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Feeding the needy in Los Angeles

A nonprofit provides food to more than 600 churches, shelters, senior centers, soup kitchens and others.

November 16, 2008|Mary MacVean | MacVean is a Times staff writer.

The president of the Foodbank of Southern California never wants to see his warehouse get too full.

"It's our job to get it in and out," John Knapp said one recent sunny morning as he stood outside the food bank, a former creamery in Long Beach. Cows once grazed in what is now the parking lot where trailer trucks arrive with donated food and pickups and vans take it away to feed hungry people.

On this day, Jack Jefferson of the Showers of Blessings Food Ministry in Long Beach and Rogers Todd of Progress Baptist Church in Compton were doing their part for Knapp, filling vehicles with bags of rice and cases of corn flakes, canned beans, vegetables and beef stew.

When Todd reached his church later that day, he predicted, 100 to 200 people would be waiting. "You know how it is when the economy is bad," he said.

The church gives food to anyone who shows up -- "even if Donald Trump comes up in a limo" -- and it goes fast, Todd said. But the church also tries to accommodate the proud or embarrassed people who arrive late so no one will see them, he said.

The Foodbank of Southern California, now in its 31st year, provides food to more than 600 churches, shelters, senior centers, soup kitchens and other organizations that feed the hungry, sending out an estimated 1.3 million meals each week. In the fiscal year that ended in June, the nonprofit organization distributed 37 million pounds of food, much of it in Compton, Long Beach and South Los Angeles.

The food bank is among several local charities that receive support from The Times annual Holiday Campaign.

Its 24,000-square-foot warehouse, just off the 710 Freeway in Long Beach, can hold 4.5 million pounds of groceries. "We try to get the food in and out in 24 to 48 hours," Knapp said.

Three or four 40-foot trailers arrive to unload each day. Along with the usual canned goods, rice and other nonperishables, the food bank gives away frozen meat and fish.

And Knapp has developed relationships with farmers, making the nonprofit the largest distributor of fresh produce of any food bank in the state, he said.

But the fresh fruit and vegetables, so important nutritionally, must also be used quickly.

For example, the food bank once received four truckloads of kiwis. Within 48 hours, through calls, e-mails and faxes, they were gone, Knapp said. The organization included recipes and information with the fruit to make sure people knew what to do with it.

"It was the most kiwis the inner city had ever seen," he said.

When the pantries call in to place an order, the food bank usually has a variety of items available.

One recent day, the warehouse had corn flakes, bottled water, pepperoni, Asian dumplings, rice and canned carrots, potatoes and black beans. A diet company had donated nutrition bars, and there were boxes of cold and flu medicines.

Desserts also are usually on offer, but Knapp said he turns down lots of candy and soda. "That's not what any child should be eating, especially a poor child," he said.

The food comes from wholesalers, manufacturers, distributors and farmers, along with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The food bank also relies on donations from foundations, including a $25,000 grant this year from the Los Angeles Times Family Fund, which runs the Holiday Campaign.

When there's not as much as the pantries want, Knapp said, he refers them to caterers, restaurants, markets and other businesses that might have food to donate.

Shortly before 11 a.m. one recent Wednesday at the Shower of Blessings giveaway, volunteers packed bags and lined them up on tables in a courtyard not far from the food bank. People waited patiently, some with strollers or walkers, lining up alongside a white gate and down a block of Atlantic Avenue.

One bag per family until the food ran out, the volunteers said. There were about 200 bags.

A volunteer, 76-year-old Hattie Adkins, talked as she packed bags. She said she never has gone hungry herself; her parents grew food, and during the Depression they fed people who happened along the highway near their home.

"I can't wait for Wednesdays to come to give my time here," she said. "It's not an easy thing for a child to go to bed hungry."

There is plenty of food in this country, more than enough to supply everyone, Knapp said. "It should be a birthright of every human being that they are entitled to food."

But many Americans are forced to choose among their families' needs for food, insurance, school uniforms and rent. Still, the food bank has its critics, Knapp said.

"They say we're just throwing food at people. Well, yes, we are," he said. "If you don't have food, you're not going to make it."




A chance to give

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