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Hungry people will be thankful you gave

This is a great time of year to think about giving as well as consuming. You can make a difference by donating food, cash or your time to food banks.

November 25, 2011|David Lazarus
  • A record 330,000 people are being served each month at the 600 pantries supplied by the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, up 73% from the start of the recession in 2008. Above, volunteers serve meals at the Los Angeles Mission.
A record 330,000 people are being served each month at the 600 pantries supplied… (Arkasha Stevenson, Los…)

As you survey the remains of your Thanksgiving meal, you might want to give a thought to those who are having trouble putting food on the table because of the lousy economy and high unemployment rate.

You can make a difference. From food drives to volunteering to help at a food pantry, this is a great time of year to think about giving along with all the seasonal consuming.

"Donating a bag of food can go a long way toward helping families who are living paycheck to paycheck," said Michael Flood, president of the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, which distributes more than 1 million pounds of commodities each week, the equivalent of about 770,000 meals.

"Even a small donation can help," he said. "We can turn $1 into four meals."

The need is enormous. A record 330,000 residents are being served each month at the 600 pantries supplied by the L.A. food bank, up 73% from the start of the recession in 2008.

Second Harvest Food Bank of Orange County, which supplies about 480 charitable groups, is now reaching nearly 250,000 people a month, a 70% increase.

"Food is one of the basic necessities," said Joe Schoeningh, director of Second Harvest Food Bank. "With so many people unemployed and underemployed, more people are relying on organizations like ours."

There are food pantries throughout the region that would be grateful for a spare bag of groceries, or even just a little of your time. You can find a pantry near you by visiting the website of the L.A. Regional Food Bank.

If you prefer donating cash, that's just as good — and often better. Food banks say they can manage supplies more efficiently when they're doing the buying.

Along these lines, Ralphs supermarkets are collecting donations of $1, $3 or $5 from shoppers to be donated to local food banks.

But many people would rather make a contribution of food. Vons and Pavilions stores are selling $10 sacks of "most needed" groceries that it will contribute on your behalf to local food banks.

Or you can drop off goodies at various food drives throughout Southern California. For example, Community Bank branches are accepting food donations through the end of the year, and Floyd's Barbershop outlets are accepting contributions through Dec. 19.

Another thing to keep in mind, especially with so many businesses holding holiday parties, is that leftover prepared meals can be donated to charity. California caterers, hotels and restaurants throw out roughly 1.5 million tons of perfectly good food every year, according to the state Integrated Waste Management Board.

The federal Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, passed in 1996, shields individuals and organizations from civil and criminal liability when food is donated to a nonprofit group, so fears of being sued over unintentionally tainted food are unfounded.

The only trick is logistics. Many nonprofit organizations, such as the L.A. Mission, can arrange for leftovers to be picked up after an event. Just call the group in advance and work out the timing.

The need for food donations is greater than ever this year because the U.S. Department of Agriculture has cut back on its giving. To help stabilize commodity prices, federal officials frequently buy portions of farmers' output and donate it to charity.

But with commodity prices rising, food banks have seen a decline in contributions from Uncle Sam. That means there's even more need for the rest of us to step up.

"The food is there," Schoeningh said. "The only question is whether we can get it to the people who need it."

You'll find your holidays to be a little happier — and your karma much improved — if you lend a helping hand.

No free checking

Speaking of karma, add Union Bank to the growing list of financial institutions that are doing away with free checking.

Bob Kelly, 70, of Hemet learned the other day that his checking account, which had been free for the 10 years he's been with the bank, will soon be hit with a monthly "service charge." He was among about 500,000 Union Bank customers to receive the news.

Beginning Jan. 1, Union Bank's formerly free checking accounts will charge customers $8 a month to see their statements online and $10 monthly for paper statements.

The service charge will be waived if customers maintain an average monthly checking account balance of at least $1,500 or a $5,000 average balance for combined accounts, or if they receive at least one direct deposit of $100.

In Kelly's case, the fees are even higher because he also has to pay $2 a month to receive his canceled checks and $4 to link his account to Quicken bookkeeping software.

"The banks are just greedy," he told me. "They just want more money."

Tim Wennes, Union Bank's vice chairman of retail banking, said the new service charges are a response to "the widespread changes in rules and regulations," such as new limits on how much banks can charge to process debit-card transactions.

"We've tried to approach this in a responsible and thoughtful way," he said.

Well, here's something else for Union Bank to think about: Kelly has closed his checking account and taken his business elsewhere.

David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5. Send your tips or feedback to

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