Five years ago, in June 2011, Israel witnessed its “Great Cottage Cheese Boycott,” a protest against the rising food prices, and high cost of living, in Israel, which began on Facebook and then took to the streets. Cottage cheese, largely considered a basic food item in Israel, became the symbol of the protests, and later in the fall, Tnuva, which controls 70 percent of the dairy market, faced a lawsuit and antitrust investigation for abuse of monopoly power.

UJEF members visit the Sderot branch of Tzarchaniyat Ha’Ir

UJEF members from the DC area visit Tzarchaniyat Ha’Ir in Sderot

Rising costs of living, especially food, continue to make waves in Israel, and recently, Israel was ranked the second-poorest nation in the OECD, with children suffering poor health and their parents experiencing among the most inequality.

One new initiative is looking to change that—to make healthy food more accessible and to build community in the process. Called Tzarchaniyat Ha’Ir (“the city store”), the project is the brainchild of Nir Lahav, director of social activism for The Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI).

Working with the JAFI team that focuses on the “periphery” (Israeli communities outside of the country’s main cities, which are often more impoverished), and especially young communities there, they came up with a daring and visionary idea: to establish food co-ops throughout the country. The co-ops would have two overarching goals: economic relief, through the selling of basic food and home items at prices 15 to 18 percent cheaper than large Israeli discount chains, like as Rami Levy, and social support—as Lahav says, “The co-op is not ours [JAFI’s]; it’s the residents’. It’s a community center.”

With financial support from five “brave and risk-taking,” as he calls them, partners—The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington’s United Jewish Endowment Fund, UJA-Federation of New York, JAFI, the Israel Venture Network (IVN) and private donors—the team got to work on their goal of opening 40 co-ops within three to four years, eight to ten per year.

The first co-op opened in November 2015 in the southern city of Sderot. Since then additional stores have opened approximately every six weeks, in southern Arad and Yerucham and Beit Jann in the north. Additional stores are planned for many other cities around the country.

Jocelyn B. Krifcher, chair of the grants committee of the United Jewish Endowment Fund, shared, “We at the UJEF are so thrilled to have been part of this food co-op program from the very beginning. It meets all our goals—it is innovative and creative, it works in partnership with one of our key partners in Israel as well as other philanthropic donors and it effects social change in the social and geographic periphery of Israel.”

Stores offer basic foodstuffs, all healthy and kosher, and home goods. They sell neither alcohol nor cigarettes. Their goal is to ensure families’ health and wellbeing; thus, signs next to bottled water and sodas read, more or less, “Drink good, free Israeli tap water.” Likewise, there are no candies next to the registers or any other attempts to encourage impulse buying.

Individuals pay 8 shekels a month (about $2) to become members of their local co-op. In exchange, they are asked to volunteer two hours per month in the store, at their convenience, for which they earn a 15 percent discount on displayed prices. In addition to the financial incentive, “the idea [of the membership and volunteer responsibility] is that you feel like it’s yours,” says Lahav.

Each store includes a space for community gatherings, events, parties and exhibitions. The Arad store, for example, held a costume exchange prior to Purim in which families could bring old costumes and swap them for different ones, instead of going out to buy new ones.

Logistical responsibilities are divided and extremely organized. A management company, of which JAFI holds 80 percent and IVN 20, with Lahav as its CEO, oversees the whole program. Another CEO, Shmulik Regev, who is experienced in grocery store retail and management, oversees the stores themselves.

Unlike Israel’s large supermarket chains, workers make fair wages, but not huge salaries, and stores are not open all day, every day. Tzarchaniyat Ha’Ir stores do not stock products from Israel’s large, powerful food suppliers, like Osem, Elite or the abovementioned Tnuva. Instead, they rely on small- and medium-sized suppliers and maintain personal relationships with them, paying them a bit less, but always paying on time, something that Israel’s large chains are notoriously bad at.

Ultimately, Lahav says, the goal is to serve as a “motor for young communities,” to kick-start them and give them and their members the power to grow healthfully and successfully.

Top photo: The Arad branch of Tzarchaniyat Ha’Ir. (Photos courtesy of The Jewish Agency for Israel.)