A two-year study of hunger in the metropolitan Los Angeles area paints a bleak picture of strained resources, large-scale food waste and a steadily expanding population of needy.
Rather than bemoan the continuing human suffering, though, the United Way-sponsored report calls for a three-year plan aimed at delivering greater amounts of food to the poor through an improved transportation system, better coordination among the various relief agencies and a more aggressive public-information campaign.
The 50-page review is the result of a project headed by a task force of business leaders, government representatives and community group volunteers.
The recommendations come at a time when the overall effort to fight hunger locally is placed at more than $167 million annually in food, facilities, trucking and labor. The figure is derived from estimating the cost of donated services and material in addition to actual expenditures.
"I don't think there is any question that there has been a substantial increase in the need for emergency food support," said Frank Lynch, president of the Northrop Corp., who served as the task force's chairman. "And I don't see anything out there that will alter the demand for food assistance. . . . So, we looked at what can we do to make the current system better."
At the heart of the task force proposal is the creation of a nonprofit corporation, tentatively called the Food Partnership, which will act as a super clearinghouse to facilitate the accumulation of foodstuff donations from farmers, manufacturers and retailers. The contributions will then be distributed throughout Los Angeles County and several surrounding areas to the needy via existing food banks.
Estimates place the cost of initiating such a plan at about $1 million over the next 42 months, a portion of which will be underwritten by United Way. Much of the projected expense will be directed toward the purchase of a delivery truck fleet and drivers' salaries.
The panel found that the biggest problem facing hunger relief groups was the inability to transport bulk food donations to storage areas for subsequent distribution. Therefore, the group emphasized the need for a coordinated trucking system that could bring in food from distant farms as well as perishable items from local manufacturers or supermarkets.
"There are places in the system where there are needs and gaps," Lynch said. "What needs to be done is to improve the networking and cooperation between agencies. That is why the report placed an emphasis on transportation. That is what the individual units had the greatest problem with."
Using several diverse sources, the United Way task force estimated that about 1 million Southern Californians face the "frustration of hunger" in the course of an average month. The result is that the area's 400 pantries (outlets which provide free groceries), missions and soup kitchens are taxed to capacity. The pantries are particularly stressed, the report found, because the number of people seeking free food has increased by an annual average of 70% in each of the past three years.
This need contrasts with other estimates that 20% of the edible food in the Los Angeles area is destroyed each year. Much of this is food considered unsaleable because it is no longer in peak condition or is cosmetically damaged.
Furthermore, substantial amounts of produce is left behind in fields and orchards of Ventura County farms after the completion of commercial harvesting. Most of these fruits and vegetables, overlooked because of size irregularities and such, go uncollected. In a novel proposal, the task force calls for urban volunteers in the Los Angeles area to come forth and assist understaffed Ventura County efforts to collect edible crops otherwise left to rot. This fresh food would then be channeled into the hunger-relief system.
Room for Expansion
"The entire feeling of everyone that worked on this report is that there is much room for expansion in order to help those that are in need, and this is the vehicle for doing that," said Gene Brown, senior vice president for Ralphs Grocery Co. and a task force vice chairman.
The group also dealt with the sensitive issue of competition between various charitable groups. The report criticized duplication of efforts and battles over limited resources.
"Store managers are having to deal with pressures from various groups saying that, 'I'm the real service provider (for the poor) and these other (charity) groups are not.' Still others come along and say they are the ones who should get the donated food," said Eugene L. Boutilier, emergency services issues manager for United Way. "After a while, if I'm the grocer, then I'm throwing up my hands and tossing the food in the garbage anyway."