Hunger is driving a new breed of poor into food banks in Ventura County that once primarily fed the homeless and the hard-core unemployed.
They are the new poor--industrious, self-reliant folk who never dreamed that one rough shove from the economy could push them out of middle-class comfort and into food lines.
They have swelled demand almost beyond the ability of the county's food bank network to feed them.
As the numbers of Ventura County's hungry grow--by 28% in the past fiscal year--the supply of food and charity money is shrinking, food bank officials say.
And while the Ventura County coroner's office reports no one has died this year of starvation, some of the hungriest are suffering from anemia, dental decay, blood imbalance and other symptoms of malnutrition, say health officials.
"I think there's an awful lot of hunger in Ventura County," said L. Jewel Pedi, executive director of Food Share, which supplies nearly all the county's food banks. "But it's hard to see because we're so affluent."
Food Share estimates its 256 member food banks are feeding 127,000 people a month--nearly one in six Ventura County residents, 53% of them children.
"We're getting more people who are unemployed, people who have always worked, who have always managed to make their house payments . . . and make a good living," said Aurora Moreno of the Commission on Human Concerns, an Oxnard charity.
She added, "Many of them are (embarrassed) because they're the kind of people who have always taken care of themselves."
Mike, a former construction company vice president who declined to give his last name, said he never expected to be selecting beans, pie filling and frozen meat off the shelves at the Manna food bank in Thousand Oaks for himself and his son.
"I've been out of work since '89, when construction started taking a dive," said Mike, 52, of Thousand Oaks. His son, 25 and deaf, is also having trouble finding work.
The bank is about to take away his house, which is in foreclosure. Mike also filed for bankruptcy, costing him his Jaguar and a $6-million, 15-acre chunk of prime property off Lynn Road that he had almost finished paying for.
And he cannot find work despite more than 20 years experience in construction.
"I could build a building from the ground up if you asked me to," said Mike, pulling an impressive two-page resume out of the beat-up sedan that a friend gave him.
"I go for a job and they tell me I'm overqualified. . . . I tell them I'll take any job. One job I would have gone for paid 30 grand a year. They told me I'm overqualified."
Letting a charity feed him, he said, "is hard to take."
"It's very, very hard and very tough," agreed another Manna client, Julia Gall, 83, of Thousand Oaks, waiting for her turn to pick food from the shelves.
Gall said her monthly $600 Social Security benefits and a $149 pension barely cover her mortgage, utility bills, health insurance and the cost of medicine needed after her heart attack in November. One bottle of pills costs her $161.
"I told the doctor I should live on the medication, it costs so much," said Gall, a retired auto plant worker who never imagined she would be living on donated food.
"It's very hard to manage on Social Security," she said wearily. "We worked so hard and tried to save for our old age. We didn't want to be on welfare."
Demand for food aid also is growing among people who are more accustomed to leaning on the food banks--seasonal field workers such as Margarita and Higinio Contreras of Oxnard.
Left jobless by the rain-scarred strawberry season, Higinio waits on the curb in La Colonia hoping to be picked up for day labor, while his wife readies a modest supper of donated beans, eggs, potatoes, salsa and tortillas for them, their infant and 3-year-old.
Higinio's $96 weekly unemployment benefits barely cover their utilities and $375 monthly rent, said Margarita, 35.
Without the food provided by St. John's Community Outreach program, they would go hungry, she said, cradling 2-month-old Wendy in their cramped kitchen.
Higinio, 34, said he hopes to find work again when the growing season begins in January. Until then, he said, they must carefully budget the food they get from the St. John's program, run by Sister Carmen Rodriguez.
Sister Carmen said she has even less food to give out now to the mechanics, assembly line workers and laid-off laborers joining her usual clientele at St. John's center in La Colonia.
St. John's served 31,000 people in the 1990-91 fiscal year, she said. In 1992-93, it served 35,000.
"It's just so many people that it's like hand-to-mouth existence for us trying to get enough food for them," she said. "If there's less employment, there's greater hunger and greater need for food."
More often now, Sister Carmen says that "unless they're really desperate," she must give out less food, cutting clients back from two visits per month to one.
That dynamic is being repeated at food banks around Ventura County.