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Growing multitudes need a helping hand

Demand has never been higher at Loaves & Fishes, a Van Nuys food bank that helps about 3,000 families a year.

November 25, 2009|Steve Lopez
  • Barbara Ausburn of Loaves & Fishes food and clothing pantry in Van Nuys relies on a network of volunteers to assist those in need. An $8,000 federal stimulus check helped put food on the shelves this year.
Barbara Ausburn of Loaves & Fishes food and clothing pantry in Van Nuys… (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles…)

When the doors open at Loaves & Fishes in Van Nuys these days, director Barbara Ausburn sees a big change in the kind of people asking for help.

A college student living in a car. An unemployed grip from the movie industry. Families tumbling out of the ranks of the middle class.

It was no different last Friday, when at times the lobby was jammed with so many people asking for help that there was barely room to move.

"Look at this," said Ausburn as she rushed to the registration counter to help out with the rush.

It could get depressing to see such need every day, but Ausburn says she always gets a lift from the vast network of volunteers.

In her office, she showed me the invitations that hang on the wall. They're from Harvard Westlake School students who over the years have asked Ausburn to come to their high school graduation because their volunteer work at Loaves & Fishes had made such an impression on them.

"They go off to college and then come back in here on holidays when they're home from school, asking if we need any help," said Ausburn, who has run the food and clothing pantry for 21 years.

Without pay.

Then there are the crates of French lotions and soaps from the Four Seasons Hotel in Westlake Village, where Ausburn's sister works. When a hotel guest checks out, the unused portions of shampoo and body gel containers would ordinarily get discarded. But Ausburn's sister gets the hotel to donate them to the huddled masses at Loaves & Fishes, many of them homeless, who end up with four-star toiletries.

On Friday, a car pulled up with bags of groceries collected by students at St. Genevieve High School as part of their community service requirement.

"It's not just the word," said teacher Bernard Torres. "It's the actions."

Elia Grajeda, who helps organize the clothing racks, told me she lives with nine family members who have two jobs between them. They take advantage of the offerings here, so for the last four years she has tried to pay back by volunteering three days a week.

The pantry, located in an industrial neighborhood just west of Van Nuys Boulevard, helps about 3,000 families a year, and Ausburn said demand has never been higher. Catholic Charities almost closed the place a couple of years ago in a cost-cutting move, Ausburn said, but Loaves & Fishes supporters campaigned against it.

An $8,000 check from the White House stimulus plan helped put canned fruits and vegetables on the shelves this year, Ausburn said. And each year, she organizes a golf tournament fundraiser at the Woodland Hills Country Club. Her buddies there also donate golf shoes, with the spikes removed, to Loaves & Fishes, which would explain why lots of San Fernando Valley residents are wearing two-tone oxfords.

Ausburn said the bulk of her clients are working but make $1,000 or less a month. They live in cramped quarters with multiple families and a great deal of uncertainty about raising next month's rent. The first-timers can be a bit shy, she said, and they're not all eager to tell their stories.

"Let's face it. They're asking for a handout, and that's not easy to do," said Ausburn, whose late husband, a Carnation executive, left her with enough of a financial cushion that she can devote herself to service.

Out front of Loaves & Fishes last week, Joe Zamudo had the look of a man who isn't used to visiting food pantries.

"It's my first time," he conceded, telling me he's a cabinetmaker and he just lost a job that paid him $25 an hour. He worked steadily for years, but now he scrambles to get two or three jobs a week at closer to $18 an hour.

His wife was inside, he said, getting some groceries and clothes. It was nice to know this help was available, but he was hoping not to have to return.

A woman named Laura told me that her abusive husband was in jail, and a year ago, she lost a job she had held for 15 years doing publicity in the entertainment industry.

"I had benefits, a 401(k), good pay."

But she lost that job last Thanksgiving and hasn't found anything despite applying all over the place.

"I kind of took work for granted," she said. "But 15 years of seniority doesn't mean anything today."

"You'll find something eventually," piped in Ralph Boyle, who sat on a planter eating beef stew from a tin can. "I worked for a company that made rockets for NASA, but I lost my job in 1996. I've got a B.A. in computers and can't find anything, but I'm sure you'll make it."

Boyle said he lives outside a Papa John's pizza place and has permission from the landlord to stay there as long as he doesn't leave a mess. I asked him how he liked the beef stew.

"It's not bad," he said. "It's better than not eating."

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