This year, for the first time in SOVA's 22-year history, food pantry volunteers won't have to store and unpack thousands of grocery bags filled with High Holiday Food Drive donations in multiple cramped locations or larger rented spaces that are costly and inconvenient. Instead, SOVA volunteers will work at the new Daniel Lembark Distribution Center in Van Nuys, a cheerful 5,000-square-foot-plus warehouse with ample room for sorting and shelving the expected record-breaking 100,000 pounds of donated food and toiletry items.
The official dedication and community open house is Sunday, Oct. 9, though the center's been up and running since Aug. 1. It's named after Daniel Lembark, a passionate community advocate who understood the crucial need for a central warehouse to efficiently serve all three SOVA (Hebrew for "eat and be satisfied") locations, one in the San Fernando Valley and two in Los Angeles.
Lembark was the first chairman of the JFS/SOVA Advisory Committee, formed in January 2002 when SOVA came under the auspices of Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles. Even when diagnosed with cancer, Lembark continued to work toward the goal of a needed warehouse, forming the Daniel Lembark/SOVA Facilities Fund and even helping to draw up plans for the building. Shortly before his death on Feb. 3, 2003, Lembark instructed his wife, Connie: "You will raise the money for this building."
The Daniel Lembark Distribution Center is part of a 10,000-square-foot building at 16439 Vanowen St., which also serves as the new location of SOVA's Valley food pantry and administrative offices. The center was refurbished and equipped partially by $175,000 raised though Facilities Fund donations and the sale of artworks donated by established artists. That effort, called SOVArt, was the brainchild of Connie Lembark, a retired art consultant.
The entire facility -- from the calming and uplifting color scheme to the semiprivate meeting areas, from the client sitting area and bathroom to the corner stacked with new and gently used books for children to read and take home -- is designed to provide clients with comfort and dignity.
"We give people as much control as possible," said Leslie Friedman, who has worked for Jewish Family Service since 1986, serving as director of SOVA since January 2002. SOVA also gives clients help beyond food, which is reflected in the name change from SOVA Food Pantry Program to SOVA Community Food and Resource Program.
SOVA's clients include the elderly, low-wage earners, the recently or long-time unemployed, and those suffering from serious illness or coping with physical or mental disabilities. SOVA provides them and their family members with a monthly allotment of healthy foods -- including fruits, vegetables and high protein items -- that last about four days, with more available for those who are homeless or in crisis.
SOVA provides kosher foods as well as baby foods and diapers and personal hygiene products. The agency recently started stocking special foods and liquid supplements for those living with HIV/AIDS, diabetes, high blood pressure or other medical conditions.
The warehouse shelves are stocked with foods from the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank and Westside Food Bank. These sources provide free surplus commodities and lower-than-warehouse-priced case goods. SOVA also benefits from four community food drives -- during the High Holidays, Thanksgiving, Passover and June -- that are supported by more than 60 affiliated congregations and schools. Individuals, vendors and grocery stores also regularly donate foods and ancillary items.
Both new and returning clients meet with intake volunteers on every visit, completing or updating information forms and filling out personal grocery orders with needed and requested items, as all bags are individually packed.
Additionally, clients can meet with SOVA information specialist Eilat Gutman, who has set up resource centers at all three locations to help them find various low- or no-cost community services. In a private room, with a computer and telephone for client use, Gutman or one of her volunteers refers people to places that can help with housing, transportation, medical and dental treatment, legal issues and other needs. This assistance includes providing vouchers to the National Council of Jewish Women thrift shop to obtain clothes for interviews or school.
Also, on certain days, clients can meet with a representative from the Department of Public Social Services to determine food stamp eligibility or a counselor from Jewish Vocational Service regarding employment.
"We empower people to take steps to better their situation," Gutman said. "A lot of them are really just surviving."
SOVA opened its first pantry in July 1983 when members of the Jewish community discovered that seniors in the Santa Monica/Venice area, because of a recession and cuts in public welfare programs, were going hungry, having to choose between health care and food.
Since then, Los Angeles has become the hunger capital of the United States, with one out of every 14 hungry Americans living here, according to a Los Angeles Department of Health Services 2001 report. That amounts to more than 775,000 low-income adults living in Los Angeles County hungry or at risk of going hungry, according to a study released by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research in June 2004. And employment is no guard against hunger, with almost 30 percent of employed low-income adults classified as food insecure.
The SOVA Pantries and Resource Centers are open four days a week, including Sunday mornings. In addition to the 10 full- and part-time staff members, more than 120 core volunteers, some in their upper 80s, work at least one day a week.
"These are nice people to work with," said Jerry Cohen, 73, a twice-weekly Valley volunteer for 10 years. "It's a mitzvah."
Additionally, hundreds of other volunteers from schools and organizations pitch in.
SOVA is funded by The Jewish Federation, the Harold Edelstein Foundation, government grants and other foundation, corporate and private donors. In addition, the organization offers tribute cards and now sponsors Baskets of Hope, custom-decorated baskets of canned and packaged foods that can be rented for centerpieces for b'nai mitzvah or other events. And Connie Lembark continues to raise funds through her SOVArt Project, with artists lined up to donate works for sale through 2007.
When Daniel Lembark became the founding chairperson of the JFS/SOVA Advisory Committee in January 2002, the organization was providing food for about 2,000 people a month. Now it supplies food to about 3,500 a month, with the numbers certain to increase. But SOVA can effectively meet that need, thanks to Lembark's vision and persistence.