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Demand at Los Angeles, Orange County food pantries continues to grow

Food pantries in Los Angeles and Orange counties struggle to keep up with rising demand even as the economy stabilizes.

July 08, 2011|By Alexandra Zavis, Los Angeles Times
  • Second Harvest Food Bank of Orange County is reaching nearly 250,000 people a month, a 70% increase.
Second Harvest Food Bank of Orange County is reaching nearly 250,000 people… (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles…)

The number of people seeking help from Los Angeles and Orange county food pantries continues to grow even as the economy begins to stabilize, according to figures released Thursday, and local charities are struggling to keep up with demand.

A record 330,000 residents are being served each month at the 600 pantries supplied by the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, a 73% increase from when the recession hit in 2008. Second Harvest Food Bank of Orange County, which supplies about 480 charitable groups, is reaching nearly 250,000 people a month, a 70% increase.

With the help of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and private contributions, both organizations have significantly increased the amount of free food they supply in the last three years.

The Los Angeles food bank is distributing about 1.25 million pounds of commodities a week, the equivalent of nearly 1 million meals. But food and financial contributions are leveling off, and some pantries have recently closed, said Michael Flood, the organization's president.

"Last week, we just about ran out of everything," said Noemi Sias, who runs a weekly food pantry at the Baldwin Park Bilingual Seventh-day Adventist Church that serves about 100 families a week. "The last families just got a few canned goods, a box of cereal and some chicken. But we always manage to give them something."

When the pantry opened Wednesday night, there were onions, carrots, broccoli, oranges, nectarines and cilantro on offer. Cathy Estala, 31, arrived more than an hour early to get a spot at the front of the line. A former receptionist, she has been out of work for three months.

"My husband is the only one working, and he doesn't have enough hours," she said.

Flood said many of the people turning up at pantries for the first time have been unemployed for a long time or can't get the hours they need to make ends meet.

Repeated cutbacks in government funding for programs that assist the needy are also contributing to the growth in demand while reducing the available resources to help those in need, he said.

The Los Angeles food bank is receiving about 800,000 pounds less food a month from the USDA's Emergency Food Assistance Program than it was at the beginning of the year. The organization also receives funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Emergency Food and Shelter Program, but allocations were delayed this year by protracted budget negotiations.

St. Peter Claver Center in Mid-City has been signing up new people every day for its food pantry, which feeds between 1,000 and 2,000 residents a month, said site manager Alcue Jones. Next week, the center operated by Catholic Charities of Los Angeles is closing its doors after more than 25 years.

Jones said the center lost its city contract two years ago and was told that there was no money to keep it open.

"This is a disaster," he said. "We are just scratching the needs of the community."

alexandra.zavis@latimes.com

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