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The Food Finders : Volunteers Glean Edibles From Stores to Feed the Needy


SOUTHEAST AREA — Every Tuesday, assistant produce manager Jaime Montoya meets Lorraine Taylor behind the Vons market in Los Alamitos and the two repeat a familiar routine.

They load hundreds of pounds of unmarketable but nutritionally sound food into Taylor's Subaru hatchback, filling not only the car but a need among the growing number of hungry and homeless people in the Long Beach area and Orange County.

Taylor is a volunteer with Food Finders, a grass-roots organization that collects food from local restaurants, bakeries and supermarkets and delivers it to soup kitchens, shelters and other social service agencies in Southeast Los Angeles County and north Orange County.

Food Finders is different from large food banks, such as Second Harvest, that operate in Los Angeles and Orange counties. Those huge organizations have paid staffs. They collect millions of pounds of donated food from supermarket chains and store it in sprawling warehouses where social agencies come to buy what they need for nominal fees.

"We go about it in a different way," said Food Finders' 48-year-old founder Arlene Mercer. Food Finders collects much of its donated food from locally owned vendors--bakeries, grocery stores, even popcorn from movie theaters, Mercer said. "Volunteers use their own cars and trucks. We take the food directly to the agencies we serve and don't charge anything."

In the past two years, as the recession has worsened, people such as Mercer have started a number of efforts to help the hungry, said John Knapp, president of Second Harvest Foodbank of Greater South Bay, one of the area's oldest and largest food-distribution networks.

Many groups fold, "sometimes as quickly as they spring up," Knapp said, themselves victims of a bad economy. "This is a tough business to stay in. Because of the economic times, people have less to donate."

Mercer agrees. "Stores are tightening their belts and have a lot less waste these days," she said. Even so, Food Finders has increased its donations by 68% in the last year, with total donations of 182 tons in 1991. Mercer attributes the success to the professionalism with which the all-volunteer organization is run.

"If we say we're going to be there, we're there," she said. "We never let them down."

Six days a week, without fail, a volunteer appears at the Los Alamitos Vons, said produce manager Montoya.

He picked up a plump, ripe orange and tossed it in the air. "But a lot of our customers won't buy it," he said, pointing to faint brown spots on the skin. "It's been affected by the cold. It tastes the same, but it doesn't look good enough for sale.

"I don't know exactly where this'll end up," Montoya said, putting the orange back in the box with the rest. "But wherever it goes, it'll be better than where it went before (Food Finders) came to pick it up."

The supermarket used to dump hundreds of pounds of food daily into the trash, Montoya said. Now, any excess goes to good use, he said, as he continued to load Taylor's car with box after box of peppers, tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, apples, potatoes, fresh-squeezed orange juice--even a tub of Gummi Bears.

One day while driving to work, Mercer hatched an idea to put to good use the food she knew supermarkets were wasting.

Mercer, a Seal Beach accountant, was assigned to a project in 1989 that had her spending more time than usual driving city streets.

She began noticing homeless people on Katella Avenue in Anaheim, a stretch of boulevard near Disneyland lined with low-rent motels and fast-food restaurants. "I kept seeing all the downtrodden people. They looked lonely, sad and dirty and I thought, '(But for) the grace of God, there go I.'

"Every day I drove by and thought, 'Surely, someone will help them.' But every day there were a few more. So I felt I had to do something. But what could I do as one person? That's when I realized we needed a network."

She started Food Finders in her kitchen. Today, it has 75 active volunteers and 80 local donors and works with 33 social agencies. The organization also is branching into Hawthorne, Inglewood and Lennox.

In addition to working full time, Mercer spends about 25 hours a week coordinating Food Finders efforts. Most recently, she organized the delivery of nearly four tons of food left over from the Persian Gulf War.

"There's never been more of a need than right now," Mercer said, especially as the number of impoverished families grows. In California, for example, there are 40% more children living in poverty than a decade ago, according to The Center for the Study of Social Policy, a nonprofit research group in Washington.

Children were on Taylor's mind as she pulled her Subaru into the parking lot of Rossmoor Pastries, another major Food Finders donor. Taylor, 43, a travel coordinator, has a schedule flexible enough to allow her to donate time every week to Food Finders. "It's a real direct way to make a difference," she said.

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