘I’m hungry, there’s no food at home.”

While there is an active feeding program in elementary schools, there is no such solution for middle or high school students. The situation is even worse in technological education centers – high schools for at-risk youths sometimes referred to as ‘last-chance high schools.’ These schools instruct students who often come from poorer families, and, as a result, they are often hungrier.

Illustration: Reuters
“I can tell you that 90 percent of the families with children in my classes, from first grade to sixth grade, are in very severe financial distress,” says Nurit, who works at an after-school childcare facility in Kiryat Gat. “Most of the children here come from schools where they are fed, but still, before they go home, they have to eat and, if possible, take food home with them"

‘Parents Cried Over the Phone’

Rachel, another pseudonym like all of those referred to by a single name in this article, is the principal of a school in southern Israel that is ranked in the ninth level of the Education Ministry’s Development Index, which measures several socioeconomic indicators, with Level One being the highest and Level 10 the lowest. She agreed to be interviewed for this article only on the condition that her name and the identity of the educational institution she works are not disclosed. Like students and school networks – ORT, Na’amat, Amal, Amit, Branco Weiss, and others – the educators interviewed for this article are concerned about acquiring an image of being needy and the associated stigma.

“Nobody wants to be seen to be hungry, but you can see it at lunchtime,” Rachel says. “Before the coronavirus pandemic, we had a hot meal, but since then, we’ve switched to sandwiches. So, they take a few baguettes or check to see what’s in the staffroom. It’s really a matter of survival. We also know that things are not at all simple at home. A hungry child is in no condition to study.”

“If there’s food left at the end of a staff meeting, like sandwiches, for example, I call one of the students and, even if she doesn’t live close to the school, she’ll come immediately to take them,” says a counselor at the same high school. “I’ve had parents crying to me over the phone when we distributed food baskets. People begged, and they took everything we had. Someone donated cakes, and everyone who came to my office asked if they could take two cakes home. There are children who come and actually ask if they can take a sandwich with schnitzel. Those whose situation is really dire ask if I can come with them or if I can ask someone to give them a sandwich. And some ask for food to take home.”

“You won’t see emaciated people here, skin and bones,” they add. “There’s not that kind of hunger. The hunger is visible in other ways. You see people who put on weight from eating so much bread. You see it in disproportionate obesity and in an inability to concentrate, as well as behavioral problems.”

A class coordinator at the same school adds: “As far as we are concerned, the most important thing is nutrition in the morning because otherwise, the children are not at ease here. They are more aggressive and more violent. When children are hungry, they are not calm. It makes sense that they would also smoke more. You can see how they rush to take sandwiches. They ask all the time when the food is supposed to arrive.”

When students are hungry, schools find it impossible to do their most fundamental duty – education. “The students are working very hard, sometimes at the expense of their schoolwork,” says the coordinator teacher. “And the whole issue is the war against overt and hidden attrition.” Hidden attrition, as described in a recent Shomrim article, refers to the phenomenon whereby a student is officially still registered at a school but, in practice, rarely turns up and, when they do, does not engage in studies.

“Students sometimes work until late at night and find it hard to wake up in time for school. When they arrive here, they are tired, so they are not focused enough,” says Rachel, the principal. “Alternatively, they get a taste of money and work and don’t understand what they need to study for. The most significant ramification is that, assuming they managed to study here and graduate, if they go into the army, where there is not such a long fuse, they will very quickly go AWOL.”

“We had one student whose mother was a single parent. At one stage, they had their power cut off at home. The student came to me and said that he’s dropping out of school because he needs to pay the electricity bill,” says the coordinator. “He has a special-needs brother. A while ago, we were given a whole lot of tinned food, we opened up the pantry to take as much as  he needed. We also bought them T-shirts and helped him find work. In the end, he didn’t drop out, and he graduated. A short while ago, he came to visit and said he wanted to start studying engineering. So, yes, without those tins of food, he wouldn’t have continued here.”

“We’ve become an offshoot of the welfare services,” they say in summary. “But where are the actual welfare services? Why don’t social workers help these kids? They tell us that the student didn’t show up for a meeting, and then they close the file because of a lack of cooperation. We’re dealing with children here, and we need to chase after them. Otherwise, they won’t come for any counseling on their own accord.”

Calcalist Weekly Cover (Hebrew link)

“Nobody wants to be seen to be hungry, but you can see it at lunchtime,” Rachel says. “Before the coronavirus pandemic, we had a hot meal, but since then, we’ve switched to sandwiches. So, they take a few baguettes or check to see what’s in the staffroom. It’s really a matter of survival. We also know that things are not at all simple at home. A hungry child is in no condition to study.”

‘If There’s No Hot Meal, They Just Leave’

Reuven is an official working for one of the education networks. He previously worked at a school for at-risk youth in central Israel and was also the principal of a similar school for several years. “There is wall-to-wall understanding that the better a student is in school, especially when it comes to schools like this one, his or her life will be better,” he says. “Home life is not always good for them, the community is not always one that it is always comfortable for them to belong to, and unless they find a regular job, there’s always the potential to get into trouble outside of the school framework.

“As far as I am concerned, a precondition of a student spending a lot of time in school is that fed. Otherwise, it simply doesn’t work. It can’t stand up. When I worked in a school, there were many years that we did not provide a hot me because there wasn’t enough money. So, every morning at 10 o’clock or 11 o’clock, we would take our loaves of sliced bread, hummus, chocolate spread, and white cheese – and that would last the children until lunchtime. But that’s no way to operate. They need a normal meal in the morning, something hot, healthy, and nutritious for lunch. We know how to provide a solution for students who aren’t focused, but if there’s no hot meal, they just leave.”

We met with Reuven at one of the network’s schools in the Shfela District. We are joined by Na’ama, the school’s social coordinator, and Alma, a teacher. “There is a food issue,” says Alma. “In my early education classes, every activity I organized was preceded by the question of whether food would be provided. In that class, it’s just with specific children.”

During the course of our conversation, Alma excuses herself to answer her cell phone. On the line is the coordinator of a hostel for youth in crisis, who is calling about one of her students, who had been thrown out of her home and was staying temporarily at the hostel. He said that the student was not eating, and he wanted to make sure that at school, at least, she was being given a meal.

What proportion of the students here relies on the hot meal they get at school as the only meal of the day?

Na’ama: “Most of them work, but they won’t get an additional hot meal at home. They and their little siblings don’t get meals at home. There are only a handful whose socioeconomic situation is moderate or above. Most of them face particularly challenging socioeconomic circumstances. A few weeks ago, one of the coordinators went grocery shopping for one of our matriculants. She simply bought her a thousand shekels worth of food from the supermarket because she called and said that they didn’t have anything to eat in the home, and she was there with her sister and her little children.”

One of the issues that are raised time and time again in these conversations is the shame experienced by disadvantaged youths. “They can’t give any external indication that they are poor,” says Alma. “Many children have Adidas and an iPhone, but whose fridge at home is empty.”

“This is a characteristic of poverty,” adds Na’ama, “that sometimes they don’t have power in the home, and they sleep in the living room in the same bed as a sibling, but the child will own two Adidas T-shirts. That provides them with a basic sense of belonging. They worked for it or stole to buy it – but they have to have it.”

Alma: “I had one boy in my previous class, for example, who had a fire in his house on the week of the graduation prom. I offered him replacement clothes, but he refused to come to the party because they weren’t fashionable brands.”

Reuven: “I think it’s irrational, but it also comes from the child’s desire to say, ‘I am a regular youth, and I want to feel normal.”

Na’ama: “Check how many of them have a driver’s license by the time they’re 19, have savings, and have plans for the future. They’re industrious, and they work hard, sometimes, they work until two in the morning and then come to school at nine – but they will waste the money they earned within a week. There’s no future in the present.”

The Lowest Place in Israel: The Arab Community

“No One Goes From These Shacks to Hi-Tech”

Photo: Bea Bar Kallos

The data collected by the National Insurance Institute and by researchers specializing in food security – more on which in the second part of this series – clearly indicate that there are some communities where hunger and food insecurity are more prevalent. Chief among them is the Arab community. According to the NII survey from 2016, around half of the children up to the age of 18 in the Arab community suffer from some degree of food insecurity. That’s double the rate among the rest of the population of Israel.

During the course of the current school year, as part of a five-year plan for the Arab community, a feeding project was launched in high schools for at-risk youths in Arab communities. However, not all of hungry students attend these schools. One educational institute that wants to provide a hot meal to its students is the ORT school in the Bedouin village of Abu Talul, a few miles south of Be’er Sheva. The school is comprised of several new and well-kept buildings. Nearby are the offices of the Neve Midbar Regional Council. The sky is constantly filled with the noise of fighter jets from the nearby Nevatim Airbase. But beyond the perimeter fence of the school, there are no well-kempt buildings, only shacks. These are the homes of the students – and the staff.

“Most people here [the families of students] are unemployed and survive on income support, “ says the school’s principal, Raji Alkaram. “More than 90 percent of the women don’t work. So people live off National Insurance payments. During the first coronavirus lockdown, the Welfare Ministry handed out vouchers to families and asked me to turn the school into a distribution center. It was such a burden on us. People came in enormous numbers from all across the Bedouin community. People would call me and the teachers as if we were handing out the vouchers. I realized just what distress people were in.”

When Alkaram refers to ‘financially secure’ students, he is not talking about those whose parents are bank managers or CEOs of major companies. Rather, he refers to the children of construction, workers, agricultural laborers, or drivers. “No one goes from these shacks to hi-tech. If your father owns a grocery store or a transportation company – you’ll have a steady income. You can see it in the child’s clothes, his behavior.”

Photo: Bea Bar Kallos

“Most people here [the families of students] are unemployed and survive on income support, “ says the school’s principal, Raji Alkaram. “More than 90 percent of the women don’t work. So people live off National Insurance payments"

Nissim Illuz, who is the ORT official in charge of the schools in the Bedouin community, enters his office. “We had enormous difficulties here,” he said. “Kids are simply hungry. I have seen with my own two eyes children scrambling about in the trash"

During the interview with Alkaram, Nissim Illuz, who is the ORT official in charge of the schools in the Bedouin community, enters his office. “We had enormous difficulties here,” he said. “Kids are simply hungry. I have seen with my own two eyes children scrambling about in the trash. I asked one of them what they were doing, and he told me, ‘I want to eat.’ I believe that a child who is given a meal, even if it’s just a sandwich and a drink, will stay in school until the end of the day and won’t run off in the middle of lessons. These are children from families with many offspring – and there’s just no food at home.”

“The upshot is that the student won’t be focused,” Alkaram adds. “Afternoon, they will always be unfocused, out of it. They don’t want to sit. They’re not calm. And the level of violence is also high. They keep on asking when it’s time to go home.”

The solution the school found was sandwiches, the funding for which comes from the ORT network, donations, and from the Agriculture Ministry, which oversees the Authority for the Development and Settlement of the Bedouin in the Negev. The ministry also helped fund the construction of a hothouse at the school, where students grow vegetables and herbs, which are also part of their menu.

During our visit to the school, female students were busy making sandwiches for lunch. It may not sound like a lot, but those sandwiches make a dramatic difference. “For example, on Sundays, I keep the students in school until 3:30 P.M., and I am not concerned,” says Alkaram. “I tell them to make another 50 or 60 sandwiches, and anyone who wants to can eat. I don’t think twice. If I want a class to study advanced math to stay until 4 P.M., I make more sandwiches. We bring them stuff from the grocery store.” Illuz: “The provision of nutrition is extremely helpful to a principal who wants to keep the children in school. Every morning, I provide 2,200 sandwiches to nine schools in the Bedouin community.”

Like most school principals in educational networks, Alkaram is forced to spend much of his time raising donations. He sees it as part of his job. “I cannot be calm, and I cannot tell a student that I am only there to teach math and English, and that I don’t care if he’s hungry, or that it’s none of my concern that he doesn’t have money for the school trip,” he says. “First and foremost, I am building them as human beings. I was raised in a home – and I say this with sorrow – which also raised two criminals because of our financial hardship. I was raised in a home where no one asked me if I had eaten or not. Whether I went on the school trip or not. And there’s no way that I will do to my students what was done to me.”

For the Second Part

Sandwich Children: Teachers and Schools are Forced to Deal Alone with Student Hunger

Prof. Roni Strier, the head of the National Council for Food Security. Photo: Shlomi Yosef

This is a summary of shomrim's story published in Hebrew.
To read the full story click here.