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Food insecurity surged with COVID-19, harming Israel’s children most

CM 25/09/2021

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At least 13% of Israelis cannot afford the amount of food or the type of food that they need during this fourth wave of the COVID-19 crisis, according to a recent survey by the Social Policy Institute (SPI) at Washington University, a reality which is negatively impacting the physical and mental health of the nation’s children.
The survey, led by SPI Director Prof. Michal Grinstein-Weiss, was based on an online questionnaire taken between August 18 and 22 and shared with The Jerusalem Post this month. It defined families as suffering from food insecurity based on the accepted index of the US Department of Agriculture. 
The survey showed that at the height of the coronavirus, the phenomenon of food insecurity was more acute – reaching about one-quarter of Israeli families, including about a third of single-parent families. With the opening of the economy in recent months that proportion has declined, but still remains high. 

In the first wave, 23% of respondents said they experienced food insecurity, 22% in the second wave, and 18% in the third wave said the same.
In general, families with children were hit hardest during this Delta wave – 15% of families with children said they were experiencing food insecurity, compared to 11% of families without children. In addition, Arab families have suffered most throughout the crisis, with 43% of Arab-Israeli families saying they experienced food insecurity in wave one, 41% in wave two, 37% in wave three and 32% in the current wave. 
The WU team found an expected but strong link between food insecurity and behavior in children, Weiss told the Post. This included outbursts of anger, expressions of violence and more.
Specifically, 68% of food-insecure parents said their children suffered from rage and outbursts compared to 57% of parents who had food security, and 48% of food-insecure parents said their children had experienced bouts of violence, compared to 31% of food-secure children.
Also, 62% of food-insecure kids were found to exercise excessive use of electronic devices (compared to 50%), to suffer from eating disorders (48% versus 19%), and from sleeping disorders (64% versus 40%). 
Children from food-insecure families were found to have physical health challenges (11% versus 3% of food-secure children), mental health challenges (15% versus 6%) and socialization issues (20% versus 13%).
According to Prof. Aron Troen of the Hebrew University Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Environment, there were about 450,000 children in Israel who participated in the school feeding program even before COVID-19, mostly from families with low-socioeconomic status, and most of those children were at considerable risk from food insecurity. During the crisis, between one-third and one-half of “feed days” were lost, likely leaving these children hungry. 
But during COVID, a further issue was revealed, he said, and this was that not only were families living in the periphery or “margins of society” faced with food insecurity, but also the middle class. Many of these people had been living one step away from having trouble putting food on the table, Troen said, and the coronavirus crisis pushed them over the edge. 
“There were those who found themselves in trouble who did not have trouble before,” Troen explained. 
He said that internationally, some countries’ food banks spoke of as much as a 300% increase in demand. In Israel, that percentage was closer to 70%. 
According to the Washington University survey, the number one reason (more than 50%) for food insecurity was that families did not have enough money to buy food. The second highest reason was that families did not have enough time to cook (more than 40%) – perhaps because they were working extra to make ends meet, Grinstein-Weiss suggested. 

 Lior Raz from the Israeli hit series ''Fauda'' seen with other Israeli artists and actors helping prepare food packages for those in need, following the economic difficulties and high unemployment due to restrictions set up to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus. July 20, 2020. (credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90) Lior Raz from the Israeli hit series ”Fauda” seen with other Israeli artists and actors helping prepare food packages for those in need, following the economic difficulties and high unemployment due to restrictions set up to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus. July 20, 2020. (credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)

The government was not well-enough prepared enough to deal with these families, according to Grinstein-Weiss. Only about a third have received welfare support, she found. The rest got support from family or friends.
“There seems to be a lack of data and studies,” she said, both to understand who these families are and how serious this situation really is. 
Troen has been researching and reporting on the situation as part of his work for a number of years. He told the Post that the current national food insecurity plan feeds around 10,800 families at a rate of around NIS 20 million per year and the rest are taken care of by non-profit organizations, such as the International Fellowship of Christian and Jews, who step up to fill the void. 
The new government promised it would take responsibility for food security and increase the budget for such programs substantially to as much as NIS 110 million to NIS 118 million, he said. However, the budget that passed in its first reading earmarked only NIS 46 million for two years, so about NIS 23 million per year – only an NIS 3 million increase from before. 
“Food security is something that the government is required to provide to all of its citizens,” Troen said. 
While he praised the nonprofits for the work that they do, he said that their work should “not be letting the government off the hook. This is a matter of national resilience and security. It is the government’s job to make sure citizens have a healthy, sustainable, and affordable food system, which at present we don’t.”
He added that the failing food system has a ripple effect, costing the country between NIS 6 billion and NIS 20 billion in health expenditures to treat people who don’t eat well. 
International studies have shown a substantial increase (up to 50%) in chronic illnesses, as well as increased likelihood for developing diabetes and anemia, among people who eat unhealthy diets. 
The biggest consequences are for the children, Troen said, who don’t develop to their full potential.
“It is one of the factors that traps them back in poverty,” he said. 

Source: Jerusalem Post

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