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The law to provide Israel's underprivileged schoolchildren with a decent meal

The ‘hot meal law’ was enacted 15 years ago, anchoring the right of hundred of thousands of children to eat one hot meal a day. Yet its still entails some challenges, including expanding it to all children suffering from nutrition insecurity and improving the quality of sustenance.

By Yonit Naaman and Tammy Riklis

In 2004 Israel passed the Hot Meal Law. The law, a result of work done by different parties in the civil society, led by the “Yadid” organization, stated that students in kindergartens and schools under the Israeli Ministry of Education, will be provided with a hot meal daily during long school days. A conference marking 15 years since the law was passed was held at the end of the month; the conference focused on expanding the law’s implementation and the challenges still faced by the state and local authorities.

While the beginning of the project saw only 60,000 of Israel’s school children able to enjoy a hot meal, today the number has already reached 230,000 – under an overall budget of a billion shekels. According to a document published a year ago by the Knesset’s Research and Information Center, in 2015-2016 there were 673 institutions eligible for the program, feeding a total of 235,725 students. In fact, only 458 institutions and 119,145 students participated in the program. According to the Ministry of Education’s data, we learn that this year, 160,000 students and 236,000 pre-schoolers are being fed.

This, of course, is far from enough. According to data from 2016, the number of students suffering from nutrition insecurity is 352,000 out of the 2 million students in the Israeli education system. Hundreds of thousands more suffer from light or mild nutrition insecurity. The law is implemented in only 100 out of 256 local authorities. Why, then, are there still children of low socio-economic status who do not receive a hot meal?

According to a report titled “Food for Thought: On the Feeding Programs in Israeli Schools,” published last year by the National Council for  Nutrition Security in Israel and Yadid, three governmental programs provide hot meals to Israeli students today: the feeding program, the MILAT program, and TZILA. The average cost of meal per student is 12 shekels. Funding for the feeding program is provided by the Ministry of Education with the participation of relevant local authorities, according to the socio-economical cluster to which they belong. Local authorities must first fund 10 percent of the feeding program’s costs, while parental participation is determined by income tests.

Some local authorities simply cannot bear the economic burden while others face objections from teachers, who are supposed to administer the meals with no extra pay. According to Ran Melamed, vice president of social policy and PR at Yadid and one of the law’s advocates: m“Everyone who wants and is eligible for the basic criterion of a long school day should be included. It is the responsibility of the state. What do you do with a parent who does not pay the school’s fees? They should be enforced!”

“They tried to cancel the feeding program many times: Yuli Tamir, under the banner of Minister of Education, tried to cancel the ‘hot’ part of the meal and serve sandwiches. ‘New Horizon’ changed the structure of school days and many schools were left out of the definition of a ‘long school day’ and more.”

The initiative to expand the hot meal law is led today in the Knesset by Knesset member Ayelet Nahmias-Verbin (Zionist Union), who argues that difficulties in the law’s implementation are connected to its original anchoring in a long school day. “Because the long school day law isn’t implemented everywhere, we can’t reach all of the children. This is one of the most severe legislative faults,” she said late last year.

Contrary to the selective feeding model — which is customary in the United States and France, and which is, according to UN data, the most prevalent in the world — under the universal model, all children are fed in their educational institutes, with no prior criteria. The selective model focuses on the most disadvantaged children while universal feeding programs, such as in Japan and Finland, succeed in responding to broader social and educational challenges connected to the advancement of a healthy lifestyle, while helping to narrow gaps and provide healthy and proper sustenance to all students.

In Japan, the feeding program is “aimed at advancing the physical and mental development of students and improving eating habits by the consumption of balanced meals.” In Finland, “teachers and students eat lunch together in order to encourage learning of Finnish eating customs and tradition.” Also in Finland, a wealthy state with the best education system in the world, work costs are reduced because children bus their trays themselves.

In Israel, the road to the ideal model is still long, and the gap between the implementation and the lawmaker’s intentions is disturbing. There is also some uncertainty regarding what is taking place in the Arab and Ultra-Orthodox sectors. Melamed argues that in some places there might exist a duplication, and meals are accepted from several sources. “The definition should be that every child in the Israeli education system receives one meal from the state, so that we make sure that every child receives at least once what he needs,” Melamed says. “It doesn’t have to be lunch, it can be a good breakfast, sandwiches, fruits and vegetables.”

According to Melamed, the potential for providing work for 60,000 people lies in the implementation of the Hot Meal Law as well as in the original intent of the legislation process. “It did not happen, and this is the big failure. But it can happen now, with the new winds blowing toward expanding the law. They talk about giving preference to local suppliers, establishing community kitchens, single mothers. I would like to prefer three mothers who will work together and provide food for school, I would like to prefer a community kitchen over big factories,” says Melamed.

A logistical headache for a good cause

We spoke with the principal of an elementary school from Israel’s central district who asked to remain anonymous, and who says that this is, without a doubt, an excellent and much needed project. Its only fault is that it’s a logistical headache. It turns out that in the current school year the feeding program has yet to begin because the Ministry of Education and the company which won the bid to provide the meals were debating the cost of every dish.

Next week they should announce the cost to the parents, who will come to the schools in order to pay. “We have an inter-school committee that provides scholarships to the disadvantaged according to need, there are discounts and there is full ride to those in need. The school pays instead of disadvantaged families. In general, the school is responsible for collecting the payment, which includes chasing after parents who don’t pay. The children will of course receive food whether the parents pay or not.”

The hot meal procedure exists in her school since she became principal a few years ago. She describes about the everyday routine of the procedure, from the moment when the truck arrives, in a somewhat jokingly manner: “A truck arrives, stops in front of the school, the driver gets off, takes out the boxes. A teacher/the school’s superintendent must make sure that all the meals are there and that everything is in order. The boxes contain plastic food trays, a napkin, cutlery, fruits and vegetables – divided according to classes.”

And here too, like in Finland and Japan, this event is an opportunity for the children to discover responsibility and practice social skills. “The teacher hands out the meals with the help of sixth graders. There are schools where eating takes place in the gym or another room — here they eat in their homerooms and it is very successful. Generally, it is very pleasant to eat together, you just need to manage it the right way. Give roles to the children, make this whole thing a part of a regular routine, and it works.”

Apart from the “logistical headache,” as she defines it, when asked about problems in operating the program or objections to it, she says that in the past teachers were expected to hand out food trays, leading to complaints. She says she knows of schools where parents object to the food coming in plastic trays, since the plastic emits poisonous substances. “There is a clash of values. Parents with means want their children to eat the healthiest meals possible under the best possible conditions, so they force the school to receive the food in large containers and then teachers must stand and hand it out. Is this why they went to school for four years? To hand out food and serve it to kids?”

She also says that the children sometimes complain that the food isn’t tasty, but says that quality of food is getting better. “I myself eat the meals at least once a week, and perhaps only once or twice the food wasn’t chewable. The food is usually tasty and is growing more and more healthy. In the past they used to add lots of ketchup, but they stopped. It very much depends on the local authority and the company winning the bid.”

She understands the desire to turn the model universal and completely supports it. “Of course it is great that children receive a hot meal at lunch in their schools. There are many children for which this will be their only hot meal – children of parents with demanding careers who don’t cook at home and children from disadvantaged homes”. She says that there are children from families suffering from nutrition insecurity who are ashamed to fill out forms and turn to the committee for a subsidization. “Our municipal authority is very sensitive to it, even when I say that there is a family that can’t apply using forms – for this or other reason – and I myself testify to their difficult situation, they will be fully subsidized.”

A hungry child cannot study

To learn something about the connection between learning and food deprivation, we talked with Hana Dorsman, CEO of the Education for Excellence organization. The organization locates children and youth with a potential for excellence in Israel’s social and geographical periphery and provides them with learning enrichment programs for a decade – from the 3rd to the 12th grade. In the current school year, there are 46 excellence centers in 20 local authorities in the country, from Katzrin in the north to Be’er Sheva in the south, where 3,000 students study. “A hungry child cannot study, there’s no doubt about it. A kid without nutrition security cannot fulfill his or her potential,” declares Dorsman. For her, this is obvious. “In our programs we are conscious of circumstances of existing between excellence and survival. Not all the children literally face survival, but some children face complex environmental challenges, and nutrition insecurity is an example of a very complex challenge faced by children, hindering them from fulfilling their potential.”

The Education for Excellence center has a set time for hot meals. Some of the children receive a hot meal at school, some in after-school centers and some in the organization’s centers. “Each day in the center begins with a meal, and time and space are dedicated to it. In any case we give the children an afternoon snack, knowing that some won’t have dinner at home. There are centers in which we are told that children go to in order to receive that afternoon snack. In one of the centers we reached a feeding arrangement with the local community centers, because we noticed children who don’t belong to the program sitting on a bench and waiting for the children to finish eating, to take leftovers home.”

Dorsman says that the organization, which during the years of its existence developed a unique educational model for narrowing gaps and the advancement of excellence, also deals with aspects pertaining to the education for healthy nutrition. “We initiate collaborations with groups dealing with health or activities pertaining to health. You don’t have to suffer from hunger, we are also troubled by obesity, because it raises questions about what happens at home, and whether the children receive nutritious and healthy enough food.”

According to Dorsman, there is an affective and successful cooperation with local authorities and school principals, who satisfactorily treat needs and complaints rising during the year. In her experience, local authorities don’t compound difficulties for children whose parents do not pay. Sometimes, she says, commercial companies will come to aid. “There was a family that was adopted by a company supporting the center, when we realized that the children in this family suffer from hunger.”

In an era in which awareness for healthy foods is growing and obesity has been announced as a disease from which 16 percent of Israeli citizens below age 21 suffer, recently different parts in the chain of feeding have been trying to improve the food served to students. Maharata Baruch-Ron, deputy mayor on behalf of the leftist Meretz party in Tel Aviv who is responsible for the social services department, runs a healthy food program in the city which operates in baby family centers to high schools. She tells that different professionals are involved in the bidding process, whose responsibility is to make sure that the company winning the bid is as good as can be, as well as a municipal dietitian whose responsibility is to make sure that the food is healthy and who is given advice from the healthy food program. Baruch-Ron confirms that no meal is prevented from children whose parents don’t pay. “We won’t prevent food from a child because his or her parents did not pay. All eligible children receive it.”

Despite difficulties in implementation and the existing criticism, all parties say they see a trend of improvement. “Schools give less processed food and more healthy food, and the supervision is better,” says Melamed, whose hope is that in the coming years the schools will build kitchens and cook independently, or that other local community initiatives will take over the feeding, instead of big companies. In a conference held on October 28 by the Yadid, Leket Israel and Mazon organizations, respectively, different speakers examined the status of the feeding law – past, present and future – and the possibility of increasing poor families’ consumption of fruits and vegetables, as well as discuss the establishment of a fund for nutrition security and taxing sweet soda drinks. Apart from representatives from the different organizations, Knesset members Eitan Cabel and Ayelet Nachmias-Verbin also attended the conference, as well as the CEO of the National Council of Diabetes and the CEO of the Council for Nutrition Security.

This article was first published in Hebrew on Haokets. Read it here.

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