When Joseph Gitler moved to Israel from America in 2000, he was happy to set down roots in his new home. But he soon grew concerned by two growing issues he witnessed: significant food waste (which mirrors the food waste in America and many developed countries) and rising rates of hunger across Israel’s diverse population.

So in 2003, Gitler founded Leket Israel, a national food bank that works to rescue and redistribute food to Israel’s needy in a variety of innovative ways. One example of many? Leket’s Gleaning the Land program, which enables thousands of volunteers each year to harvest excess fruit and vegetables from farmers’ fields and distribute it to needy families.

Gitler took a few minutes out of his busy schedule to fill Repair the World in on volunteering as a gleaner or sandwich-maker for Leket, the importance of seeking out creative solutions, and why Leket is like the “FedEx for charity.”

What inspired you to start Leket Israel?
It was a combination of things. I was generally upset at the amount of food waste in our society, and surprised that there wasn’t already an umbrella organization trying to centralize the rescue and redistribution of food. It also had to do with the increasing poverty in Israeli society – poverty that was stretching to impact Israelis across the socioeconomic spectrum. The fact that there was simultaneously tremendous waste of resources, and also growing poverty didn’t sit right with me. Those things combined led to the beginning of Leket.

Were you always passionate about service and food justice?
Honestly, not really. I wouldn’t call myself a natural “do gooder” who worked every week in a soup kitchen. I was just in the right place at the right time.

Tell me more about Leket’s gleaning the land program.
The first few years of Leket’s existence were super focused on cooked food. We work with caterers, the army, hotels, and corporate cafeterias to rescue excess food and redistribute it to hungry people. But all that time, we knew that there was a real opportunity with agriculture. Then in late 2005, we got a call from a farmer who said he had some persimmons that were slightly damaged. He wanted to get them to the poor, but didn’t have the funds to pay pickers to do that. He asked if we could help and we said, “Of course we can – we just have to figure out how.”

Since then, the gleaning program has become one of our largest volunteer initiatives. We have volunteers gleaning 5-6 days a week, which meant over 42,000 volunteers last year. Just in that one program. People come and glean for a couple of hours or an afternoon. They come as citizens of Israel or as part of Birthright or other programs. And we also hire a staff of 22 Israeli Arab women who work as paid harvesters. Last year, we were able to distribute over 20 million pounds of fruits and vegetables from about 800 different farmers.

Wow! And what about your other programs?
80% of what we do is in the food rescue field, with a strong focus on nutritional, non-packaged foods like dairy, cheese, meat, cooked meals, fruits and vegetables – everything but dry goods, which are well covered by other organizations in the country. I like to tell people we’re like a charitable FedEx!

We also have a project where we make 8,000 sandwiches every day for needy school children. The sandwiches are made within the schools by teachers, outside of the schools by volunteers, and often by the kids themselves. That program is in about 110 schools in more than 30 cities in Israel. [Check out all of Leket’s programs here.]

Can you share a story of the impact Leket has had?
We had a bus driver who works for the Dead Sea hotels call us and say, “I hear employees talking on the bus all the time about the waste of food they see in their hotels.” It was making him crazy and he wanted to do something about it. So he found us and asked, “what can you do?”

Part of Leket’s success has been in our creativity, and this is a great example. We tried solution after solution, and nothing worked. But ultimately, the idea came up to use the busses themselves. We ended up installing insulated containers in the luggage racks of the bus. Now, the bus drivers come pick up the employees at the hotels at 3-4 in the afternoon, and the employees bring out the food and load it up into the busses. The drivers then volunteer their time to drive it into the nearby city of Arad, where it is redistributed to agencies. That program started a couple of years ago and now we work with 7 different hotels and redistribute around 1,000 hotel-quality meals each month.

Can you share a story that demonstrates the impact Leket has had on volunteers?
I see the impact from the gleaning fields all the time. People come to Israel as first time visitors, and it impacts them that they can do something to help while they are here. It’s an opportunity to connect with the land, work outdoors, and make a difference. We host bar and bat mitzvah groups all the time. Recently a well-known politician’s daughter came to glean in the fields. She was so touched by the experience that she decided not to accept any presents for her bat mitzvah. Instead, each person was asked to make a donation to Leket.

Want to get involved with Leket’s great work? Check out their website and Facebook page, then find out how you can volunteer or support the organization.