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Al Martinez

The Unexpected Faces of Hunger

November 22, 2001|Al Martinez | E-mail: al.martinez@latimes.com

Just outside the store, near the main entrance, there are bins stacked with gleaming rows of oranges, green apples, persimmons, pears, mangoes and papayas.

Inside, the store opens to a panorama of abundance, fruits and vegetables of every description laid out like an artist's dream in alluring patterns and colors.

Past them are counters of meat and fish and poultry, then aisle after aisle stacked high on either side with ... well ... everything.

All of it constitutes the face of opulence, full and rich and satisfying.

The store is the Whole Foods Market in Woodland Hills, but it could have been Gelson's or Ralphs or Vons.

The point of my being there on this day was to realize and understand abundance. Not just to pass it by, but to absorb it, to assess it, to know how much we have in this country, to stand in this place of plenty

This is the time of year when, in different ways, we celebrate excess, and food is the center of the jubilation. The fat get fatter and, in ways we can hardly understand, the hungry get hungrier.

Earlier, I had visited the Los Angeles Regional Foodbank, a 100,000-square-foot warehouse sprawled over a side street in an industrial section of East L.A. I had been drawn to it by a report that 1.4 million people in this county are "food insecure." An additional 584,000 "experience hunger."

These are sanitized descriptions of a need so deep and profound that only one who has been hungry can understand exactly what they mean. I was one of them once, and the humiliation of hunger is a memory that never fades.

At the food bank, I talked to Michael Flood, its executive director, one of many trying to serve the needs of the dispossessed.

He walked me through the warehouse, past stacks of boxes and cans and bags of donated food destined for a thousand charity organizations that deal with hunger. Many benefit from The Times' Holiday Campaign, which hopes to raise $500,000 in contributions to assist food pantries and others. The amount will be matched 50 cents on the dollar by the McCormick Tribune Foundation.

Flood wanted me to know that hunger wasn't just a problem for the homeless, but reaches into neighborhoods and communities where one wouldn't suspect it existed.

"Hunger is families with kids," Flood was saying amid the roar of trucks backing up to load. "Hunger is seniors. Hunger is the family next door. It could be anyone. Hunger doesn't discriminate."

There are 2 million pounds of food in the warehouse at any given time. Thirty-eight million pounds will be distributed this year.

"It isn't enough," Flood said. He's a dark-haired man of 39 who decided in college that serving the needs of the people would be his life's work. He has headed L.A.'s food bank, the second largest in the nation, for a year and a half.

"We've got to triple or quadruple our output, but to do so we have to obtain more food and more funding. The need is outstripping the supply." He paused, thinking. "But you've go to be positive. There is a cure for hunger. We'll work at it this year, and next year we'll do more. What we're trying to do is win the day."

The face of hunger is gaunt and troubled.

Years ago, I came across a man going through food in a garbage can at the rear of a supermarket. He was carefully inspecting what he came across and placing what was edible in a paper bag.

He didn't hear me approach, and I stood there for a few moments, watching. When at last he detected my presence, he looked up quickly. Our gazes met and held for a fraction of a second that burned itself into my memory.

His expression reflected many emotions. There was humiliation, guilt, anger and desperation. There was a sadness so deep it was almost palpable. We didn't say anything. After a few moments, I walked away. But I'll never forget the man's face. It was to me then, and always will be, the face of hunger.

I can relate to that grim quest for food. It's an uneasy shadow from my childhood that helped shape the habits of the person I am today. Hunger haunted our house with terrible intensity and darkened the lives of just about everyone I knew.

The time was the Depression, when the need to survive made scavengers of us all. I, too, searched for salvageable food in garbage cans behind markets. I stole food from stores and ate it crouched in the bushes of a vacant lot not far away. Even raw potatoes are a feast when the stomach growls. Meat was a luxury.

Today when I shop, I fill my cart with enough food to feed a family of 15. Unconsciously, I continue to live with the fear that there won't be enough, that I'll be reduced once more to the indignity of stealing to eat or eating what others have rejected.

Hunger is more than a physical pain. It creates empty places in the soul that are impossible to fill. I live today with needs I don't understand and with a craving that abundance can't satisfy.

That's why I stopped by Whole Foods Market after visiting the food bank. .It's why I write this column today, Thanksgiving Day, to remind myself at this time of abundance, how many there are who have nothing. And to come to grips with a face of hunger that is simultaneously the man at the garbage can, and me.

THE TIMES HOLIDAY CAMPAIGN

Tax deductible donations: Donations (checks or money orders) should be sent to L.A. Times Holiday Campaign, File No. 56491, Los Angeles, CA 90074-6491. Please do not send cash. Credit card donations can be made at http://www.latimes.com/holidaycampaign. Donations of $25 or more will be acknowledged in the Los Angeles Times unless a donor requests otherwise. For more information about the Holiday Campaign, call (800) 528-4637 (LA TIMES), Ext. 75480.

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