LOS ANGELES – Ofelia Jimenez doesn’t think his family needs to depend on the kitchen for food – not anymore.
But after her son’s work hours at McDonald’s were interrupted by a coronavirus pandemic, her husband’s monthly pension of $ 1,500 was not enough to keep everyone fed.
The family has been coming for years to St. Margaret, a Catholic charity near the intersection of the San Diego and Century highways, to get help with food. After Jimenez and her husband paid off their home in Inglewood, she thought she didn’t need to go back.
But this spring, the family again struggled to pay paper money, insurance and electricity bills and to buy food.
“I’m very worried,” said Jimenez, 60. “Without this help, I don’t know where we will be.”
In County L.A., a number of family records have been flocking to the food pantry since mid-March, because more than half of the region’s population lost their jobs. This is a challenge faced by many food banks with extraordinary agility, because their needs have multiplied, in some cases tripled, and stable food supplies are increasingly difficult to maintain. Some pantries have struggled with a reduced number of volunteers; others have launched a donation campaign to buy the food they received for free.
This is a crisis that grows more horrifying week by week and disproportionately affects the most vulnerable communities. Before the pandemic began, it was estimated that 1.5 million people were in LA. The county is considered potentially eligible for government food aid, according to the latest figures available from CalFresh, the country’s nutrition assistance program.
In April, CalFresh applications skyrocketed from an average of 40,000 to nearly 120,000 per month.
“We have never seen this increase in a long time,” said Department Director Antonia Jimenez. “People lost their jobs, but they still had to put food on their table.”
Across the country, media images have shown families waiting for miles to fetch food in drive-through kitchens. One of the biggest food aid events took place on April 10 at The Forum in Inglewood, an area of layoffs. Food bank officials expect around 5,000 people; more than 7,500 appeared.
“That day, it must have sunk how difficult the current situation hit so many families, how quickly fate has changed for some people who were fine a few months ago,” said Michael Flood, Chief Executive Officer of the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank.
The food bank oversees more than 600 food agencies throughout Los Angeles County. Since the pandemic stopped the area in mid-March, the need for food in the entire region has increased by 80%, Flood said. The food pantry in partnership with the bank switched from serving 300,000 people to 500,000. That’s almost double the amount seen by food banks after the economic collapse of the Great Recession in 2008.
Within a few weeks, the extensive food pantry chain used to fit large lunch boxes for families had to reduce smaller portions, “food utensils” with fewer variations.
Food donations have increased by 32% since the lockdown began but that is hardly enough to help the Regional Food Bank meet demand. At the distribution center, Flood said, the five-week food supply they started in mid-March had been reduced to a two-week supply.
In recent weeks, the agency has had to compete in the market, paying for food for trucks. This is an unusual step that Flood hopes will become more common as demand grows and food supply chains grapple with disruptions.
“This is not something that will go away this summer,” said Flood. “We will need help, to continue to request funding.”
Salvation Army officials also rushed to find food and collect money to pay for it. The agency runs about 30 food pantries in L.A. County Since demand skyrocketed, the organization has spent around $ 1 million to buy food to distribute in Southern California, mostly in Los Angeles.
“Whatever we get one day will come out,” said John Chamness, division commander for Southern California’s Southern Salvation Army branch. “Every organization that will survive this pandemic must turn around and find news ways to serve people.”
Their food bank has rushed for donations on social media, via direct mail, on Giving Tuesday and, for the first time, through virtual fundraising featuring videos from local personalities such as TV weather people and radio disc jockeys.
During its 150 years of existence, the Salvation Army has provided assistance during tornadoes, fires, earthquakes. But this health crisis, said Chamness, is like no other.
“Usually our people intervene to give each other a break, but this time we are all together,” he said. “There are no sticks and despite the uncertainty when this will all end up using it to all of us, we must find the energy to keep going.”
Despite the soaring demand, officials at the food bank are closely following news about the potential shortage of certain products, especially meat after the closure of many meat processing plants.
Nick Vyas, Executive Director of the Founding Center for Global Supply Chain Management at the University of Southern California, has been tracking supply problems since the pandemic first erupted in China.
Coronavirus, he said, has created a perfect storm for potential food disturbances, similar to what health workers experience with lack of personal protective equipment.
The combination of food hoarding, factory stoppages, supply chain disruptions and record-breaking unemployment has placed food surpluses that are highly relied upon by many food banks.
“We cannot have this disruption in food supply while people take shelter on the spot,” he said. “It creates chaos in society.”
Another problem is that farmers face drop-offs in demand and distribution issues that make it logistically difficult or unprofitable to bring their goods to market.
Vyas said he spoke with farmers recently who had to put their pigs to sleep and dump large amounts of milk because they had no way to process their products.
“There are too many rules and obligations for them,” he said. Vyas said he would work with a task force from other supply chain experts, industry leaders and government liaisoners in the coming weeks to tackle this problem.
In food pantry throughout L.A., officials know that there will be a time before they see a little relief. However, many agencies have begun to see a number of volunteers return under strict social distance guidelines.
In El Monte, where the average household income is $ 39,000 per year, our Savior Center can open a second food kitchen for the community. Their client base has tripled to more than 2,000 people since the pandemic began.
“We have extraordinary outreach from volunteers, many of whom have been greatly affected by the crisis, but they have come to help and stay connected,” Executive Director Jane Fall said.
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In Lancaster, Stacey Cantwell and her team switched from feeding 2,000 children at the Antelope Valley Boys and Girls Club to feeding the whole family at the nearest schools. So far, the executive director said, his organization had helped distribute 4,000 meals to feed parents and children over the weekend, days not covered by school meals.
In Lennox, in St. Margaret’s Center, an organization that provides everything from diapers to help with electricity bills, families line up in cars to wait for food every Wednesday.
About 40% of those who come are new clients and most of them are Latinos, many of whom don’t have a safety net, said director Mary Agnes Erlandson. Some are undocumented or married to someone who has no status so they are not eligible for stimulus assistance. Others cannot apply for unemployment or their checks haven’t arrived.
Erlandson was worried that even when the checks began to arrive, the money would be used to pay rent that was past time. Some families spend up to 90% of their income in shelters.
But while the virus continues to rage and financial challenges multiply, centers like St. Margaret will continue to be a source of life for families like Ofelia Jimenez.
“We live everyday in this house,” Jimenez said. “That’s all we ever know. Every bit of help we get, we thank you.”
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