Kamla El Hawahsle, a Bedouin woman from Israel’s Negev, was having a hard time. She finished high school after having six children and went on to complete courses in computers, cooking and running a home day care, as well as volunteering with women in the well baby clinics – but she was not able to find work.
Kamla’s luck began to change four years ago when she became part of Israel’s first community kitchen, set up by AJEEC and the Hura Local Council in partnership with the Hura Women’s Council and the Hura Community Center in the Negev Bedouin town.
“Before I worked, I felt like a weak woman,” says El Hawahsle, now 46 and a mother of eight and grandmother of three. “My husband is on disability and I could not provide properly for my kids. Since I started working in the kitchen, I feel like a strong woman. I can help my children. My daughter is studying math at Kaye College and I’m paying her fees. I am so happy that she is getting educated so she will not suffer in life as I did. It’s my wish that kitchens like ours be established all over the country so women can earn money for their children and thus keep them on the right path.”
Shatil and AJEEC, together with the Hura Local Council, are working to make El Hawashle’s wish come true. On Thursday, March 7, on the eve of International Women’s Day, they sponsored a seminar in Hura called Community Kitchens: From Idea to Recipe, in which about 80 activists, government and local authority officials and representatives of foundations got a first-hand look at the Hura Community Kitchen and heard the theories and values behind such kitchens. In a series of roundtable discussions, they gained practical tools for establishing other kitchens based on this successful model and thought together about how to promote policies that use local resources to provide healthy food in school lunch and other public nutrition programs. Food for the day was provided by the Hura Community Kitchen.
A community kitchen is a local, sustainable business that provides meals for local school lunch programs, thus leveraging a government program to create local jobs and benefit the local economy. It is an elegant solution to three social challenges: food security (and within this promotion of nutritious food); local economic development – especially in weaker areas; and the creation of sources of income that are fair and accessible. Shatil Community Organizer Shirley Karavani explains that community kitchens can have a positive effect on a community at many levels. “It enables public money to be used in a smarter way,” she says.
The Hura Community Kitchen provides 5,600 meals per day to qualifying elementary and kindergarten children and employs 11 local women. The kitchen connected with Shatil’s local sustainable economic development project which encourages local procurement. Thus, local businesses are benefiting as the project prefers to use local providers, keeping money in the community for the benefit of local residents and the local economy.
Beyond the kitchen’s impact on these local women, children, and businesses, Shatil is working to ensure that it can become a model and inspiration for other initiatives around the country. Before the conference, further to extensive Shatil outreach to women’s groups in many towns and cities to encourage and guide establishing such a model, Shatil and AJEEC published a handbook on how to start a community kitchen, and many of the attendees came to learn about the model and see how to implement it in their home communities. They included representatives of local governments and NGOs in Jaffa, Tira, Jisr a-Zarqa, the Galil, Yerucham, Beer Sheva, and more, as well as Hadassah Hospital and the national Center for Food Security.
Ghadir Hani, Coordinator in the Economic Development Department at AJEEC, says the participants were impressed (and surprised) by the size and orderliness of the kitchen and the self-confidence of the women working there. “The tour took them to a place where it’s possible to realize a dream like that,” she says.
Those involved in the community kitchen emphasize that the success of the model depends not only on individual initiatives but on government policies. Ran Melamed, deputy director of Yedid, which is partnering on advocacy efforts with Shatil and AJEEC, spoke at the conference about the drive to get laws passed that would give preference in government contracts to community enterprises like this one, especially those dealing with food.
The government-mandated school lunch program provides needy elementary school pupils and kindergartners with one hot meal a day. In 2011, 170,000 children received hot meals at a cost of NIS200 million. One of the recommendations of the post-protest Trachtenberg Committee was to double the size of the program and so this school year, 350,000 elementary school and kindergarten pupils are receiving these meals.