LONG BEACH — The biggest problem facing one of Los Angeles County's largest food banks is how to get 140 million tons of food that is thrown out every year in this nation into the mouths of 400,000 people going hungry every day.
But lately, the Second Harvest Food Bank of Greater South Bay, housed in a converted cab company garage in a westside industrial area, is up against two forces that could prove a greater threat than hunger: earthquakes and the Long Beach City Council.
The 1915 warehouse that annually distributes 12 million pounds of donated food to the poor in a region stretching from Imperial Highway to the Orange County line will be condemned in 1991 under Long Beach's stringent earthquake laws unless the nonprofit group comes up with $300,000 to bring the building up to code, Director John Knapp said.
Knapp complains that the city has denied the food bank's repeated requests for help. If the building is demolished, 2 million people a year will go hungry--65% of them children--and their suffering will be on the city's head, he charges.
"We get absolutely no help from the city of Long Beach. We never have in our history," Knapp said. "There is no system in place to feed 2 million people a year, mostly kids. And if we go down the tubes, it is in the city's lap."
The reaction of city officials ranges from sarcasm to sympathy.
"Nonprofit? Jimmy Bakker was nonprofit, too, wasn't he?" one official snapped.
"I don't think there is any doubt that we have some kind of obligation. How much we can do is another story," District 7 Councilman Ray Grabinski said.
Just where the city's responsibility begins is unclear. On one hand, there are dozens of well-meaning charities competing for the council's philanthropy, and laws that regulate the spending of public funds on private institutions. On the other hand, critics note, the city recently spent $700,000 of a $1-million reserve to repair uneven sidewalks.
What is undisputed, however, is that the food bank works with a skeleton staff and bare-bones budget to bring quality food marked for the dump to 130 social service agencies, including missions, homeless shelters and refuges for battered women.
Thousands of pounds of edible food is discarded daily by manufacturers who put a little too much sugar in a batch of ketchup, truckers who deliver a load to the wrong store, supermarkets eager to get rid of slow-moving products that take up precious shelf space.
"Retailers, restaurants, wholesalers, everybody is guilty," Knapp said. "How oftendo you go to a buffet and wonder what they do with all that food?"
The agency is the south county's main link between the food industry and charity, Knapp said. Morally opposed to spending a penny of its $700,000 annual budget on food that would otherwise be thrown away, it spends it on trucks that deliver food to the hungry and on operating the cavernous warehouse stocked to its limits with everything from chili peppers to 150,000 pounds of pasta.
What began as a hot-meals program staffed by kindly volunteers has grown into a charity with an iron fist. Staffed by people with degrees in marketing and psychology who left the corporate world for something more meaningful, they bang on doors, bombard companies with slick mailers and burst into offices without an appointment. Their sales pitch is this: helping the poor is a tax write-off.
"We ask to see a person and we stay until we see that person. We don't take no for an answer," Knapp said.
When social service agencies go begging for food, it costs up to $2 a pound. When the food bank does it, it costs about 9 cents, Knapp said.
Today, an estimated 7,500 children and 2,000 adults are eating a Thanksgiving meal procured, inspected and delivered by the food bank.
"But it is all going to stop if this building is condemned and we don't get some help," Knapp said.
Grabinski and District 6 Councilman Clarence Smith, who met last year with food bank representatives, were taken aback by Knapp's ire. They said the agency has not made a formal request for relief in months and had not made its level of desperation known.
"Nobody has come to me and said the devil is at the door, it's all over and it's your fault," Grabinski said. He added that the council is willing to listen.
But other city officials say it is unlikely that the city can subsidize a private organization like the food bank, nor is it necessarily the city's place.
There are 580 buildings marked as earthquake hazards, in keeping with what the city proudly declares are the strictest quake standards in the state.
Other residents, including senior citizens on fixed incomes who face the same threat of condemnation, have complained that the cost of retrofitting will leave them homeless. City officials are exploring ways to offer lower-interest loans. But so far, no one on the list has been granted financial assistance or leniency, city officials said.