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Increased demand strains Los Angeles County food pantries

September 2, 2010 |  5:29 pm

Thousands of people turn to the Lutheran Social Services Community Care Center in Van Nuys every year for help putting food on the table.

Last week, a sign went up on the door: “We’re sorry but we ran out of food.”

With demand for food assistance continuing to rise, officials at many Los Angeles County pantries say they have been forced to reduce what they provide or turn away people in need.

About 284,000 county residents received assistance from the 500 pantries supplied by the Los Angeles Regional Foodbank each month in April, May and June, according to figures released Thursday. That is nearly 21% more people than in the same period last year and 48% more than in 2008.

“We’re distributing more food to local pantries than ever before, yet it’s still not enough to keep pace with the growing need in the community,” Foodbank President Michael Flood said in a statement.

He attributed the growing demand in part to persistent unemployment, which has driven many professionals to seek help from pantries for the first time. Other food aid recipients say their work hours have been reduced.

Flood said the food bank has increased the volume of commodities it distributes by 62% in the last two years with the help of contributions from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, grocery stores and community food drives. An effort to acquire more fresh fruit and vegetables also contributed to the increase, he said during a news conference.

The food bank now distributes 1.1 million pounds of food a week through pantries and other charitable organizations, equivalent to about 800,000 meals. But Flood said he still hears from pantries that have had to reduce the size of their food packages or send people away empty-handed.

The St. Francis Center frequently runs out of fresh fruit and vegetables for the more than 200 downtown residents it serves each week, many of them families in low-income housing and elderly people.

“They just take a few cans or the one vegetable that we have,” said program assistant Maribel Ramos. “Yet they still come, which means they really do need it.”

The Van Nuys Lutheran center did not want to cut back what it offers, so when it ran out of food one morning last week, it closed until more supplies were delivered the next afternoon, said Director Jan Maseda.

She said the number of people served by the center increased from about 16,750 in 2008 to more than 32,000 in 2009. This year, the trend continues.

“We haven’t even hit our heaviest months, and we have already surpassed 32,000,” Maseda said.

Flood said many pantries appear to be reaching capacity after sharply increasing the number of food packages they distribute between 2008 and 2009.

Food availability is not the only constraint, he said. Some pantries are also reaching the limit of what they can do with their available space, volunteers and funding. He emphasized the need to sign up more Californians for federal food stamps, saying it would ease the pressure on pantries.

Although participation in the food stamp program has increased steadily in California since the recession began, the state has lagged behind most others. Fewer than half the eligible Californians received food stamps in 2007, the most recent year for which federal estimates are available.

The Los Angeles County Department of Public Social Services has stationed outreach workers at pantries and other community sites to help people apply for food stamps, said Jacob Aguilar, a department assistant director. He urged anyone in need of nutrition assistance to call (877) 597-4777 for information about food stamps and other programs.

-- Alexandra Zavis