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

Israel could easily solve the problem of hungry children at a negligible cost, but instead, the state opts to leave the issue to NGOs and independent initiatives by teachers and schools. Part two of ‘Bottom of the Food Chain,’ a special Shomrim project: There are solutions, and some of them are already showing positive results

Israel could easily solve the problem of hungry children at a negligible cost, but instead, the state opts to leave the issue to NGOs and independent initiatives by teachers and schools. Part two of ‘Bottom of the Food Chain,’ a special Shomrim project: There are solutions, and some of them are already showing positive results

Israel could easily solve the problem of hungry children at a negligible cost, but instead, the state opts to leave the issue to NGOs and independent initiatives by teachers and schools. Part two of ‘Bottom of the Food Chain,’ a special Shomrim project: There are solutions, and some of them are already showing positive results

Daniel Dolev

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

October 20, 2022

Summary

Delilah Ashkenazi, the director of the Education Department in Or Yehuda, remembers only too well what it feels like to be a hungry child. “I was born in Nahariya to parents who immigrated from Yemen. They were put into a transit camp and, after a while, they came to my father and – just like in the movie ‘Sallah Shabati’ – to leave the transit camp and move to a housing complex, a 55 square meter apartment for eight people. I attended a religious elementary school, which had a dining room. In third grade, my mother stopped paying, and I was forced to stand by the side while everyone ate. The school secretary, Miriam, saw that I was hungry and let me go into the dining room because she knew my mother. That was a formative moment. Apart from the fact that someone actually ‘saw me,’ as they say, the issue of nutrition is so important.”

Ashkenazi is also a member of the National Association of Educational Directors. To her great sorrow, she still encounters hungry students. “One of the high schools in our city makes sandwiches for students on school premises because we know that sandwiches and food, in general, is a trigger that can bring the kids to school,” she says. “Just like an army marches on its stomach, the moment students don’t have to worry about nutrition, they’re more open to learning and thinking. They are no longer anxious. We have a project here in the city called ‘Top Sandwich,’ whereby volunteers make sandwiches, and we distribute them to every school in the secretary’s office.

“We called it ‘I forgot my sandwich,’ rather than ‘Come take because you haven’t got any food.’ And the children take. There are also struggling children from very difficult circumstances at the after-school childcare facilities, who are with us from 1 P.M. to 6 P.M., with two hot meals. And the kids wait for it. It’s such a joy to see how they eat and how they’re open afterward to playing, to learning, to get excellent programs there. These are the kids who really need it. So, nutrition is an integral part of the school-based education process, in every school, especially for at-risk youth.”

Ashkenazi goes through all the schools in her city and speaks about the solution that each one found for the problem. The most obvious thing about all these solutions is that they are all based on local initiatives, while the Education Ministry offers no solutions. “There’s nothing defines, or in the approach that we are an organizing, lateral axis for all the schools, providing nutrition in an organized manner,” she says. “Although volunteers are important, what’s needed here is an organized and institutional response, which also respects these children and provides them with an equal opportunity.”

Watch Daniel Dolev summarizes the report

What more can we do?

The State of Israel’s primary solution is the National Food Security Initiative, which three nonprofit organizations run: Eshel Chabad, in conjunction with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and Leket Israel: The National Foodbank. The project provides some 11,000 families with refillable cards to purchase food, and Welfare Minister Meir Cohen recently decided to triple the scope of the project to around 30,000 families. This is no trivial matter, but given that there are hundreds of thousands of needy people in Israel – according to two surveys conducted by the National Insurance Institute in 2016 and 2021 – it is far from being a comprehensive solution. According to these surveys, 16.2 percent of Israeli families suffer from food insecurity, including 665,000 children – and around half of those children suffer from severe food insecurity (see part one).

“In Israel, the whole issue of food security is swept under the rug,” charges Prof. Aron Troen of the Hebrew University’s Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Environment. “It’s an issue that affects transparent people, the poor, and it’s seen as a matter of charity and compassion, and that goes hand in hand with a policy that relies on NGOs, which, in practice, provide most of the assistance.”

According to Troen, the government’s decision to deal with the issue of food security by means of NGOs is no coincidence. “The idea was to create government-private partnerships. They didn’t want to create new entitlements not to add anything new to the budget because that would be a burden on the state. Not to create any new bureaucracy but to support the activity of NGOs, which are ostensibly the executive arm of the state, for anyone who needs. They are more efficient and more economical, and their fundraising capabilities can be leveraged to increase the overall financial solution. However, the use of NGOs lets people talk in terms of charity instead of in terms of basic rights. And there is a basic human right to food.”

Prof. Roni Strier, the head of the National Council for Food Security, is no less outspoken in his criticism. The NCFS is an official body established by the state, the main role of which is to provide advice on the matter to the welfare, health, and education ministries. “In the past, the state has not accepted responsibility for its citizens’ food security,” he says. “On this matter, the state outsourced its responsibility, not just the services, and that is very worrying.”

Strier does have praise for the current welfare minister, Meir Cohen, who increased the budget of the National Food Security Initiative, but ironically, the council that he heads is one example of the government’s years-long neglect of the problem of food insecurity in Israel. The council was established a decade ago, but, according to Strier, it was only recently allocated a budget for its activities. In addition, the former head of the council, Prof. Dov Chernichovsky, died in January 2021. It took a year after his death for Strier to be appointed as his successor, and when they finally met in May 2022, council members had not convened for almost 18 months.

“Even though the Welfare Ministry got a budgetary increase of 30 billion shekels ($8.4 billion) last year, which is a lot, Israel still lags far behind in terms of investment in social services,” Strier admits. “These gaps are even more significant when we know that they overlap national categories, such as between Jewish and Arab citizens. There is a connection between a community that is becoming increasingly extreme and one that experiences food insecurity. It’s very easy to present them with an imaginary enemy, which is ostensibly the solution. We see it happening in Europe, the United States, and here, too. We have to be aware.”

Strier also talks about children’s development. “There are a lot of studies which show all kinds of harm to children and adolescents who suffer from food insecurity,” he says, “which can be cognitive, emotional, and social. A child who comes to school and isn’t given a hot meal and who doesn’t know whether he will find any food once he goes home will not be attentive in lessons. His mind is elsewhere.”

Delilah Ashkenazi, the director of the Education Department in Or Yehuda. Photo: Shlomi Yosef
"We have a project here in the city called ‘Top Sandwich,’ whereby volunteers make sandwiches, and we distribute them to every school in the secretary’s office", says Ashkenazi. "We called it ‘I forgot my sandwich,’ rather than ‘Come take because you haven’t got any food.’ And the children take"

A solution from the field: A hot meal for five shekels

The teachers at the Na’amat Technology High School in Hadera do not need research papers to know all about the impact of food insecurity. They have seen it firsthand. “When I was a homeroom teacher, I had children who would complain that their stomachs ached at o’clock and an hour later they’d say, ‘I want to go home, I can’t stay my head is hurting so much,’ and at noon we’d have to let them go home,” says Osnat Ben Natan, an educator at the school, which includes a large proportion of at-risk youths. “It was the same story every day. And they were so anxious – and dealing with children who already have attention issues is even harder. You see students who are in a group studying for their matriculation exams, but they are incapable of remaining in school until noon.”

Through an Education Ministry project – which has nothing to do with nutrition – several teachers at the school decided to organize a community of sorts and to set up a joint initiative. “When we decided to call upon the teachers, we started with the question, what excited you, what hurts you, what do you want to do at school,’ says Rama Shefi, who spearheaded the project. “And once the group was organized – these are the needs that were mentioned. One teacher was distraught that her students were hungry and insisted that we have to make sure they had food. The thought of any other initiative was quickly discarded because this was the most urgent problem in their eyes.”

The teachers decided to set up a dining room of sorts in the school, which would prepare hot meals for the students every day – at the cost of just 5 shekels. All of the money collected on a given day would be spent on buying the ingredients for the next day’s meal. If one meal turned out to cost less than usual, the teachers would be able to indulge the students by spending the leftover money on more expensive ingredients the next day. The money for the first purchase of ingredients and equipment – 150 shekels – came from one of the teachers, and the project has been in operation now for two years.

“It was a resounding success, both in terms of the response from students, who were willing to come and wait in line to buy a hot meal, and in terms of the connection that the teachers managed to create, which was a direct connection,” says Shefi. “We explained to the students that the purpose was not to make a profit, that the money would pay for the next day’s meal. Nobody supported us financially – not the [Na’amat] network or city hall.”

“We discovered that, instead of disappearing during recess and smoking, which is forbidden on school grounds, the students paid for a meal. They understood that if they snuck off to smoke a cigarette, they wouldn’t have time to buy a meal,” Shefi adds. “So, their priorities change. Instead of centering on other things, the focus of social life started to revolve around food.” The school principal, Meirav Rubin Ben-Menachem, adds: “In the past, each student would sit alone with their smartphone; now there are groups. The kids sit around tables with their food, and they talk. Sometimes, the teachers join them and talk to them. A much more nurturing discourse has been created between the students.”

Over time, the wider community became part of this project. A woman from a nearby kibbutz volunteered to help with the cooking, while the Na’amat education network itself allocated 5,000 shekels to ensure that the project would always have a steady flow of cash. But the greatest change has been among the students themselves and in the dynamics between students and faculty. ‘Every teacher here has been in the situation of having a conversation with students,” says teacher Anat Menashe, who is also the school’s social coordinator. “Even Galit, the secretary, had a conversation two weeks ago in which she said that if it had happened at the start of the school year, she would have interpreted the girl’s comments differently. Some of the students are in very high-risk categories. And when they open their hearts on the subject of food, it’s not like a conversation between a psychologist and a patient. It’s a conversation on a very different level. They open up and divulge things, and our hearts are with them.”

When the teachers talk about their project, their enthusiasm is there for all to see. They all want me to know about another positive experience they had with a student, or they want to talk about the positive changes they noticed during recess. But, ironically, their total dedication to the project gives the sense that it may be hard to replicate the success or turn it into a model for a broader solution.

“It worked here because the people are amazing,” says Shefi, “but it could just as easily not have worked out, and it could be problematic somewhere else. Lack of responsibility, money matters.”

Prof. Aron Troen of the Hebrew University’s Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Environment. Photo: Shlomi Yosef
“In Israel, the whole issue of food security is swept under the rug,” charges Prof. Troen. “It’s an issue that affects transparent people, the poor, and it’s seen as a matter of charity and compassion, and that goes hand in hand with a policy that relies on NGOs, which, in practice, provide most of the assistance"

The state’s solution: Expanding the feeding initiative

One organization that is offering a system-wide solution is 121 Engine for Social Change. The nonprofit was established five years ago to promote legislation or government action on various issues, including a project for providing middle and high school students with meals. The organization collaborates with various philanthropic groups that focus on nutrition, education networks, and parent organizations.

Members of 121 rely on surveys conducted by the State of Israel in recent years, as well as interviews that they conducted with dozens of school principals, teachers, and parents across the country. According to numerous studies that the organization has presented, there are currently around 60,000 students in grades seven through 12 suffering from food insecurity, preventing them from focusing on their studies. Of those students, about 20,000 attend some 200 schools for at-risk youth. It is logical that in those schools, the proportion of students experiencing hunger is even higher – which, they argue, should also be the foundation for the solution.

The suggestion being touted by the organization, at least as the first stage, is to expand the feeding program that already exists in elementary schools to schools catering for at-risk students. They argue that the project would cost around 39 million shekels a year and would solve a large part of the problem. “We started to examine the issue,” says Tali Nir, the executive director of 121. “We visited schools, we started to talk with other networks, we asked the government for statistics, and we saw that there is a significant system-wide problem that is not being addressed. We also saw that the issue was being addressed in elementary schools because up to sixth grade, the state feed 450,000 students every day. But the moment they go into seventh grade, the state ignores them. When we came along and asked the professional echelon in the Education Ministry whether they believe that children stop being hungry at the age of 13, they replied that they obviously do not, but that’s the current policy. At the same time, we discovered that in many places, there isn’t even any awareness of the issue of hunger – not among the politicians, and not among the professionals at the Finance Ministry.”

Nir: "The issue was being addressed in elementary schools because up to sixth grade, the state feed 450,000 students every day. But the moment they go into seventh grade, the state ignores them"

Tali Nir, the executive director of 121. Photo: Meital Azulay

The second stage that Nir proposes is a comprehensive survey of every school principal in Israel, which will help to understand where those children suffering from food insecurity are located across the entire education system. “We would like to be able to provide a universal feeding program for every child in Israel, but we recognize that would cost billions of shekels and that it’s not viable, but we believe that it is possible to set up a nationwide solution for at-risk students immediately.”

“The solution we are proposing is, first and foremost, an educational solution,” says Roi Maor, 121’s policy director. “This isn’t a welfare program, it’s an educational program. A school needs teachers and content, but it also needs to provide the basic conditions for students: that includes notebooks, textbooks, desks, classrooms, and so on. One of the conditions is that students are not hungry and that they get proper nutrition during school hours.”

According to Maor – and conversations that Shomrim has conducted in recent months with professionals in the field back this up – even before food provides effective conditions for studying, it could also be the difference between a student who has a reason to come to school and one who simply drops out. “Since we are dealing with students who have already dropped out of other frameworks, there is a genuine danger that they will drop out of the education system entirely, and this would have very significant consequences for them,” Maor explains. “It greatly increases the chances that they will not function in society as adults – whether that’s health issues, behavioral and employment problems, or even crime and so on. The very possibility of keeping them in the education system, to provide them with something stable and ordered in their lives, what will inculcate them with the habit of getting up in the morning and spending a few hours in a framework – these are hugely important tools for these youths.”

Maor conducted a survey to compare the situation in Israel to other countries and discovered that “in schools in other countries, both elementary and high schools, every school has as a matter of principle a kitchen and a dining room. It’s part of the structure of the school, part of the system. That’s the situation everywhere in the United States, Europe, Britain, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Japan, and South Korea. In countries with the kind of income that Israel enjoys, it’s simply taken as read.

“When you read studies about feeding projects in other countries, they never talk about whether there are meals provided in schools because that goes without saying. It’s like you won’t find any articles in Israel about whether there are desks or walls in our schools. The discourse in these countries is about how much these meals should be subsidized, whether they should be subsidized, and what food to provide. Israel is unique in still asking whether a school provides food.”

Although it is difficult to compare, Maor adds, “when you look at the worldwide picture, you see that the inclination is to go with greater government subsidy for school meals. They discovered over the years, especially when it came to children from more vulnerable sectors of society, that when you invest more in subsidizing food, it contributes to an improvement in grades. They also found that this gives the state some leverage in ensuring that the food provided to the students is nutritious, healthy, and balanced. It’s an enormously powerful tool in public policy that is widely used in the world, even if the starting points are very different.”

Calcalist Weekly Cover (Hebrew link)

A fraction of the education budget

Member of the 121 organization present statistics obtained from the Finance Ministry’s Accountant General, according to which the Education Ministry had a surplus budget last year of hundreds of millions of shekels which went unused, including around 70 million shekels just from the budget for the feeding project in elementary schools. According to the organization, the Finance Ministry has the power to order that this surplus budget be used to finance the expansion of the feeding project to middle and high schools for at-risk students. The Education Ministry recently informed the Finance Ministry that it estimates that the cost of this expansion would be around 80 million shekels – a sum almost identical to the surplus from the original feeding plan. However, the Finance Ministry’s Budget Division argues that the money cannot be used for this purpose.

“Financing a feeding project for technological education centers [high schools for at-risk youths] would demand a budget of tens of millions of shekels a year,” the Finance Ministry said in a statement. “Allocating the money requires a budgetary source for its funding that would entail a change in the priorities of the Education Ministry or the government. As a rule, changes of this kind are made when formulating the state budget in accordance with the policies and priorities of the government. In this case, any discussion of surplus budgets is irrelevant since figures about surplus budgets relate only to the current fiscal year, and the use of those funds is subject to the limitations set down in law, while a feeding project requires a budget allocation over several years.”

On the issue of priorities, it is possible to see one success story in the Arab community. A year ago, the government approved a five-year plan for the Arab community, which was considered at the time a huge accomplishment for the chairman of the Ra’am Party, Mansour Abbas. As part of the plan, more than 9 billion shekels were allocated for education, including a feeding program in high schools for at-risk youths in Arab communities. This initiative started operations at the beginning of the current school year. Among the Jewish population of Israel, however, it appears that no one is willing to take up the mantle of this struggle in a similar fashion.

“Hunger doesn’t have a political spokesman in Israel,” says Strier, “so it does not have any political value. I very much hope that the political parties will pay heed to the social questions because I believe this is what will give us a horizon of existence. In my view, these differences are even more significant because when know that they overlap national categories, between Jews and Arabs, for example. There is a connection between a community that is becoming increasingly extreme and one that experiences food insecurity.”

But even if they manage to launch the program, Troen urges those involved to learn the lessons from the feeding project that is already operational in elementary schools. “In Europe, when there is a policy of encouraging healthy eating, which becomes one of the criteria for government spending. It’s like an engine, and we could have done the same thing. Here, the Education Ministry says that it is not responsible for ensuring the food security of its students, rather, it merely hands out a sandwich during school hours to children who meet the criteria of a long school day – and, beyond that, it’s not their problem. The only supervision is for food waste and safety, and that is carried out by a subcontractor. It’s so frustrating to see the clumsiness, the negligent supervision.

“If the state were to view health as a consideration when forming its policies, and maybe connect that to agriculture, then maybe it would be able to ensure that the billions of shekels that are invested in the feeding project reach the farmers who grow the peppers and tomatoes that the children eat. It’s possible to create a circular economy and to utilize buying power. But the Health Ministry’s recommendations are only recommendations. The Education Ministry does not get involved in nutrition and health. The Agriculture Ministry isn’t connected to the Education Ministry, and the National Council for Food Security deal only with the poor. It isn’t building a feeding program for every Israeli child, which is in the Agriculture Ministry and maybe the Ministry of Environmental Protection. There’s a lack of integration,” Troen says. “We do not have an approach that puts food security at the center of the national agenda.”

Prof. Roni Strier, the head of the National Council for Food Security. Photo: Shlomi Yosef
“Hunger doesn’t have a political spokesman in Israel,” says Strier, “so it does not have any political value. I very much hope that the political parties will pay heed to the social questions because I believe this is what will give us a horizon of existence"
For the First Part

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

Illustration: Moran Barak


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