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At food bank, some givers are now receivers

The harsh economy brings newcomers to Manna in Thousand Oaks. Although donations usually keep up with demand, the shelves are sometimes empty and the holidays always mean the longest lines.

November 26, 2009|By Catherine Saillant
  • Manna food bank volunteer Ken Johnson helps Leticia Rodriguez with groceries. Her husband lost his job as a stockbroker in June and hasn't been able to find work.
Manna food bank volunteer Ken Johnson helps Leticia Rodriguez with groceries.… (Mel Melcon/Los Angeles…)

Two dozen people are lining up outside Manna food bank in Thousand Oaks on a recent Friday and it hasn't even opened yet.

Young, single mothers shush their toddlers. An elderly woman sits on a bench. There are a few men too, shifting on their feet. The holidays always bring an influx of people hoping to fill their table with turkey and everything that goes with it, food bank officials say.

But this year, they're being joined by a new population -- people who have never used social services before. The new faces show up at Manna's door every week, often telling stories of foreclosed homes, lost jobs or medical debt that have pushed them down the economic ladder, said Julia Pauloo, the food bank's office manager.

"It's the people who used to donate," Pauloo said as she greeted new arrivals and answered a constantly ringing telephone at Manna's small office in Thousand Oaks.

"We keep hearing that the economy is improving. But at the ground level we're not seeing it," she said. "We are still seeing people in terrible shape."

Widespread unemployment is bringing hard times to households that have weathered previous economic ups and downs with little effect, said Mark Schniepp, director of the California Economic Forecast. Ventura County's unemployment rate of 11.1% is a 27-year-high, mirroring the misery throughout Southern California.

Unemployment rose in most regions in October, according to the California Employment Development Department, climbing to 12.8% in Los Angeles County, 9.6% in Orange County and 14.6% in the Inland Empire. Statewide, 2,251,400 people were out of work.

Such huge numbers create a fallout that touches families across economic borders, and wealthy cities such as Thousand Oaks are not immune. Pauloo has seen the effect with every new face that comes through the door of the small pantry. Penny Stillings, 50, joined the line at Manna for her first time on a recent day.

Last year, she lost her medical billing job after 17 years. Now she's living with her adult daughter, a day-care teacher, as she searches for work.

"I've known about this place for a long time but I didn't think I'd ever have to come here," she said, loading five bags of groceries into a blue Volvo sedan. "You have to do what you have to do."

Raul Rodriguez, 49, and his wife, Leticia, 44, were also first-timers. Rodriguez, a stockbroker, lost his job at a Westlake firm in June. The family of four has been living on his unemployment and Leticia's earnings as a part-time deli clerk since then, he said.

Rodriguez said he's never been unemployed before and was known at the office for never being late for work. Now, they are hoping that a cart full of food from Manna will help them stretch their dollars.

"You get used to having so much," Rodriguez said. "When you lose 60% of your salary, it's like 'How do we make this work?' "

Manna has operated in the Conejo Valley for 38 years. It's run out of small house that is a few blocks from Thousand Oak's swankiest malls and luxury auto outlets. Pauloo estimates that the number of families it is serving each month has doubled compared to the same time last year.

Donated bread, chicken, ground beef, fresh produce, canned food and dairy products come from community food drives, local grocery stores and individuals. The supply usually keeps up with demand, but in recent months Manna has been caught with empty shelves some weekends, Pauloo said.

The holiday period brings the longest lines, she said. "We have 500 people signed up for Thanksgiving dinners," she said. "I have no idea where we're going to get all those turkeys."

Veronica, one of Manna's new recipients, said she used to have "the good life."

The former stay-at-home mom and her husband owned a home in Agoura Hills. Her husband had a telecommunications job that paid six figures and she spent her days shuttling her two children to school activities, Veronica said.

Then, a year ago, her husband suffered a major illness and had to quit, said Veronica, who didn't want to give her full name because her older daughter's friends don't know how bad things have gotten for the family.

After his health stabilized, he was unable to find another job and their house went into foreclosure. Veronica got an accounting job to make ends meet.

She dropped by Manna on her lunch hour to pick up five bags of groceries. As she waited, she recounted how in past years she helped her son's Boy Scout troop organize a food drive for Manna.

"We used to give but now we receive," she said. "I don't have a lot of choices. The wallet is really slim right now and the next paycheck doesn't come until Friday."

Bruce Caplan, 56, said his family has been in Thousand Oaks since the 1960s. He graduated from Thousand Oaks High School and has worked most of his life in agricultural pest control.

Caplan said a car wreck four years ago threw his life off track and he lost a home he owned. He's been unemployed for months, he said.

"I've got it bad but I look at others who have it a lot worse," said Caplan, as he loaded groceries into an SUV. "A lot of people are one paycheck away from being in this same position."

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