Shalem College
June 6, 2018

“800,000 Meals a Year Is Not Enough”: Shalem Student’s Food-Rescue Initiative Feeds Hungriest Israeli Citizens

“800,000 Meals a Year Is Not Enough”: Shalem Student’s Food-Rescue Initiative Feeds Hungriest Israeli Citizens
Shmuel Herenstein. Credit: Yonatan Fuchs.

When you’re a new recruit in the army, says Shalem junior Shmuel Herenstein, you learn to put up with a lot, even some pretty absurd-seeming orders. “There are things that don’t seem to make any logical sense, but you do your best to accept that it’s part of the process of learning to obey instructions and to discipline yourself,” concludes Herenstein, who made aliya to Israel in 2008 and learned in various yeshivot before eventually enlisting as a lone soldier at the age of 24. “Or not.” The one thing he couldn’t accept? What he saw happening in the kitchen.

“The waste was unbelievable,” says Herenstein, who served in the 188th Battalion as a tank driver at the Shizafon Base in Israel’s south. At the end of the day, he continues, it pained him to see how much food was thrown out: “The army produces a massive amount of food, but there was no saving what didn’t get eaten for the next day, no making use of what was left over. I determined then and there, during my kitchen duty, to do something about it.”

That something began with an appeal to the powers that be in the kitchen. “I asked, can’t we just donate the food to those in need?” The response he received, explained Herenstein, was that the army was afraid to take responsibility for possible cases of food poisoning. Insistent that there must be a way to work around it, Herenstein determined to try.

He turned to an old family friend, Joseph Gitler, who founded Leket Israel—The National Food Bank, asking if he could help. Gitler, whose nonprofit rescues surplus meals from event halls and hotels throughout the country for redistribution to Israel’s neediest populations, was intrigued by the idea. “He wanted to make a go of it, but said that in order to implement such a project on the Shizafon base alone, he would need a refrigerated van and a three-person collection team,” recalls Herenstein. He struck a deal with Gitler: He would raise the money for the van and the team’s salary, if Gitler would work to overcome the bureaucratic obstacles with the IDF.

Within the year, the first route from the Shizafon Base to a food-collection and distribution facility was underway, and the SHAI Initiative was born. As other IDF bases in the south heard about the operation, they too requested to join a program that, to date, has rescued roughly 800,000 meals per year.

“I’m awed and humbled by the success of this program,” says Herenstein, who is currently majoring in Shalem’s Interdisciplinary Program in Philosophy and Jewish Thought. He recalls a particularly moving incident that occurred when he accompanied Gitler to the Knesset for the latter’s acceptance of the annual Bonei Tzion Prize in 2015. “A young girl whose school in Jerusalem receives meals through SHAI came with her principal to the ceremony, and related to me that the SHAI meal she gets is the only real one she has all day. She used to have a real lunch only every other day, and the result was that she was always thinking about food. Now that she has a regular, filling meal, she can focus on school, and it’s changed her life. Hearing just that one girl’s story has made all the hard work of getting this program up and running worthwhile,” Herenstein concludes.

Of course, Herenstein isn’t willing to stop at just one little girl’s story. This past year, SHAI has expanded to bases in northern Israel, as well, with the addition of a collection route from Haifa to Nahariya. “The goal is to rescue enough surplus food for 500 meals per day from this new route alone” he says. “The food will go to a collection facility in Amirim, where it will be inspected by food scientists for safety and kept in carefully temperature-controlled conditions until it can be distributed. And then, it will go to schools and old-age homes throughout the North.” The next step, Herenstein hopes, is that SHAI will cover bases – and by extension, needy populations – in every single area of the country.

“800,000 meals a year is not enough,” Herenstein states with determination. “It’s a great start, but I’d like to get to a million. The only thing stopping us is resources. The uneaten food is right there at the bases, patiently waiting to be collected and distributed.” His goal is ultimately to use SHAI as a blueprint for food-rescue programs in coordination with the military of other countries, including the United States.

Meanwhile, however, Herenstein says he’s focused on his studies, as well as his interest in writing music; in his spare time, he teaches Talmud to American students on a gap-year program. “Right now, learning everything I can at Shalem is my main goal.  And that,” he jokes, “is no less of a challenge than founding SHAI.”