Colel Chabad Helps Israel’s Hungry Not Just Eat, but Eat Healthy

Through a series of new workshops focusing on healthy cooking and eating, Colel Chabad is emphasizing more nutritional fare for Israel’s poorest residents.

From by Ariel Dominique Hendelman:

Colel Chabad is helping Israel’s poorest families not only to eat, but to eat well.

As the oldest continuous charity in Israel, the organization has for centuries placed a strong emphasis on helping impoverished families put food on the table. Now, through a series of workshops on healthy cooking and eating, there is a new focus on nutrition for the nation’s poorest and most vulnerable citizens.

The pilot workshop, part of Israel’s National Food Security Project, began as a recent course on healthy cooking. Colel Chabad discovered long ago that most poor families they serve tend to choose white flour and white-sugar items over fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Through the organization’s Pantry Packersprogram, more nutritious food is being provided for low-income families. But a problem ensued: Organizers discovered that many recipients didn’t know how to cook such healthier foods.

“When we first began giving out quinoa, many families said they had never seen it before,” reports Rabbi Menachem Traxler, Colel Chabad’s director of volunteering. “They didn’t know what it was, and didn’t realize that it’s healthier and more expensive than anything else in the box. There was a lack of basic knowledge as to how to cook quinoa or even whole-wheat items because they are a bit different.”

Part of the program includes teaching how to make salads and offer greens at meals. The same goes for cooking vegetables that come straight from the field. “It’s especially true for fresh foods like artichokes,” says Traxler, “where chances are they won’t know what to do with them.”

‘Dignity Is Most Important’

The workshops are the latest addition to the Food Security project, which is operated jointly by Colel Chabad, Leket Israel (Israel’s leading food bank, which provides fresh produce to the poor) and Israel’s Ministry of Welfare. The national project has been in the making for several years now. Since the Israeli government does not have an official food-stamp program, it put out a bid for organizations to produce a model to tackle the food-insecurity crisis, as it was officially termed.

It turns out that Colel Chabad, which also runs a large network of social-welfare programs, including hospital summer camps, Jewish ritual celebrations for orphan children, and daycare centers, won, and is now running the project.

“We were serving between 6,000 and 7,000 people at the time in 24 cities throughout the country,” says Traxler. “There are religious and nonreligious families all living in poor neighborhoods. It’s a diverse group that also includes Bedouins, Druze and Israeli Arabs.”

This February, the government was so impressed with the results that it decided to put out another bid to expand the project. Traxler emphasizes that even with the second bid, the project did not become official law. What changed is that the government offered to pay for two-thirds of the project, and whatever nonprofit agreed to fund the rest, according to the criteria Colel Chabad set up with the state welfare department, would win the bid. Which again, Colel Chabad did.

Just before the High Holidays, the welfare ministry approved an additional 5,000 families to join the program, bringing the total to 11,000 participants in 48 cities. “Yet the program itself has an inherent conflict,” explains Traxler. “How do you help a family without insulting them? No one wants to just receive a box of food; it’s degrading. They want to be able to buy their own food. So it’s a balance. Dignity is most important, but at the same time, if we’re not getting them healthy food, we’re not doing anything.”

The end result is that the families receive 500 NIS (about $150) worth of assistance per month. The half the stipend is put onto a food card, called an “Eshel” card. (This refers to the eshel of Abraham in the Torah—the tamarisk tree under which he and Sarah would welcome guests.) Colel Chabad has agreements with most major supermarkets to accept the card. The other 250 is given in the form of a food box packed with olive oil and nutritious dried goods, such as whole-wheat pasta, whole-wheat couscous and quinoa.

The food boxes ensure that recipients have something healthy in the house. The boxes also include fresh vegetables, provided by Leket Israel, which approaches local farmers to collect produce that would otherwise be thrown out, either due to surplus or atypical appearance.

The cooking courses proved a success, and the next one, which will focus on emotional empowerment, is already in the planning stages. “We give people access to food because obviously, they need to eat,” says Traxler, “but this program opens up many more doors to help them move on to better lives.”

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