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Fighting Hunger Amid Plenty in L.A. Produce District


One of the nation's most innovative private-sector efforts to fight urban hunger received federal, state and local commendations last week, six years after it was conceived at Los Angeles' sprawling wholesale produce market by a retired food industry executive.

The Charitable Distribution Facility was launched in 1987 in a far corner of the mammoth downtown block of produce warehouses on Olympic Boulevard and Central Avenue. The program was based on a simple premise: produce wholesalers would donate their unsalable--but still edible--product to the facility rather than toss the food in a dumpster. The CDF would sort and then channel the foodstuffs to various local agencies that feed the hungry and homeless. Initially the facility, funded entirely by private donations from the Mickey and Edna Weiss Foundation, gathered about 60,000 pounds of food per month.

In the past six years, however, the effort has succeeded beyond the organizers' dreams and brought in a record 3 million pounds of food donations in the month of May alone. At last week's program, Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan and former mayor Tom Bradley were present to honor Weiss and those wholesalers who have participated in the program. In addition, commendations and congratulations to Weiss were sent by U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy and Gov. Pete Wilson, among others.

Besides recognizing the record donations in May, officials and produce industry representatives were on hand to encourage food companies to do even more as part of a new "Donate, Don't Dump" campaign. Need remains acute; on average, the facility handles about 2.5 million pounds of donated food each month, which is distributed to 300 charitable outlets.

Weiss, a former Los Angeles produce executive, has been active in anti-hunger efforts for years. He announced at last week's program that his family foundation will donate 25,000 complete meals before the end of the year to several area homeless shelters; the contribution is in addition to the funding that the CDF receives from Weiss.

"The Charitable Distribution Facility is all about having a vision and then implementing that vision," said Riordan. "People like Mickey Weiss are real heroes. He saw the waste (at the wholesale terminal) and he saw the hungry in the area and put the two together."

Riordan also commended USC's Annenberg School of Communications, which, together with Weiss, has published a pamphlet that assists other cities in starting similar programs. To date, Baltimore, San Jose, San Francisco, Columbus and Houston have adopted anti-hunger efforts at their wholesale produce terminals.

Former mayor Bradley complimented the program's founders and called Mickey and Edna Weiss "angels in the anti-hunger effort."

There have been tangible results from the flow of donated food into the community, according to several recipients present.

Rev. Edward Bynum, of the Lighthouse Community Outreach at 103rd Street in South Central Los Angeles, said the availability of fruit and vegetables has helped improve the atmosphere in the area his agency serves. Before the Lighthouse opened, there was little distribution of donated food in the community. Its sudden availability caused tension and arguments until Bynum and his staff could organize an orderly distribution system.

"Because of the availability of food, people and the neighborhood have changed," he said. "They are talking to each other now--being nicer, rather than battling."

Jim Stratton, community development director for Catholic Charities of Los Angeles, said there is a great need for the produce industry's donations, stating that, for instance, there are an estimated 10,500 homeless children in Southern California on any given night.

"It is difficult to train somebody for a job when they are hungry," he said.

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