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Food Stamp Cutoff Will Test Charities

September 01, 1997|PATRICK J. McDONNELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

With tens of thousands of legal immigrants losing food stamp benefits as of today, private aid agencies and local officials are gearing up for what will be the most dramatic manifestation to date of last year's sweeping overhaul of federal welfare law.

The burden will largely fall to the county's extensive network of private food pantries, churches, soup kitchens and other emergency providers. However, charities have found it harder to find donated food in recent years, in part because of federal budget cuts that have pared U.S. commodity aid.

Many providers fear that their agencies will be overwhelmed by requests from the almost 100,000 legal immigrants in the county expected to lose their monthly food stamp allotments. Relatives and friends will help some, but many are expected to turn to charity.

"If only 50,000 more people end up at the food pantries in Los Angeles County, it's going to create a pressure that will be very difficult to alleviate," said Doris Bloch, executive director of the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, the state's largest, moving about 25 million pounds of foodstuffs annually.

In anticipation of the food stamp cutoff, Bloch said, her organization has been concentrating on obtaining large quantities of relatively inexpensive staples such as beans and rice--at the expense of extras such as canned fruit.

Just a few years ago, Bloch said, the food bank regularly received 11 million to 12 million pounds a year of federal commodities such as butter and cheese--double the amount now available.

"We have this big increase in demand on the horizons, but a lot of the food banks are seeing a reduction in the amount of products coming in," said Ron Blake, executive director of the California Assn. of Food Banks.

Along with government cutbacks in donated commodities, Blake said, improvements in technology and quality control have reduced private contributions from food producers and supermarkets. Less surplus food is being produced, Blake said, and much of the excess is funneled not to charity but to the so-called secondary market--such as 99-cent discount chains and swap meets.

Although Los Angeles County does not directly provide emergency food, officials have moved to ensure that the hungry will at least know where to turn. The cutoff notices sent to food stamp clients last month included the private information number (800) 339-6993, in English and Spanish, with referrals to churches and other groups providing food.

"Even before welfare reform we didn't have enough food," said Jim Stratton of Catholic Charities. "I'm afraid we're either going to have to cut back on the number of people we serve or the amount of food we give out."

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