Expert: Food shortages in stores throughout Israel a distribution hiccup, not a supply issue

Leket Israel Chairman and Founder Joseph Gitler explains that this is nothing new during wartime, and while distribution is temporarily taking a hit, supply is unlikely to be significantly affected.

 A customer stands in front of empty shelves for some coffee products inside a supermarket in Tunis, Tunisia September 3, 2022. (photo credit: REUTERS/JIHED ABIDELLAOUI)
A customer stands in front of empty shelves for some coffee products inside a supermarket in Tunis, Tunisia September 3, 2022.

There have been scattered reports of food shortages throughout Israel following the outbreak of war between Israel and Hamas. Eyewitnesses in northern and central cities have reported various shortages of bread, fresh produce and meat in some supermarkets, including Shufersal, Osher Ad, Politzer, Carrefour, and Rami Levi. Others noted shortages of eggs, toilet paper, instant soups, noodles, and canned fish.

In several other stores throughout the country, however, no shortages were observed.According to Joseph Gitler, founder and chairman of Leket Israel, the country’s largest food non-profit, wartime food shortage is nothing new.

“We’ve been through other wars and flare-ups, and every single time, the same thing happens: there’s a mass call of the reserves, the army is overwhelmed, local communities are overwhelmed, municipalities are overwhelmed, people need to be moved from hard areas to safer areas. And of course, our normal day-to-day logistics infrastructure is just not set up for that,” he said.

Gitler likened the situation to the tragedies of hurricane Katrina and 9/11, noting that “there are things that are just bigger than the system can handle.

“When these things happen, there are going to be soldiers who get to bases and there’s just not enough food or there’s not the right food; there are deliveries that can’t or won’t get made to and from places that are under missile attack, so shelves end up empty; or workers get called for reserve duty and now no one’s running the cow shed, and so they’re short on milk,” he elaborated. “It’s to be expected.”

It is likely that as the nation settles into its new situation, these issues will clear up. “It takes time; with 100,000 people moving all around the country very quickly, it’s hard to keep up with everything,” Gitler said.

“And we may not like it, we may think that the army should be able to do better, we may think that we should be able to do better, our government should also do better. But this is what happens in a state of emergency,” he added. “People think everything should run perfectly. But if everything went perfectly, we wouldn’t be in this shit show. You know, this is the least of our problems.”

Gitler dispelled any general fears of overall supply drying up as a result of the situation. “I’m not concerned about food supply in the State of Israel unless for some reason the world turns against us and we can’t import anything. But I don’t see that happening,” he said, adding that “Israel is relatively self-sufficient in many food items.”

There may be issues, but not existential ones 

“If this keeps on going for a long time in the south – part of the area that this is happening in is really the breadbasket of Israel, so that could have some impact, but it’s not going to lead to massive problems,” he said. “There may be some things that are short on the shelves, here and there. But if you don’t have milk for a day, you’ll survive. No one’s going to starve, and no one’s going to go hungry. There may be a few days where there are some things missing, but presuming we’re able to get ahead of the situation militarily, things will go back to normal.”

There have been more specific fears that agricultural produce may be affected because many of the workers in these industries commute from Gaza or come from other countries in order to make ends meet for their families back home. Due to the conflict in Gaza and the fact that many of the hostages taken by Hamas are migrant workers from abroad, there could be a significant decline in willingness or outright ability to show up for work.

There is some weight to these worries, Gitler admitted. “Look, you have tens of thousands of workers coming from Gaza every day, whether they’re picking the fields or building. That could be days, weeks, months, forever before it’s recovered,” he said.

Many of the hostages are foreign workers, and that “could lead to shortages in the future,” Gitler noted. “Unfortunately,” however, “the countries that these people come from – they’re so desperate for money that they’re going to come no matter what, because they need to. [Growers] will have to pay them more, but they’re going to come because they need money to feed their families.”

In response to the temporary distribution shake-up, a huge number of grassroots aid efforts have sprung up around the country, collecting food and supplies to send to IDF soldiers and reservists.

“It’s wonderful as always to see how people are pitching in immediately to do whatever they can to help ameliorate this very difficult situation,” Gitler said. “Whether it’s providing food, cooking, giving money to buy food, giving rides to soldiers who need to get to places, this is what has to happen.”

Leket launched its own campaign on Monday, raising funds in order to collect and distribute as many supplies as possible for the people in Israel’s south who have been the most affected by the war.

“Leket is suffering in the sense that a lot of the places we get our food from – farmers, hotels, caterers, you name it – are just closed right now. We launched a campaign today with our initial goal of raising $2 million, in order to purchase all different types of food items, cooked meals, fruits and vegetables, dry goods, as well as supplies and baby supplies, to fill the needs of people in the south, or people who’ve left and gone elsewhere and need help, or the families who are hosting them and need help to feed them. And we’re going to try to buy, wherever possible, items from hard-hit areas, just to hopefully keep [those businesses] going,” Gitler explained.

“It could end up going to soldiers in the next few days,” he said, “but the primary goal is getting it to people in need.”