Grassroots volunteer project puts food on the tables of the needy

Joseph Gitler packs leftover food into the trunk of his car as part of the ‘Table to Table’ project. Joseph Gitler has no room for his car in his own garage in his home in Ra’anana, a suburb north of …

Joseph Gitler packs leftover food into the trunk of his car as part of the ‘Table to Table’ project. Joseph Gitler has no room for his car in his own garage in his home in Ra’anana, a suburb north of Tel Aviv. It’s full of storage containers and other equipment for his personal crusade – feeding hungry Israeli families.

Every night, a number of his 200 volunteers assemble at his house to head out on their mission: going to weddings, bar mitzvahs and other evening events – packing up the pounds of fresh leftover food, and delivering it to soup kitchens and food banks which feed the poor. Each night, three to five teams of volunteers travel around the outskirts of Tel Aviv and collect food from between 6 and 12 events every night, and deliver the food to among 11 established soup kitchens and food banks in the area. During the day, they make the rounds of corporate cafeterias, collecting the leftovers and passing it on.

Not bad for a charity that is only three months old.

Many Israelis are troubled when they hear the economic statistics that children in their country are going hungry. But it takes a unique person like Gitler to react by devoting themselves fully to doing something about it.

Gitler is the founder of a new organization called “Table to Table” in the central Sharon region, where he lives. His operation is inspired and directly modeled on “food rescue” operations such as “City Harvest” and “Second Harvest” in the United States and Canada.

Gitler, who is trained as a lawyer, grew up in New York City and New Jersey and moved to Israel three years ago, says that he has “always been interested in charitable endeavors.”

He was living comfortably with his wife and two children in the suburb of Ra’anana, working in high-tech, when, last November, the new poverty statistics were released, putting 20 percent of the Israeli population below the poverty line.

“The numbers pointed to 600,000 hungry children in this country. While I know that hunger in Israel is not the same thing as hunger in Ethiopia, this alarmed me,” he recalls. “I had already decided I was leaving the company. When I did, I ran around the country visiting soup kitchens and food banks, trying to figure out where the greatest need lay.”

Gitler knows that he is “extremely lucky” that his personal financial circumstances allowed him the opportunity to devote himself fully to his new charitable endeavor off the ground.

Through his research, he found that there were plenty of soup kitchens in the country, as well as a fair amount of food banks, which distribute dry goods to needy families.

“And I didn’t want to replicate anything that was already being done,” he said.

While he was investigating the possibilities in Israel, he suddenly remembered seeing trucks driving around New York City from the “City Harvest” organization in the past. He couldn’t quite recall what they did. But he looked the organization up on the Internet, he discovered to the area of “rescuing” food that would otherwise go to waste. When he checked as to whether Israel had the equivalent. It did – but on an ad-hoc, extremely local basis, inside the city of Tel Aviv. The vast majority of event venues, however, are not located in the urban areas, but in the suburban and rural periphery of the city – particularly in the Sharon region, where Gitler lived.

Clearly, tons of food had to be going to waste. After a round of telephone calls, he found more than 40 caterers in the Sharon who told him that they would be willing to donate food. In fact he said, “they were thrilled to be able not to throw away such large quantities of perfectly good food. No one had previously asked them if they wanted to donate their leftover food.”

He had found his niche.

Despite the fact that “my wife thought I was crazy,” he moved ahead. Studying the models in the U.S. and Canada carefully, he began to build his operation. When he receives his donated refrigerated truck in coming weeks – just in time for the peak wedding season in June – he will for warehouse space so he can expand beyond his garage.

When the summer event season begins, Gitler estimated that he can more than double the number of caterers he works with, and expand his daytime operations as well, with food that supermarkets are planning on donating to his cause.

For now, his geography is limited to the coastal plain, between the Netanya and Rishon Lezion area. “We have national aspirations, but we want to get it right locally first,” he says.

Gitler has just returned to Israel a visit to Toronto, his wife’s hometown, where he travelled the city with their food rescue organization Second Harvest. He speaks with envy of their streamlined operation: their five refrigerated trucks, sophisticated logistics system and freezer and refrigeration space.

“When I was there, they got a call from a food company that 10,000 pounds of extra meat was available, and they had the capacity to take it and distribute it,” he says.

He hopes that “we’ll get there some day. He is committed to “Table to Table” until it is fulling up and running, and can afford to hire a paid executive director – a process that he says will probably take up to five years.

“I will always be a volunteer,” he emphasizes.