The shuk floor on a regular Friday in early August (photo: Daniella Cheslow)
One of the best things about most major Israeli cities is the shuk, the giant outdoor food market where bright vegetables sit in precarious piles and entire alleyways are devoted to freshly butchered meat and refrigerated cases full of fish, sometimes even still squirming.
But one of the worst things about these shuks is the terrible waste at the end of each day, especially on Friday afternoons before the Sabbath comes in and the shuks are closed for the day. Lettuce covers entire meters of asphalt, chicken offal sits in piles surrounded by squashed tomatoes, and soggy cardboard boxes soak up the rotting vegetable mash.
In Tel Aviv, there are plenty of people who could use those discarded vegetables and fruit, and ‘Fugee Fridays – an initiative of Green Prophet Jesse Fox, his brother Steven, and their friend Gilli Cherrin – started up in February to collect excess produce from the shuk vendors and bring it to refugee shelters in southern Tel Aviv. Fugee Fridays meets at the bottom of Shuk Hacarmel each Friday at about 6 pm.
Fox said a friend of his told him about refugees lingering around Park Levinsky, a green patch near the Central Bus Station. He and the other founders took a carload of donated vegetables to the park, and were instantly swarmed.
“As soon as people realized we were taking out food, a bunch of guys just jumped toward the car. Dozens,” Fox said. “We saw they have their own way of distributing it and making sure everyone got some.”
Green Prophet Jesse Fox at the Shapira shelter in June (photo: Luke Gasiorowski of the Helping Hand Coalition)
After the first few trips to the park, Fox said, the Fugee Fridays team realized their work would be easier at the refugee shelters scattered around southern Tel Aviv, in the area of the bus station. They now deliver to three shelters in the city – one for Darfurians, and two for Eritreans.
At first, Fox said, the refugees from warmer African climates didn’t know what to do with some of the food, liked broccoli, cauliflower or most winter vegetables. No one touched a box of fresh avocados until one woman peeled one and bit into it. “Maybe they thought it was a turtle,” Fox said.
Two weeks ago, I went along on a Fugee Fridays run. I got to the shuk at 5:40 pm, but took about twenty minutes to buy some heavily discounted passion fruit and pita bread before getting to the end of the market, where a Fugee Fridays volunteer was watching over backpacks and the growing pile of boxes of vegetables, fruit and bread.
Then I found an empty cardboard box and went from vendor to vendor, asking for tomatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, ciabatta bread and whatever else they had for refugees. It was a great feeling to fill up a box with bagged lettuce and herbs, and to know that it would probably have otherwise joined the giant green carpet spreading across the wet shuk street.
Discarded greens (photo: Daniella Cheslow)
At about 7 pm, we had enough boxes to fill up three cars, which drove to a shelter on Har Zion street. Everyone who couldn’t fit in the cars followed them by bike or cab, and we unloaded the produce in front of a group of apartments where mostly Eritrean refugees lived. The women picked over the vegetables and divided them between themselves. The kids snatched grapes and then jumped all over us, grabbing our arms and demanding that we play with them. Some of the refugee children have been in Israel long enough to pick up Hebrew, others just smiled at us and ran around the pavement in front of the apartment doors.
Interviewed recently for TimeOut Tel Aviv, Fox said he has gotten complaints from poor Israelis in the Shapira neighborhood where he delivers, who say that he should put his own city’s poor first, rather than newcomers from Africa.
“For now we are working on the idea of bringing boxes of food to poor families in Shapira,” Fox told TimeOut. “Maybe this is the way to diffuse the tension between the refugees and their neighbors.”
Fox told the Green Prophet that Fugee Fridays is also considering starting a community garden in Shapira to bring together the refugees and their Israeli neighbors. Finally, he said, the volunteers have taught the refugees to put the vegetables they won’t eat on the curb so their neighbors can eat them.
Fugee Fridays depends on cars to deliver the vegetables and fruit, so if you have a car and don’t mind driving it on early Friday evening, get in touch with Jesse at Jessefox82 [at] gmail [dot] com.