YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Brie With Bread : Manna Food Bank Often Gives the Needy a Heavenly Treat


THOUSAND OAKS — The operators of the Manna community food bank in Thousand Oaks believe that the needy need not live by bread alone.

So it offers the downtrodden an uplifting menu that's been known to include Brie, frozen shrimp, imported German cookies, chocolate cake and even gazpacho soup along with the standard staples.

"We've been the Cadillac of food banks," said Bob Fitzharris, a consultant who heads the Board of Directors of the food bank, located in a converted house on Crescent Way.

"We have canned shrimp, sardines. We have a section for low-salt and diet food."

What began 20 years ago as a neighborhood project operating out of a garage with only a few canned goods is now one of the biggest food banks in Ventura County, and one of the more cosmopolitan in the Southland.

Even officials at other food banks concede that Manna offers a wide variety of food not normally found at other pantries.

They say the donated food Manna receives reflects the Thousand Oaks area. The city itself, with its mostly white-collar population, is one of the most affluent in the county.

"It's a real broad-based community effort, so they can gather lots of different things from the local population to generate their menu," said Jeanine Faria, coordinator of food programs for the Ventura County Hunger Coalition. At their own pantries, "We don't get low-salt foods very often," she said.

And at no time of year is Manna more in demand than now.

Last month, the pantry fed more than 1,500 people with the help of supplies from local supermarkets and restaurants, including the trendy markets Mrs. Gooch's and Trader Joe's, officials say. They expect even more demand during the holidays.

Kurt Hepler, an assistant manager at Trader Joe's in Thousand Oaks, said the discount gourmet store has been donating surplus food to Manna for about two years.

Some of the bread Trader Joe's donates is fresh, but does not meet the store's standards, he said. Other kinds of food are subject to spoiling if not consumed right away.

"We donated some Brie the other day, as a matter of fact," said Hepler, whose shop also gave Manna the shrimp, cake and gazpacho soup.

"It's a shame to waste food," he said.

Jobless families, single mothers, senior citizens and the disabled are welcome to drop by to pick up free groceries from the food bank. The only qualification is that they be Conejo Valley residents and be referred by a social service agency.

What they find on Manna's shelves often astonishes them, said Al Caffrey, 72, a Manna director who works with the Dolores Mission in Los Angeles, one of 23 service organizations in Ventura and Los Angeles counties that receive surplus food from Manna.

"Something like Brie cheese is a gourmet thing. They're amazed to see it," he said. "I've gone to several food banks in the San Fernando Valley and Dolores Mission, and I don't ever recall seeing salad dressing there. They don't have that money to buy those extra niceties."

Officials can't estimate how much food Manna gives away. "We have gone out and aggressively (solicited) food," Fitzharris said. "In just bread alone, we receive a couple of truckloads a day."

Some of the food comes from donors' back-yard trees. One recent day, Manna administrator Pauline Saterbo eagerly greeted a volunteer carrying a box of fresh-picked guavas.

Manna's two "shopping" rooms are crammed as well with basic canned goods and bread, but Saterbo said she would like to get more of the things they never have enough of--sugar, for example, coffee and disposable diapers.

Some patrons, like a woman named Debra, get teary-eyed as they push shopping carts through the well-stocked pantry.

"I felt bad when I walked in. I came in feeling nervous and embarrassed," said Debra, 35, who would not give a last name. "I have four kids. My husband is injured and can't work."

As she wheeled the cart--now filled with five bags of groceries--to her car, Debra broke into a smile. "Now I feel good," she said.

The only food that Manna purchases with cash donations are meats, eggs and dairy supplies.

Manna did not always have plenty. In 1971, Manna began as the Conejo Valley Food Bank and it collected food for out-of-work aerospace engineers and their families at a private garage in Thousand Oaks, said longtime volunteer Betty Langlois.

Volunteers decided one night to name the pantry after the food that sustained the tribes of Israel during 40 years of wandering in the desert. It seemed apt, Langlois said because it kept down-and-out families from starving.

In 1981, volunteers moved their supplies out of the garage to the house on Crescent Way.

Manna still owes much of its success to a core group of 164 volunteers, some of whom got help from the food bank. That was the case for Gil Janke, 70, a retired Marine who drives a truck for Manna 10 hours a day, seven days a week.

Several years ago, Janke said, he brought his son to Manna for food and ended up offering his truck to collect food from donor stores each day. Janke is now the main driver of a van he has dubbed the "Mannamobile," and each day he visits 25 to 30 stores beginning about 7 a.m.

"My son had five children. (Manna) helped us out, and I said, if you ever need a hand, just call," Janke said. "Now I'm the Manna man."

Los Angeles Times Articles