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Day In, Day Out, They Deliver on a Day-Old Promise

June 03, 2002|MICHAEL KRIKORIAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Having grown up on the rough streets of the Brownsville section of Brooklyn during the Great Depression, Herman Berman knows what it's like to be hungry.

It is that familiarity with hunger that drives him now.

Almost every morning around 7, Berman, the commander of the volunteer Bagel Brigade, organizes his troops in the parking lot of a Costco on Sepulveda Boulevard in Van Nuys.

The volunteers, as many as 120 of them, fan out to the poorest parts of the San Fernando Valley armed with day-old bagels, bread and pastries provided free by boutique bakeries and supermarkets.

Berman said the need is so great that he is desperate to find more volunteers.

In April alone, the Bagel Brigade distributed 84,603 loaves of bread and 54,745 bagels, he said.

Berman said the effort, which does not involve any exchange of money, began in 1995 when he went to a Valley supermarket to ask the management if he could put a sign on a basket urging people to leave a can of food for the poor.

One morning soon after, wearing a badge that read "I'm a volunteer for food for the needy," Berman went to buy a bagel at Manhattan Bagels on Van Nuys Boulevard.

A young clerk, Kimberly Martin, suggested Berman take their day-old bagels.

"I thought that was a great idea," the retired jeweler recalled. "We can take these to schools and senior citizen centers and other places that need help. Then I thought, 'If we can collect bagels, why not bread?'"

Soon, Berman was at it full time, and the Bagel Brigade was born.

"The Bagel Brigade has been a blessing to our community," said Maritza de Artan, director of Casa Esperanza, a nonprofit that serves the poor residents of the Blythe Street neighborhood in Panorama City.

And, De Artan said, the food giveaway has given the residents of Blythe Street the opportunity to sample baked goods they might never buy otherwise.

When Casa Esperanza gets a Bagel Brigade delivery, a sign goes up outside that reads simply: "Mucho Pan"--lots of bread.

"The kids come in asking for a 'long bread,'" said De Artan, using the youngsters' term for a baguette. "And they take the bagels, split and toast them and make them Mexican. They put beans on the bagels. For the kids, it's a treat."

Berman, like many volunteers, is a member of the Encino chapter of the B'nai B'rith, a Jewish social service organization.

He said he started the Bagel Brigade primarily for children.

"I believe a child who goes to bed hungry grows up to be a problem to themselves and the community," Berman said.

With that in mind he gets volunteers to go to the various stores--Ralphs, Vons, Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, and smaller bakeries--to pick up the day-old baked goods.

The food is taken to the Costco lot, where it is sorted for delivery to Valley schools, senior citizen homes and community service organizations.

One of the many suppliers of goods is Brooklyn Bagel Bakery near Echo Park.

"After hearing about the good work they do, we were more than willing to participate," owner Richard Friedman said.

Every Wednesday, Carl Koski, 40, makes a delivery to Sun Valley Middle School, where the food is distributed to low-income residents.

"The families are so happy to take that bread. It's really a nice feeling."

Although he lives in a comfortable, three-bedroom home, Berman vividly remembers the poverty of his youth.

"We were in the midst of poverty in Brownsville, but I never saw the vast poverty I see here in such high numbers," he said. "It just hurts me to see a hungry person."

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