A dedicated Israeli philanthropist tackles food insecurity

Philanthropist Cheri Fox: We want to get the ball rolling, but to let it have a life of is own.It’s 11:15 pm, and Cheri Fox is still on the job. While being interviewed at her home in Jerusalem, her phone …

Philanthropist Cheri Fox: We want to get the ball rolling, but to let it have a life of is own.It’s 11:15 pm, and Cheri Fox is still on the job. While being interviewed at her home in Jerusalem, her phone rings – it’s St. Louis on the line. “Sorry, that was my secretary on the phone. I have to call her back,” said Fox.

St. Louis is home base for The Harbour Group, the $1.5 billion company that Cheri’s father Sam started in 1976. The company, which acquires, consolidates, and develops manufacturing companies for long-term investment, is what enabled the Fox Family Foundation to be established in 1987.

“If you are not a beggar, give to a beggar,” the five Fox children learned from their father as part of the legacy of values he grew up on in the small town of Desloge, Missouri. Cheri has not forgotten the lesson.

In her roles as the executive director of the foundation, and co-chair of the Forum to Address Food Insecurity and Poverty in Israel, the energetic Fox is working in two time zones, tackling some of the major social problems in the US and Israel.

Most of the Fox Family Foundation grants are given in the US, and the remainder in Israel. In the US, the focus is on the Jewish community, cultural and civic activities, and supporting organizations that help individuals work toward self-sufficiency. These organizations include those dealing with hunger and homelessness, basic adult education, job training and early childhood education for the working poor.

“I personally visit each facility to see if they do what they say they do,” said Fox. She makes several trips a year for board meetings and to check out grant requests.

In addition to the issue of hunger, the Fox Family Foundation’s efforts in Israel focus on three additional areas: protecting the environment (“once you destroy the quality of the environment, it is gone” Fox says); combating violence; and education in the Ethiopian community.

“We try to pick a niche which is not adequately addressed by other groups,” Fox told ISRAEL21c.

The focus of the Fox Foundation goes hand in hand with that of the Forum to Address Food Insecurity and Poverty in Israel, which is comprised of more than 50 foundations, Jewish federations and individuals committed to addressing the problem of food insecurity in Israel.

In order to increase awareness of problems of food insecurity and poverty and change policy, the Fox Family Foundation funded a trip to the US in June for four Knesset members and three leading journalists.

The Knesset members had the opportunity to see the non-profit response to hunger, meet with advocacy organizations, and visit the Washington DC Food Bank. Most importantly, they met with key people in the government, including Dr. Eric Bost, the Undersecretary of Agriculture and the Co-Chair of the Congressional Anti-Hunger Caucus. In return, Fox and her colleagues at the Forum recently hosted Bost in Israel.

“Cheri is a leader, and the work of the Forum with government, private industry and assistance organizations is very important,” Bost told ISRAEL21c.

According to Eric Shochman, the president of Mazon, a non-profit organization in the US that funds anti-hunger programs across America as well as in Israel and other countries, there are 1.5 million Israelis below the poverty line.

“The Forum is doing a lot of work on the macro level to address the problem of food insecurity in Israel. I see a major transformation in mind set, a big difference in the reception we got since last year when a delegation first came to talk to Knesset and government officials,” said Schochman, who also accompanied Bost on his visit.

Fox cites three key steps in the battle to combat food insecurity in Israel. “We need to establish a national program for the acquisition and distribution of emergency food so that major food donors have one address and organizations across the country have equitable access to safe food at little cost to the organization,” she said. “We need to stop plowing under agricultural surplus, and instead make it available through this national infrastructure to organizations that feed the needy and to a national school lunch program. Finally, we need a ‘Good Israeli Law’ (similar to the Good Samaritan Law in the US and other countries) that would provide liability protection for food donors,” she said.

Fox says that the Forum is developing a feasibility study to investigate all aspects of creating a national acquisition and distribution network, including food sourcing, transportation, storage, and distribution. A business plan will emerge from this study to guide the development of this initiative.

“We need broad, systemic change in Israel,” said Fox.

The Forum is trying to make it happen. It initiated the first conference on Food Insecurity and Poverty in Israel, and its members funded the first studies to provide accurate data about the level of need as well as the involvement of non-profit organizations in emergency food distribution.

“We want to be the best source of information on what is happening in the field, and recommend best practices, so that funders can direct resources to the most effective programs.”

Through the Forum, she is also pushing for a universal school lunch program that will provide a wholesome hot meal for all children while they are in school. The first ever breakfast program for 1200 needy kindergarten and first graders in Tel Aviv recently began, the result of matchmaking through the Forum and the Los Angeles/TA Partnership. Funded by the LA-based Gilbert Foundation, the program represented a collaboration between the fund, the Strauss Dairies that provided food at cost, and the Tel Aviv Municipality.

“Our goal is to bring government, non-profit organizations, business, and philanthropy together to address the issues,” said Fox, summing up the Forum’s challenging task.

Others might have been frustrated along the way, but Fox possesses perseverance. “In the beginning the government did not want us to talk about poverty and hunger, about raising money for food. We kept plugging, and finally the doors opened. The government realized that we are trying to build bridges,” she said.

Fox likes hands-on projects, and Hannukah is one of the prime opportunities to put her plans into action.

“Every Hannukah, three families get together to fill up boxes with fun stuff: gloves, socks, candy, hats, for the kids of women in a nearby battered women’s shelter. We go on a buying trip to decide what to put into the boxes. The adults cook while our children decorate the boxes. It is a lot of fun, and you should see how happy it makes the children in the shelter. Most importantly, it instills in our children a deeper understanding of what it means to give to others,” Fox said.

Fox’s love affair with Israel can be traced back to her long time love of dancing. Her first trip to the country – in the late 1960s while in high school – was organized by Israeli folk dance expert Fred Berk.

“I danced my way through the country,” said Fox. “We danced with the top Israeli folkdance choreographers across the country, including the Batsheva Dance Company. It was a fabulous summer.”

She returned to Israel for a semester of college studies at the University of Haifa, and two years after receiving an MA in Public Health from Columbia University, she moved back permanently. Originally working as a health educator for the School of Public Health at Hebrew University, she soon switched to the field of philanthropy full time.

She sees her role not as the end, but as the means to ending food insecurity in Israel.

“I think we also need an exit strategy. We have planted the seeds, served as an advocacy forum, education, and information source. But the role of philanthropy is not to run these programs. We want to get the ball rolling, but to let it have a life of is own.”