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Tenfold Increase in Demand : Food Bank Striving to Feed Growing Numbers of Hungry

March 24, 1985|NANCY GRAHAM | Times Staff Writer

More than 100,000 pounds of free food was distributed last month by the Westside Food Bank, 10 times more than was given away 18 months ago.

In the last eight months, the bank has distributed more than 697,000 pounds of food to 18 agencies in Santa Monica, Culver City and West Los Angeles, providing an estimated 750,000 meals, according to director Christine Sutherland.

Causes of Increase Cited

Representatives of most of the agencies said they are providing more free food, either in the form of meals or packaged goods, than ever before. They attribute the increase to unemployment, an influx of immigrants, the inability of people on fixed incomes to keep up with the cost of living and rising numbers of transients.

The Westside Food Bank is one of three in the Los Angeles area that collect surplus food from the government and other sources such as supermarkets, bakeries, food processors and farmers.

The other two banks are in Long Beach and in South-Central Los Angeles. All three pass food from various sources to local agencies that work directly with the needy.

The Westside bank was started in 1981 under the sponsorship of the Westside Ecumenical Conference and the Interfaith Hunger Coalition. It is now an independent entity, although it works closely with the coalition.

The City of Santa Monica allocated $28,000 to the bank in 1984-85. Other money is donated by organizations and individuals and some comes from fund-raising drives.

About half of the food distributed through the bank is U. S. Department of Agriculture surplus, including honey, dried milk, corn meal, cheese, butter and flour. Not all items are available all the time.

Seeks Private Donations

Sutherland, the bank's paid director, said she attempts to supplement the government surplus with donations of food and money from churches and synagogues and service organizations.

A $60,000 grant from Federal Emergency Management Assistance enables her to buy other items such as tuna fish, canned meats, peanut butter, pork and beans, macaroni and cheese and canned fruits and vegetables. The federal money, which is allocated to qualifying agencies through United Way, was received in February and will run out by late summer.

"I'm looking now for donations to continue purchases from late summer through December," Sutherland said.

No matter what is on hand, as fast as the food is brought into the bank's warehouse at 1861 Bundy Drive, it is picked up by trucks and vans from area agencies that then distribute it directly to the hungry, Sutherland said.

Each picks up its food at an appointed time every week. Because supplies vary from day to day, the agencies never know what they will get.

Many of the distributing organizations receive contributions from other sources, such as the City of Santa Monica, churches and synagogues. A few even have their own grants from Federal Emergency Management Assistance.

The agencies are responsible for interviewing recipients to ensure that they are living at or below the poverty-level guidelines established by the Department of Agriculture. To receive federal surplus food, a family of four may have an annual income of no more than $10,200, according to department spokesman Tino Serrano.

The department conducts spot checks of the agencies to make certain that all recipients meet the criteria, Serrano said.

Vera Davis, who heads the Low Income and Elderly United Community Assistance Project in Santa Monica and Venice, said she is seeing more hungry people than ever before.

Before assuming the directorship of the project, Davis was head of the Neighborhood Adult Participation Project. "Before, we would get requests for (food) only when a person lost a job or had a check stolen or something like that," she said. "We now distribute food on a once-weekly basis to about 500 people a year.

"At one time people felt really bad about asking for food. They would be almost crying when they came in. Now they are in line pushing and shoving, looking for any kind of food whatsoever."

Because the project receives funds from Santa Monica, the city and county of Los Angeles and the federal government, through the CLARE Foundation, it is able to purchase extra food to supplement the Department of Agriculture surplus procured at the food bank.

Food is also dispensed at St. Augustine's Catholic Church in Culver City. Sadie Cerda, who has been in charge of the program since its inception 12 years ago, said she gives food to 10 to 15 people a day, an increase of about 40% over a year ago.

"We have families that are coming to us on a monthly basis and senior citizens who can't make it on fixed incomes," she said. "The majority of the families are not on welfare, but have low incomes. Many are from other countries, especially Cuba and El Salvador."

Cerda also said an increasing number of transients are coming to the church for food.

"We give them some of the basics, like cheese and bread, honey, sandwiches, fresh fruit," she said.

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