Last April, SOVA Community Food & Resource Program, which operates three food pantries and resource centers in Los Angeles, ran out of powdered milk, so the directors decided to solicit directly from their support network. They sent out a memo to local synagogues and schools asking for powdered milk donations.
One parent forwarded the notice to a reporter at the Los Angeles Daily News, which published a story last week about a shortage at food pantries affecting agencies across the country, including SOVA. At a time of economic uncertainty nationally, these agencies are facing shortages of many essential items, including powdered milk, peanut butter and other proteins and healthy essential staples for families in need.
The article turned out to be the first notice John Fishel, president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles had of the crisis, he said. The Federation provides funding to Jewish Family Service (JFS), the agency that runs SOVA. Fishel said he immediately called SOVA to find out about the shortage.
"Once I saw the problem existed, it was very clear that we had to respond expeditiously as a Federation," he said.
Last Thursday, he announced that The Federation would give $50,000 in emergency funds to the agency. JFS is asking for an increase in next year's budget; the details are to be determined.
"I'm glad our community is generous enough to raise the funds to address a situation as critical as this one," he said. "Obviously, poor people have to have something to eat."
"It couldn't have come at a better time," said Leslie Friedman, director of SOVA, of the emergency grant.
In 2007, the Federation gave $250,000 to JFS for SOVA. In November 2007, the pantries fed 5,249 people, of which 853 were first-time visitors. (In November 2006 they served 5,086 people, 721 of them first-timers.)
Friedman attributes the current shortage to two factors: "The need for food assistance has skyrocketed, and the availability of food from our generally reliable sources has diminished," she said. According to Friedman, government cuts to the farm bill means farmers have less of a surplus to donate to hunger relief agencies, such as SOVA.
But the causes of the food and funding shortage go deeper, said Paul Castro, executive director of JFS, which inherited the SOVA program in 2002 from the flailing Jewish Community Centers.
"If your perspective is that government needs to be smaller, then it's up to the private sector to pick up the slack -- and they don't have the ability to do it," he said.
In recent years, cuts in government funding of social services affect the poor in all areas, especially when it comes to food.
"It's larger than SOVA, JFS and the government can do," Castro said, adding that more than 100,000 people in Los Angeles are in need of help to obtain food every year.
"The whole issue of hunger is a growing problem," he said, noting that it's not just an issue of funding, but a growing demand due to economic conditions. "It's hard to estimate what the demand will be -- it's a trickle-down approach," he said. The high cost of living -- rent, gas, food -- all affect the hunger crisis. For example, the current subprime mortgage-lending crisis may affect the number of needy people.
"People who come to our pantries are not homeless, they're working poor. They just don't have money at the end of the week to put it all together," he said. "A person might ask, 'Do I pay my mortgage, keep my car or buy food?' and then end up coming to a food bank."
Others have also seen shortages: Valley Interfaith Council (VIC), which includes seven churches and two synagogues (Temple Beth Hillel and Temple Adat Ari El), has had more people coming to their doors for a weekly bag of groceries.
"In the last two years, the homeless and the senior population have been increasing," said Jerry Rabinowitz, a VIC board member who volunteers at the pantry on Fridays. There has also been an increase in the number of children. The group used to get three or four kids a month, but now about 45 to 50 often come with their families and parents.
VIC serves some 4,000 people a month, but despite the increase in demand they do not run out of funds. That's because they do not have a payroll.
"We do not pay rent," Rabinowitz explained.
Their network operates on a budget of $65,000 to $70,000 a year -- 100 percent from donations -- with 160 volunteers from synagogues and churches who buy the food, pack it, bring it to the First Christian Church and distribute it to the needy.
SOVA, which celebrates its 25th anniversary in 2008, operates on a $1.5 million budget, with a staff of nine full-time and seven part-time workers and hundreds of volunteers. In addition to a bag of groceries, they also provide legal counseling from Bet Tzedek, vocational counseling from Jewish Vocational Service, food stamp enrollment and nutritional counseling.
Targeted food drives -- like the one for powdered milk in April -- are helpful.
"The idea of handing over a can of food makes it very real -- it's food coming from them to another individual," Friedman said. "It creates a very deep feeling of caring and sharing and helping another person," she said.
But funding can be even more helpful, as it allows SOVA to buy essential products in bulk.
Which is why SOVA recently hired a part-time director of development, Jane Zuckerman, formerly executive director of Temple Israel of Hollywood.
"We need to help the community understand that SOVA is more than a place to give canned food, but [also needs] funds to buy the products that don't come through food collections," Friedman said.
With the holidays and winter season approaching, many people are attuned to the issue of hunger and the needy. Both SOVA and VIC have room for volunteers, either on a one-time or long-term basis.
"The need exists every month of the year," Friedman added.
For information and to contribute, go to:
SOVA Administrative Office
16439 Vanowen Street
Van Nuys , CA 91406
Phone: (818) 988-7682
Fax: (818) 988-7683
Valley Interfaith Council (VIC)
10824 Topanga Canyon Blvd. '7
Chatsworth, CA 91311
FAX: (818) 718- 0734 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org