Are you puzzled like I am as to why in 2020 we still have hungry people in the world? It is a problem that has bothered me for many years. In Israel, with the Jewish National Fund’s help, they are doing something about it. At the 2020 Jewish National Fund Virtual National Conference I was delighted to learn about how the Arava International Center for Agricultural Training (AICAT), located in Sapir, Israel, is helping many developing countries feed their people more efficiently and move beyond to form successful agribusinesses. It may start out as one farm or village at a time, but it is moving in the right direction.
In July, CNN reported that Oxfam had warned that hunger could actually kill more people than COVID!1 “World Food Programme data cited by Oxfam estimates that in 2019, 821 million people were food insecure and 149 million of them suffered ‘crisis-level hunger or worse.’ Current projections say the number of people experiencing crisis-level hunger might reach 270 million in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic, an increase of over 80% from the previous year.2
These are tragic and scary statistics to say the least. I’ll get to how AICAT is helping. But first let me caution you that in the United States hunger is a problem more pervasive than you think―it’s been a heartbreaking obstacle to an equitable life well before COVID-19.
Often people deprived of food can be under our noses without knowing it. For instance, many of us locally think of Orange County, CA as a middle class to affluent area. Let me tell you a true story. When my son was five and came home from our synagogue’s Kindergarten on Earth Day, he said, “Mommy I want to save the world!” I said, “That’s great, but let’s narrow the focus.”
Thereafter, we started a project called the Kindergarten Kindness project where we had children bring in recyclable
bottles and cans, volunteers recycled them receiving the $.05 or $.10 each, and the money went to Second Harvest Food Bank. The kindergarteners went from classroom to classroom with their PowerPoint placards explaining to each class why we should recycle and why the money should go to the food bank.
I hope you can tell how cute these little ones were in this less than great photo. It is the only photo I have of them. The kids were amazing and were capable―far beyond what I had assumed was possible. How about you? Would you think these little ones would be able to speak in front of each of the elementary schools’ classrooms? It was a beautiful experience to watch. Bravo kiddos!
Later we transferred the project to my son’s elementary school. By the time he graduated high school they had helped raise six thousand dollars, supplying 18,000 meals. With a change of perception, and some effort, we were able to alter what most people consider trash to yield cash that could then be used to buy food for the hungry and help the environment as an added bonus. With a bit of creativity and empathy kids can do great things. And these lessons stay with them their entire lives. They are all college age now. I can’t wait to see how they’ll improve our world. We could sure use the help. Amen.
Shockingly, pre-COVID statistics for the children in Orange County schools requiring help to afford lunches were somewhere into the high 40%. Seniors were 22% food insecure in the local area and then there were also the working poor, who despite working long hours could not afford the basics of food and shelter. Still to be counted were the hungry school children’s family members, community members living alone, veterans and the homeless.
How can these already suffering youngsters eat? A stark reality is that often they do not and go to bed hungry. What about the rest of their families and others who are hungry? I hate to have to bring these sad facts up, but isn’t it time we fix the problem?
Now with COVID, and people losing their jobs, it only has gotten worse. In September, the Second Harvest Food Bank just in Orange County distributed 5.4 million pounds of food and served 527,074 people. More than half a million people needed help for their families to eat in a county with a total population of 3.176 million! Now some of these people are the same, but last I checked I like to eat a few times a day, don’t you? The demand for food has doubled. Oy, such tzuris (troubles).
Now what does this have to do with AICAT? They also use a creative approach to providing food; add compassion and they help transform communities in developing countries. AICAT does their work according to Maimonides, the Jewish philosopher’s famous quote, “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.”
The Jewish National Fund-sponsored objective for AICAT is “to enhance communities and generate employment
opportunities in the Negev. Through AICAT, JNF imparts professional agricultural knowledge and skills to students from developing countries while establishing itself as the national and international leading authority in sophisticated arid lands agricultural studies and training.” This is the Jewish imperative of tikkun olam (repairing the world) at its finest! It is a WIN-WIN experience for both the students and the local farmers and families of the Arava.
Over 20,000 students have graduated and 1,000 students annually take a 10-month undergraduate or 18-month master’s program option and come from various developing countries in Africa and Asia including Cambodia, East Timor, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Jordan, Kenya, Laos, Myanmar, Nepal, Nigeria, Philippines, Rwanda, South Sudan, Thailand, Uganda and Vietnam. AICAT cooperates with countries where their main source of livelihood is traditional agriculture.
Can you imagine so many students from various countries, cultures, religions, speaking different languages (although there is an English sufficiency requirement) blended with the local Israelis living and working closely together?
The students are brave and hearty, just like Israelis. They know that Israel is a desert―not what most would believe is the best place to grow crops. One female student acknowledged that when she first arrived her first impression was, “Wow what we saw was the desert.” She wondered how they possibly could grow vegetation here. What she discovered was that Israel not only grew a vast variety of produce there, but they taught her how to grow them as well.
Additionally, the students come to Israel having heard of the war-like Palestinian-Israeli conflict on the news. Their relatives fear for them. The students do not even speak Hebrew. Many have never been out of their villages let alone on a plane or out of their country. I was struck by their dedication to fulfill their dream of helping themselves, their relatives, their communities, and their nation. Would you be brave enough to go into the unknown under those circumstances?
Yet, the school has been operating for 26 years. It was founded and is still run today by their Director, Hanni Arnon. She says, “Despite limited resources, they meet in the desert and make it green. They make the impossible, possible and this is the first lesson they get from Israel. Our aim is to be the light for these nations.”
The AICAT curriculum is created by consulting with the academic institutions in the students’ countries of origin. The program includes agriculture, economics, and a research project.
Each student works primarily with a mentor farmer and is also advised by a group leader who is a former successful graduate of AICAT. Students learn about advanced agricultural technologies as well as “basic theoretical and practical introductory courses in the different fields of agriculture: vegetable growing as a basis for plant sciences, irrigation and fertilization, aquaculture, orchards, flower growing, mechanization and plant protection.”
The research project is integral to the objectives of the program and follows scientific research methodology. The student is expected to plan the experiment, collect data, analyze the results, determine relevant conclusions, and submit and present their findings in a presentation before their peers, their supervisor, farmer and an AICAT representative.
They transform from traditional farmers to empowered entrepreneurial leaders, utilizing technologically advanced techniques for their cooperatives and agribusinesses at home. They become agents of change for their communities. AICAT is becoming the “global hub for agricultural training.”
During their stay, the students have the opportunity to also tour Israel and experience more reasons to fall in love with the land and the people. They return home as goodwill ambassadors for Israel, and we know Israel could use some positive sentiment instead of the anti-Israel rhetoric that is far too common.
The students, their home communities and their countries are impacted socially, academically, and economically by the AICAT program. Socially, the students become agricultural mentors and change agents in their homeland. They are empowered academically by the modern agricultural, entrepreneurial, and business knowledge they have acquired. Economically, they establish viable and successful model farms and businesses back in their native country.
The Master of Science degree offered through AICAT and the University of Tel Aviv is in Plant Science, with an emphasis in Food Safety and Security. Other partners working with the students acquiring their masters are the Manna Center Program for Food Safety & Security and The Yair R&D Center.
I was surprised and moved that during the mentoring program students receive a salary for their pragmatic training on the farm, enabling them to afford the academic tuition, living expenses, rent, food and a return flight home. It all made sense to me when I thought about it. They are working hard on a farm; they should be paid. So much of the program has impressively been structured to mutually benefit both parties. I found it extraordinary, don’t you?
Students are able to return to their country with the money they have saved to “initiate, implement or continue an agricultural project in their country. Some of the governments of the various country partners such as Thailand, Laos, Nepal, and Myanmar give the graduates additional support when they return home.
H.E. Amb. Lt. Gen. Samuel N. Thuita, the Ambassador of Kenya to the State of Israel, acknowledged that the AICAT graduates have contributed in a significant way toward food security, helping transform agriculture in Kenya.
This year the Ambassador of Israel in Kenya hosted the first AICAT alumni AgriNow 2020 agribusiness pitching event targeting start-ups. Fifteen companies pitched, and the top three won grants.
The student demand far outreaches their current capacity and AICAT intends to grow, renovate their existing facilities, and expand their campus. This year they anticipate increasing the number of students served to 1500. Interestingly, some of the participants had other family members who also had participated in the program, which would help combining resources to establish their businesses.
The pictures from AICAT I have used are from a photo contest they had for their students. Don’t they make you feel
filled with life? You could see the joy the student farmer had as he devoured his freshly grown red pepper in the featured photo taken by his fellow student Tubu Hto Naw from Myanmar. The classmates from multiple countries smiling together under the greenhouse showing off their crops. The colorful and abundant yellow peppers against the beautiful Israeli sky, and the heart-shaped tomato says it all―there is love here.
All this talk of plants growing successfully reminded me of my experiment the last couple of years growing seven plants satisfactorily (better than ever before : ) on my interior kitchen windowsill at home. For me, not having them immediately die was a relief and source of pride. I have some friends with green thumbs and lucky them, but that has not been my experience. You can see the trail of how they have been doing as they grow―along their stems. Sometimes better than others, just like people. Some of the plants seem to have a personality as the new leaves unfold and the more mature leaves stretch happily toward the sky. It brings a sense of happiness and life to my kitchen. I feel like I have finally accomplished growing something (other than my son but that’s a whole other story). I realize the satisfaction that these students must feel as they go home and help feed their communities and grow agribusinesses must be immense.
Graduates presented many successful stories from when they returned to their villages. Here are a few. I was happy to hear one Indonesian woman who spoke of how attending AICAT had provided her with technical agricultural knowledge, such as the ability to grow crops year-round and water preservation techniques. She was able to teach valuable and immediately applicable agricultural lessons in the community, and her knowledge elevated women’s status in her village.
A man from Myanmar credited AICAT with making his dream come true. He took his skills and scientific technology that he had been taught there, and coordinated with three villages to grow tomatoes, cauliflower, cabbage, and grapes for wine utilizing drip irrigation under a greenhouse. Together they are now running a successful agribusiness where they can grow crops all year round.
A student working on her master’s in plant sciences and her thesis for ecology and agricultural solutions, Jenipher Masawa, is a 27-year-old single mother. She is a real dynamo living in Kenya, who describes herself as a social change advocate. As she spoke I felt like I was listening to a female Nelson Mandela.
She had been born into abject poverty, in a community where she walked barefoot to school and young girls were married off to older partners at uncomfortably young ages. They often soon became pregnant, which if they followed the normal course of events, they would never return to school to complete their education.
Her parents understood the value of an education (even though they had not had the opportunity) and watched Jenipher’s daughter for her from the time her baby was two-months old. Jenifer sacrificed being away from her child three long periods of time to make a better life for her and her people. As parents, I am sure you could relate. We all want our kids to have better lives than we did.
Jenipher said, “It wasn’t easy because my parents couldn’t support me financially, but they lessened the burden by taking care of my daughter.” Their support enabled her to attend AICAT, run a school mentorship program, work with groups of women in the community and as a student leader for the university of Nairobi. She is very grateful to them for their help.
She explained that there was rampant corruption and inequality in her country. Jenifer believed social change had to come at the grassroots level. She saw a vision in Israel where rural communities have equal access to resources and a good quality of life. She wanted to help women in her rural community, and felt the model learned at AICAT could be adopted to help reframe rural Kenyan communities and help them succeed.
Looking back, Jenipher recognized, “AICAT has been a blessing in my life. The exposure, practical knowledge, a chance to build my academic profile, the networking and being able to support my family back home was provided by what I learned there.”
Quite a testimonial. I have to say writing this piece covering what organizations like Second Harvest Food Bank of Orange County and AICAT are doing to provide food and improve the world gave me great joy amidst such a bleak landscape. Even selecting pictures of the colorful produce and seeing the happy smiles of the student’s accomplishments felt like an abundance of life was jumping off the page―if only everyone in the world could be as satiated.
I thought I’d throw in some links to their websites if you might want to donate to either of these worthy causes. If you would like to help JNF specifically for AICAT or any other of their worthwhile projects please click here. If you would like to help support families that are hungry at Second Harvest Food Bank click here.
May you live in Peace, שלום, سلام,
I invite you to Join Me on My Journey…
1 By Francesca Giuliani-Hoffman, “The hunger crisis linked to coronavirus could kill more people than the disease itself, Oxfam warns,” CNN, July 12, 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2020/07/12/us/hunger-crisis-deaths-coronavirus-oxfam-trnd/index.html
2 By Francesca Giuliani-Hoffman, “The hunger crisis linked to coronavirus could kill more people than the disease itself, Oxfam warns,” CNN, July 12, 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2020/07/12/us/hunger-crisis-deaths-coronavirus-oxfam-trnd/index.html
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