Los Angeles Times, July 28, 2008: Demand soars as donations decline at L.A.-area food banks

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By Jennifer Oldham
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

July 28, 2008

Food pantry operators throughout the Los Angeles region report that demand for free groceries has surged to the highest level in recent memory this summer as the sagging economy has hit not only the poor, but also middle- and upper-class families.

“This is probably the most people we’ve ever seen use emergency food assistance,” said Darren Hoffman, communications director for the 35-year-old Los Angeles Regional Food Bank. “We’re seeing people who were making $70,000 a year coming into a food bank for the first time. . . . They’ve used their retirement to pay their mortgage, and gone through their savings.”

The organization, which distributes groceries to about 670,000 people each year through a network of more than 900 religious entities and nonprofits, watched demand increase by 80% this spring.

Steep job losses in the banking and entertainment industries, on top of the housing downturn, are reverberating particularly hard through the San Fernando Valley, leading to less work for janitors, waiters and others. The Valley has lost thousands of jobs in financial services, largely due to the failure last fall of Calabasas-based Countrywide Financial Corp. — the nation’s largest mortgage lender — which laid off more than 20% of its workforce.

“We’re seeing an increase in people who never would have asked for help in the past,” said Joan Mithers, a director at SOVA Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles, which operates three food pantries including its headquarters in Van Nuys. The agency served 5,605 people in June, up 28% from a similar period in 2007 and 46% over June 2006.

One recent day, Teresita Guzman was among those standing in long lines to receive food, clothing and other assistance at the northeast Valley headquarters of Meet Each Need With Dignity, or MEND.

Her eyes cast downward, Guzman tugged at her worn black T-shirt and recounted how her three teenage sons decided to hold off eating the corn flakes she brought home from a food pantry until she could afford to buy milk.

“I told them to wait until their dad gets paid,” the 39-year-old Pacoima resident said through an interpreter. With construction work increasingly hard to find, the family can’t depend on regular paychecks.

The one-two punch of a declining income of about $1,300 a month — with half going to rent — and higher gas and food prices forced Guzman for the first time this spring to visit MEND to pick up food for her family.

The Valley’s largest charitable group aiding the poor, MEND serves about 46,200 people a month and has seen demand jump about 26% so far this year.

“There’s a perception that the Valley is middle class and one of the richer parts of L.A.,” said Marianne Haver Hill, MEND’s executive director. “The poverty is very much hidden here.”

But recent statistics underscore the fact that times are tough for people of all income levels who call the 225-square-mile Valley area home. Job losses in the Valley’s signature industries, such as financial services and entertainment, pushed unemployment claims in May to a four-year high, said Dan Blake, director of the San Fernando Valley Economic Research Center at Cal State Northridge.

Local food pantry operators said some clients had exhausted savings and retirement funds and had their vehicles repossessed before they came for free food.

Yet as demand is climbing, food donations to charities throughout Southern California are at record lows, leading some organizations to face a tough choice: Should they feed each family less in order to serve more people?

“We’re able to provide less food for the money we have,” said Cambria Smith, president of the San Fernando Valley Interfaith Council, a network of 18 pantries that primarily serves people living in the west Valley.

Food pantry administrators said they tend to give cereal and other scarce items to families first, in some cases leaving single clients without certain goods. They also refer clients to agencies in surrounding communities that haven’t been hit as hard, and limit free grocery visits to once a month.

The federal government exacerbated food pantry shortages when it slashed two-thirds of the surplus food it donated to charities earlier this decade. In 2002, 42 million pounds of groceries were donated to the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, and 60% of that came from the Department of Agriculture; in 2007, the organization received 35 million pounds of food, and the government’s share of the donations dropped to 25%, said Hoffman, the agency’s spokesman.

Supermarkets have also decreased donations by trimming the amount of food sold close to its expiration date and selling dented goods to discount outlets.

With fewer groceries available, many charities are scrambling to raise money to buy staples such as powdered milk. And prices for those staples are at 18-year highs.

At MEND, food bank director Gina Mirabella said her volunteers spend hours some days dialing grocers and food manufacturers requesting donations. She said she’s even gone so far as to phone the toll-free number on cereal boxes and Canadian outlets asking for donations from their Los Angeles warehouses.

“I try to keep up by covering more ground, covering more stores, covering more merchants, covering more companies,” said Mirabella, who said the workload is the highest it’s been in her 20 years at MEND. “We come up short mostly on cereals and soups and canned meats.”

In search of eggs, milk and other staples to feed her husband and three children, Maria Oliveros visited her neighborhood church in Pacoima recently, only to find that they were out of food. Sitting in a dirt backyard surrounded by a camper covered by a plastic tarp, a camper shell and several rusted storage sheds, Oliveros said two-thirds of her husband’s paycheck pays for two rooms the family rents in a nearby bungalow.

What’s left is barely enough to pay for gas, school uniforms and other necessities, she said, forcing her to seek free food for her family several times a week.

“Last year I would go to the church every once in a while, but now I go every Monday and Tuesday,” Oliveros said through an interpreter. “It’s very hard right now.”

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