Longer Lines at L.A. Food Banks

Jane Foster lines up every Thursday morning along with more than 100 other people at St. James Episcopal Church to get free food. She’s been coming to this location for six years.

“You save at least $30 in groceries a month,” she said. “You don’t think it’s much but at the end of the day, it’s very helpful.”

Foster is not alone. The Los Angeles Regional Food Bank serves one in 10 people in Los Angeles County. According to a hunger study performed last year by the food bank, they are serving 46 percent more people than they were serving in 2005.

“That really shows how much we’ve been affected by the economy,” said Julie Flynn of the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank. “There’s been a lot more people needing food assistance.”

Foster makes her way through the line, waiting almost an hour in the early morning cold. She and others waiting in line must sign a form before getting their food, saying that they make under a certain amount of money every month.

To qualify for food assistance through Hope-Net, a family of four would have to make under $2,756 a month, or $33,075 annually. For a single person to receive aid, the cut-off salary is $1,345 per month, or $16,245 annually.

A chart on the wall at the pantry shows the salaries needed to qualify to get assistance, but people in line rarely look at it. Hope-Net works on the honor system.

Hunger, however, does not affect only the poorest Los Angeles residents — 86.9 percent of food bank clients are not homeless. Foster has been coming regularly to food pantries because she is on disability. But she is joined by others who are new to the system.

Joyce Brown has been coming to the food pantry for six months.

“I’m working part-time, and the food bank has helped out with my household,” she said. Brown said she is looking for a better job, but the economy has affected her job search.

Brown arrived later on that Thursday morning, so her wait to get food was only about 30 minutes. She signed in, just like Foster, and walked through the line to get her one large food bag.

Hope-Net gives out two different bags of food. One is for people that have cooking facilities. Along with fresh fruit like apples, they receive imperishable goods such as canned beans and boxes of rice. Clients walk through the line and volunteers fill their bags with each item. People can come once a week to get food.

Hope-Net also distributes pre-prepared food bags for people who are either homeless or don’t have cooking facilities. These bags contain cereal bars, granola bars, and other ready-to-eat items. The line for these bags is shorter. People come to the entrance of the food pantry, sign their name, and take a bag.

“The needs in the overall community are limitless,” said Douglas Ferraro, executive director of Hope-Net. “It’s local, one of the attractive things is that these are our neighbors that live among us, that we drive by or brush shoulders with on a daily basis.”

Flynn said the type of people utilizing the food bank’s services has changed.

“Previously it was pretty within the realm of lower income individuals, but now we’ve seen people who think of themselves as middle class that have lost their jobs….and are still unemployed,” she said.

Ferraro said there’s recently been a 100 percent rise in people coming to the food pantries. Hope-Net has more than10 food pantries throughout the Los Angeles area, including the one at St. James Episcopal Church.

In 2007, Hope-Net served 110,000 people in the Mid-Wilshire, Hollywood and Koreatown areas. In 2008, that number went up to 150,000, and last year they served 250,000 people.

“This year, 2010, for the first quarter, we’re probably on pace to 250,000 more again this year, so it looks like the need has escalated again, unfortunately,” Ferraro continued.

He did agree that there has been a rise in upper-middle class people needing to use food banks, but “there’s not as much of a rise as one may think.”

During the early Thursday morning hours at the St. James location, many of the people in line declined to be interviewed.

“I have to run to work,” one man said in a thick accent. “Catch me next time?” he said, with an apologetic grin.

“I don’t want to lose my place in line,” said another woman, as she turned her face away.

Many of the people in line knew the routine: line up, sign the form, get the food, and be prepared for a long wait. Children in line stuck close to their parents so they wouldn’t get lost in the crowd.

The rise in people using food banks has also hit West Los Angeles. The Westside Food Bank in Santa Monica has seen a more than 50 percent increase in clients due to the economic recession.

Genevieve Riutort of the Westside Food Bank said there has been a rise in middle class and upper-middle class families using the food bank’s resources.

“Typically, they tend to be housed families with at least one working parent,” she said.

Riutort added that her organization doesn’t want people to make the choice between eating and paying their rent or mortgage. “We can provide food so that they can stay housed,” she said.

Even volunteers have also noticed a rise in people coming to food pantries.

Bunny Svatos and Cecilia Atherton have been volunteering for more than a decade at food pantries. The two currently volunteer through Hope-Net and prepare food for the people coming in.

“There’s more and more people every week,” said Svatos, while she took a quick break from preparing ready-to-eat food bags.

Atherton agreed.

“When the economy began to drop, we started to see more and more people,” she said.

Lila Santos is another Angeleno who frequents the food pantry. Santos lives on social security and said every little bit helps. She agreed that the bad economy has led to a rise in people using food banks.

“Before, when I came here you just go straight to the door,” she said. “Now, the lines are around the corner.”

Santos said she normally comes at 7 a.m., a full hour before the food handout begins.

Non-profits worry that there may not be enough food to give out with the rise in people. For clients of the Westside Food Bank, some grocery bags given out are beginning to shrink due to the high need.

“That is a big concern,” said Riutort. “Our member agencies are reluctant to turn people away, so what happens is that a family that might have gotten four grocery bags in the past, might now only get three.”

Ferraro of Hope-Net said they have been fortunate enough to have enough food to give out–so far.

“In most any kind of charitable work, almost always, the need outstrips the resources,” he said. “It’s always a fear that as the number of persons coming increases, our ability to meet that need will fall short.”

Hope-Net gets their food through the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank as well as from donations.

Ferraro said volunteers from Hope-Net go to the food bank twice a week, with a 24-foot truck that is loaded twice, adding up to about 44,000 pounds of food per week.

The Los Angeles Regional Food Bank distributes their food to more than 550 charitable organizations, such as food pantries, soup kitchens and shelters, senior citizen programs, children’s programs, and other agencies.

According to the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank’s study, 71.8 percent of the food bank’s clients couldn’t afford to eat balanced meals. The L.A. Regional Food Bank also distributes fresh produce, like bananas, to help provide their clients with nutritious food.

The Westside Food Bank has their own food pantry, and they work with wholesalers to purchase food at discounted prices. The Westside Food Bank distributes about 4 million pounds of food every year and distributes their food to more than 65 social service agencies in West L.A.

“We can take $5 and turn it into enough to feed 20 people,” Riutort said. “Even a small donation can go a really long way.”

People like Foster, Santos and Brown will continue to use services with the help of the food pantries, volunteers and food donations.

“There’s a lot people can do to help,” said Flynn of the Los Angeles Food Bank. “Number one, the food bank makes use of financial donations, we’re able to purchase food at a really great rate–we’re really able to leverage a dollar.”

Flynn, Riutort, and Ferraro all agreed that awareness of the issue is key.

“It’s not just the homeless guy at the end of the freeway with the cardboard sign anymore–at all,” said Flynn. “It could be a child in your child’s classroom. The face of hunger really has changed.”