Self-help puts food on the table of Jerusalems poor

jerusalem | In one of Jerusalem’s poorest neighborhoods, some 1,500 people sit down daily at home to more nourishing and less-expensive meals than anywhere else in the city and most other places in the country.

These people are members of a food cooperative run entirely by residents of Jerusalem’s deeply distressed Katamon neighborhood.

“The neighborhood’s food cooperative has been a runaway success both in getting nourishment to needy tables and in awakening a spirit of self-help,” says U.S.-born Barbara Epstein, director of the social rights organization Community Advocacy, which led the initiative.

“For the last 2 1/2 years, residents have clubbed together to buy food from wholesalers and then sold it back to themselves,” she says. “Volunteers stock the store and open it to club customers one day a week. Because they’re all volunteers, there’s no mark-up on the wholesale prices, and food can be sold 25 percent cheaper than in the discount supermarkets and 40 percent less than in neighborhood groceries.”

Surprisingly, there has been no objection from local food stores. “I think they welcome the cooperative,” says Epstein. “Many of its members were bad risks for them, running up tabs they couldn’t pay, or giving checks they couldn’t honor.”

The Jerusalem Foundation, which established a Poverty Task Force at the beginning of 2003 to counter the growing poverty in Jerusalem, is a partner in the project.

With more than 22 percent of its families and close to 40 percent of its children living below the poverty line, Jerusalem is Israel’s second-poorest city. The statistics for the Katamon neighborhood are more shocking still: Four in every 10 people live entirely on welfare; of the remainder, almost half earn less than the average wage.

From the basic foodstuffs — flour, rice, oil, sugar — the cooperative has expanded its stock to include hummus, beans, soft drinks, toilet paper and diapers. Soon, the store will be expanding and adding a refrigeration unit for selling dairy and frozen produce. Open only one day a week, lines at the cooperative are long, but the atmosphere is warm and festive.

The cooperative, Epstein says, has developed into a community institution that extends beyond the purchase of food. A table and chairs are provided and people gather to drink free coffee; local teens take turns in carrying heavy shopping bags home.

“I never miss a week,” says Moroccan-born Rivka, 87, who lives in sheltered housing next door to the store.

“I don’t eat so much any more so I don’t buy a lot, but it’s an outing for me. I wear my jewelry and my best scarf. I drink a cup of coffee while I’m there. I talk to people and tell them what I think about the world and what’s going on, and then there’s always a nice youngster who carries my shopping home for me. They call me Aunty Rivka, you know. I’m not a real aunty to any of them, but the store brings us all closer together.”

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