Tony and Helen leave their Pico Rivera home most mornings and drive to a Southeast area market where they pick up groceries for themselves and about eight needy families and individuals.
But the elderly couple do not set foot in the store. They cull fruits and vegetables, canned goods and other groceries from dumpsters behind the supermarket.
"There are a lot of people in our neighborhood who are pensioned," Tony, 81, said during a recent interview in the chill of a winter morning. "People used to live off this during the Depression."
Tony and Helen asked that their last name not be used.
Clad in aprons and equipped with a gardening hoe and a broom, Tony and Helen arrive at the market shortly after sunrise and begin sifting through refuse in and beside the dumpsters. Their bounty: slightly bruised but otherwise good bananas and apples, packaged foods that have obsolete labels, milk or other dairy products that have passed their freshness dates, yesterday's fresh flowers and new books that never sold and were discarded.
The couple load the food into their aging powder-blue Ford sedan and take it home for a washing before distribution to about eight families and individuals. Their beneficiaries are neighbors and acquaintances. Some are senior citizens living on Social Security. Others are young families trying to get ahead in an expensive world.
"Some are paying for their home and they don't have a lot to pay out of their wages," said Tony, a retired forklift driver who is slender and moves well despite arthritis.
As a member of two fraternal organizations, Tony said he began his charitable endeavors by buying dented cans of food from markets at half price, raffling them and donating the money to charity. Then about two years ago, Tony and Helen noticed that books from a local bookstore were being thrown out behind a market.
"Seeing the books go to waste is what started us off," said Tony, his lined forehead partially covered by a stocking cap. "Then I saw (others) digging in there and thought maybe we should look into it because we have a lot of people in the neighborhood who need help."
It is a case of the needy helping themselves. Tony and Helen say many of their senior citizen friends find themselves living on Social Security checks that do not cover expenses.
"Senior citizens are going to get a raise (in Social Security) this year," quipped Helen, a small, active woman of 69. "Mine is about a dollar. Big deal."
(Senior citizens on Social Security received a 1.3% raise this year, bringing the average payment to a retired worker to $488 a month, Social Security Administration spokesman Joe Giglio said.)
In addition to helping fill pantries, Tony and Helen take the books and magazines they gather to Le Ila Wassgren, 74, of Maywood, who distributes them to the City of Hope and Los Angeles County's jail for women--the Sybil Brand Institute for Women.
Wassgren, a volunteer bloodmobile coordinator for the southeast district of the American Red Cross, also receives fruit and vegetables for her own use.
"They'll bring me a few vegetables, potatoes and some apples. Some of the apples are nice and firm and sometimes they're soft," said Wassgren, who lives on Social Security.
"I could get along without it, but it's nice to have it. I can make another apple crisp," added Wassgren, who said one of her hobbies is baking.
Another beneficiary is a 71-year-old Pico Rivera woman who asked that her name not be used. She said she has received food, flowers and plants once or twice a week for more than a year.
"It means a lot because my Social Security doesn't go too far," she said. "It helps me out quite a bit. They're very good people."
Tony, Helen and others like them operate in an uneasy world. They say they are wary of market managers, who do not like the image of needy people rummaging through their garbage, and of police, whose job is to stop people from "stealing" because the dumpsters are on private property and their contents belong to the rubbish companies.
Some markets have gone so far as to throw bleach on discarded produce to discourage people from retrieving it, the couple said.
For those reasons, Tony and Helen requested that the name of the market they have frequented for the past couple of years be withheld.
Some markets already donate to the needy the food that people like Tony and Helen might otherwise harvest.
Lucky Stores Inc., for example, participates in the Second Harvest Foodbank Network, a national network of food banks that collects food from manufacturers and grocery retailers and redistributes it to agencies that help the poor, said Judy Decker, spokesman for the chain based in Dublin, Calif.
Lucky donated more than $8 million in food last year, Decker said. "We try to waste very little," she said. "But we don't patrol the back dumpster of a store. There's not a lot we can do to stop them from doing that."
Tony and Helen said they carefully inspect the food and wash it thoroughly before distribution.