WASHINGTON — In a highly unusual step, the National Council of Jewish Women has called on its members and supporters to encourage Israeli legislators to support a bill that would provide every Israeli student with a daily hot, nutritious meal.
American Jewish organizations rarely lobby Israeli Knesset members on legislation, and the NCJW is no exception to the rule, said Sandra Lief Garrett, executive director of NCJW, who admitted that calling members to launch an e-mail campaign to lobby Israeli legislators could trigger criticism for intervening in Israel’s lawmaking process. “But we feel that we have an appropriate role to play in influencing social policy and the social welfare of Jews wherever they might be, and in this case in Israel,” she said.
The bill, known as the Nutrition in Educational Institutions Law, was submitted in October by a multipartisan group of Knesset members headed by Yuli Tamir of Israel’s Labor party. Its goal is to fight malnutrition in Israel, an alarmingly growing phenomenon, in part by reinstituting the state’s “school nutrition project,” which provided hot meals for schoolchildren and was scrapped in the 1970s due to budgetary constraints.
According to the new bill, every student in every school, from kindergarten through 12th grade, will be entitled to a hot meal. Parents will pay a maximum of 100 shekels (about $23) per month for the service. Parents whose combined income is lower than the average Israeli income, as well as parents whose combined income is 150% of the average income but have more than one school-aged child, will be entitled to receive the service free of charge.
Recent studies show a sharp increase in malnutrition and under-nutrition in Israel as a result of poverty. A study published in September by the Brookdale Institute found that 22% of Israeli households — more than one in five — suffer from inadequate nutrition because of poverty. The study found that an estimated 8% of Israelis suffer from an inability to ensure sufficient quantities of food, and an additional 14% — approximately 250,000 households — are unable to afford balanced and nutritious meals. An Israeli government report on poverty released last month showed that every third Israeli child lives in poverty, a total of 670,000 children, putting Israel first in the developed world.
The NCJW is encouraging supporters to send Israeli legislators a form e-mail, which states: “During these times of societal and economic stress in Israel, many children come to school hungry and return to homes where their families are unable to provide them with a nutritious evening meal. Proper nutrition on a regular basis is essential for good health, normal development, and academic success. In the absence of this nutrition, school drop-out rates, violence and incidents of crime increase.”
The bill, introduced in the previous Knesset but never brought to a vote, enjoys broad popular Israeli support. Several grassroots Israeli organizations recently started a joint public campaign for the bill under the slogan “a hungry child doesn’t learn.”
The government does not support the bill because of the budgetary burden. Welfare Minister Zevulun Orlev recently said he prefers a gradual approach, which would start by setting aside a modest sum of $4.5 million to restart the school feeding plan. The project might be enhanced in the future as a part of a comprehensive plan to “salvage children from below the poverty line,” Orlev recently told a Knesset committee.
Lief Garrett of NCJW said the decision to lobby for subsidized school lunches in Israel is not only “a reflection of the NCJW’s core values,” but also mirrors the work the organization does in the United States. The NCJW, together with other Jewish groups under the umbrella of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, recently signed a letter from a coalition of American religious organizations to President Bush calling on him to “lead the effort to eliminate childhood hunger” in America, mainly by securing funding to support school-nutrition programs and make them affordable to all and free for low-income Americans.
Most Jewish organizations actively support legislation that will make hot school meals more affordable to poor Americans. When Congress reconvenes in January, one of the issues it is expected to address early on is the reauthorization of child nutrition programs. Bipartisan bills to phase out the reduced-price category of payment for school breakfast and lunch were introduced in the Senate by North Carolina Republican Elizabeth Dole, and in the House of Representatives by Democrat Chris Shays of Connecticut and, in a different version, by George Miller, a California Democrat. The bills strive to broaden the category of students eligible for free meals at school by phasing in a fee-waiver for families with income that is between 130% and 185% of the poverty line.