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L.A.'s First Lady of Hunger Relief

Doris Bloch, the "dilettante" behind the food bank, retires.

March 22, 2000|EMILY GREEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In 1982, at age 47, Doris Bloch decided that she wanted to be an executive director. So she looked in the Los Angeles Times classifieds under E.

After what she jokingly calls "10,000 interviews," she did indeed become an executive director--of a food bank that had just graduated from a garage to an old machine shop in El Monte.

"There were 10 of us and one truck," she says. "The driver was legally blind; I found out after I asked him why he kept bringing the truck back with so many dents."

Still, that year, the truck distributed 5.6 million pounds of food to 65 charities. Today, 18 years and two warehouse moves later, it distributes 40 million pounds of food a year to 965 charities.

And, with this, as Bloch turns 65, the lady who mistook herself for a dilettante is retiring.

"It's like that joke: Death is nature's way of telling you to slow down," she wisecracks. "My retirement will include being active in social justice matters. But it will also include sleeping later."

The job has not left much time for sleep. Under Bloch, the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank has become the second-largest in the United States behind New York.

It occupies 96,000 square feet in the industrial heart of South-Central Los Angeles. It has a staff of 50, supported by 50 more volunteers. There is a full fleet of refrigerated trucks, including a semi. And last year the food it distributed reached 300,000 people a week.

Replacing Bloch is now the job of a team of professional headhunters. Finding the right successor will be a feat. "At the national level, people call Doris the 'mother of food banking,' " says Damian Leone, manager of the L.A. bank's donations. "A lot of people are watching us because we set the trend."

One of the observers is Doug O'Brien, director of public policy and research at the Chicago-based umbrella group for U.S. food banks, America's Second Harvest.

"She really is an exceptional woman who has done unbelievable things," O'Brien says. "Hers are very big shoes to fill."

The search to replace her is nationwide. However, even the best-qualified candidate might lack her first and foremost strength: her love of her hometown.

"I'm a native Angelena," she says proudly. "I can remember when Los Angeles wasn't a third-world city, by which I mean I can remember when there wasn't this huge pool of abysmally poor people and a huge pool of incredibly rich people, with middle-class people just hanging on by their fingernails."

When Bloch was born in 1935, L.A. was booming and she was at the very intersection of Hollywood glamour and the real Wild West. Her father owned a chain of eight grocery stores, including the Hollywood Ranch Market.

She was 9 in 1944 when Billy Wilder shot a scene with Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck in "Double Indemnity" in one of her father's stores. At home in Montrose there was horseback riding. It was such a bucolic life, she used to joke, "I'm just a country girl from L.A."

But a tough rite of passage lay ahead for Los Angeles and the Angelena. A marriage at 20 quickly failed. A second marriage to a wealthy physician also failed. Except that the second time, Bloch was pushing 40 and had three children, ages 3, 6 and 9.

"My husband paid alimony and child support, but my standard of living became totally different," she recalls. "I knew people as a married woman who didn't even bother to speak to me when I wasn't a married woman anymore."

Her work experience amounted to little more than a stint as an account clerk at a cosmetic appliance firm called RelaxAcizor. So she signed up for a federally sponsored job-training program.

"You start where you have to start," she says. In her case, it was with an $8,900-a-year filing job in the city attorney's office.

By the late '70s, she had moved up to working as a liaison for a government agency combating red-lining in inner cities. "That's where I discovered what a ham I was," she says with a laugh, "and that I had a talent for putting together community activists and business executives."

After three years consulting charities, her mind was set. She was determined, she says, to work on social justice issues. And she wanted to be boss. At the food bank, then called Community Food Resources, the executive director title came with what she laughingly calls "the princely salary" of $28,000 a year.

Low pay did not translate into a light work load. "The private sector tends to look at a charity and think, 'Oh, you nice little people, God love you,' " Bloch says. "It's not like that. We don't stand around singing hymns. We have to be as bottom-line oriented as the private sector, and even more so, because we can't just walk over to the bank and say, 'Hey, I'm having a slow month.' "

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