Jewish Journal

Food banks short, SOVA amps up High Holy Days appeal

by Julie Gruenbaum Fax

Posted on Sep. 27, 2011 at 6:57 pm

Volunteers bag groceries at a SOVA food pantry. Photo by Dan Kacvinski

Volunteers bag groceries at a SOVA food pantry. Photo by Dan Kacvinski

Adire situation is looming at regional food banks and distribution centers, as ever-increasing demand collides with government cuts, threatening the food supply chain for the neediest.

In May, funding for FEMA’s Emergency Food and Shelter Program was cut from $200 million to $120 million in congressional budget negotiations — and, as of mid-September, food banks still hadn’t received any of that allocation. In that same period, high commodity prices meant that the USDA didn’t have to purchase as much surplus food from farmers — food that goes to school lunch programs and to social service agencies through its TEFAP program (The Emergency Food Assistance Program).

Jewish Family Service’s SOVA Community Food and Resource Program is feeling the crunch, as it encounters record demand in this stubborn economic downturn. SOVA served 13,000 clients at its three sites in August, giving out more than 100 tons of food. Before the financial meltdown in late 2008, SOVA averaged 6,000 clients a month.

“We have a whatever-it-takes spirit that says if there is a need, we will meet it,” said Fred Summers, SOVA’s director of operations.

That élan has been tested in recent months, however, as Summers and his staff have fought to make sure clients take home the usual 18 to 20 pounds of food, including fresh produce, meats and dairy items, as well as dry goods.

On a recent Tuesday morning at SOVA’s Metro Resource Center on La Brea Avenue, every chair was filled in the busy but orderly waiting room. An elderly Asian woman slung a protective arm over her collapsible shopping cart, clutching a numbered ticket in her hand. Next to her, a young man dressed in black jeans and a black button-down shirt, a slick ponytail down his back, rested his elbows on his knees, as he gazed up at a monitor flashing information about how to prepare fresh beets, or who qualifies for enrollment in the CalFresh government nutrition program. A young woman in business attire, her own number in her hand, watched as a bedraggled-looking man helped a Latino family use a bungee cord to secure a grocery-filled cardboard box to a cart.

Four days a week plus two Sundays a month, hundreds of people come to SOVA’s Metro Resource Center on La Brea, as well as to sites in Van Nuys and Pico-Robertson, to get enough groceries to last about five days.

Last month, however, the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, SOVA’s primary source of government food, received about half the amount of donated food from the USDA as it had in the previous August.

This during a lingering economic downturn, where food banks nationally are seeing 70 percent more clients than they were just three years ago.

“Things have been in concert to a certain degree over the last three years, where different food sources have been growing and increasing while demand has stayed high,” said Michael Flood, CEO of the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, which until recently distributed 1.4 million pounds of government food a month to local pantries. “Our concern now is that the overall food supply is flattening, but demand is continuing to grow, and it is that gap that is worrisome to us.”

SOVA is conveying this new urgency through this month’s annual High Holy Days food drive. New barrels have been distributed to synagogues for food donations, along with shopping lists and pleas asking rabbis to make an extra push for food and financial contributions.

Throughout the recession, SOVA has kept up with demand by increasing financial and food donations and finding new lower-cost suppliers, but, over the last three months, SOVA has spent 55 percent beyond its own budget buying food to fill shelves once stocked with donated government products. SOVA had budgeted $240,000 for food purchases this year, and now projects it will spend $440,000. SOVA’s overall budget is $1.47 million.

“I have what I thought would be a budget for the current fiscal year, and I’m blowing through it faster than is sustainable,” Summers said.

Between 2008 and 2011, 19 percent of SOVA’s food came from individual donations, 24 percent from the USDA, 18 percent donated from vendors, and around 39 percent was purchased at low cost from food banks or commercial vendors. Those percentages will now shift toward more purchased food.

“We are in the process of developing new sources of donated food, and redoubling our efforts around fundraising to make sure the bags we give to our clients don’t get smaller. We’ll be able to make adjustments with the support of the community, without diminishing the quality and quantity of what we provide,” Summers said.

While donations of canned and boxed food are appreciated, money is also vital because each dollar donated to SOVA can buy about $5 worth of food, through relationships it has with bulk distributors and closeout warehouses.

In contrast to many food banks, where clients are handed a prepacked order based solely on the number of people in the household, at SOVA a volunteer packs a personal order for each client. The order usually includes canned and dry goods, as well as fresh produce, meats, dairy products and fresh bakery items. SOVA has 300 volunteers who take regular shifts — and hundreds more who make sporadic visits — to sort and pack food or work directly with clients, who are entitled to one grocery order a month.

At the Metro Center, volunteers escorted clients to intake desks surrounded by informational brochures and fliers, and made more homey with a bowl of Tootsie Rolls and a reading and play corner for kids. The volunteer helped clients fill out grocery orders, based both on the number of people in the household and particular needs and wants: Low sodium? Kosher? Canned or dry pasta? Do you need toothpaste? Shaving cream? Are you traveling by car or bus? Do you have a kitchen where you can prepare the food?

Intake workers also looked for signs that might indicate that clients needed further assistance from a resource volunteer, a job counselor or a social worker, all of them on site.

Over the last few years, SOVA has been converting the operation from solely a food pantry to a comprehensive social service operation, recognizing that being short on food usually comes with other problems — unemployment, housing issues, emotional instability. Its new 3,100-square-foot Metro Resource Center, opened last October, has become a social service hub for the neighborhood.

Through SOVA’s Community Connections programs, a rotating schedule of JFS case management and mental health social workers are on site here and at the Van Nuys and Pico-Robertson locations, in addition to career counselors from Jewish Vocational Services, attorneys from Bet Tzedek legal services and counselors who can help clients enroll in CalFresh, Medi-Cal and other governmental and private resources. When the pantry is closed on Thursdays, JFS and other agencies are invited to use the space to see clients or provide educational services.

“When someone walks into SOVA for groceries, it shouldn’t begin and end with food,” said Margaret Avineri, senior director of clinical and client support services at JFS. “We help them with basic needs beyond needing food right now, so we can support them enough so they eventually won’t need what we do.”

That has been especially true for a new demographic that has been accessing SOVA’s and JFS’ services more and more over the last couple of years — previously middle-class families who never before needed help.

“One of the reasons we’ve worked so hard at integrating all of our services on site is that people who typically would not have come to a social service agency have found themselves in need, and they feel comfortable getting it all in one place. We work hard to make this a gateway to all services from JFS,” Avineri said.

Many of the new clients have come to JFS through The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ Emergency Cash Grants program, which since 2008 has distributed $2.25 million in one-time grants of up to $1,500 to Jewish families and individuals.

“The grants are designed to bring people into the system,” said Andrew Cushnir, director of programs at The Federation. “It supplies an immediate bit of relief but also provides a point of access to multiple benefits.”

Cushnir said Federation’s still-tentative 2012 budget includes an extension of the grants program, as well as continued funding for SOVA and other JFS programs.  Federation also funds JFS social workers to help handle the extra load brought in by the cash grants.

JFS and Federation are introducing a program this fall that will place social workers in synagogues to help congregants as well as people in the surrounding area access JFS’ services. University Synagogue in Brentwood and Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades will share a case manager starting in October.

SOVA is nonsectarian and estimates that 15 to 20 percent of its clientele is Jewish. It distributes holiday packages for Thanksgiving, Passover and Rosh Hashanah, tailored to the traditional fare of Ashkenazi and Sephardic populations.

Avineri said the recession, and the Jewish community’s collaborative response to growing needs, helped JFS to become more agile and proactive in its approach, and to think creatively about how to meet constantly changing needs.

The experience has helped as SOVA faces the challenge of coming up with enough cash and food to compensate for the drop in government support.

Summers said that, whereas before he could pick from a USDA list of 15 to 20 items at the L.A. Regional Food bank, now he sees maybe four or five items on the list. USDA supplied much of the protein products — beans, canned meat and fish, peanut butter.

Funding for the USDA’s TEFAP emergency food program, included in the Farm Bill, held steady at around $250 million through 2010 and 2011, but the 2012 number is in question as the House recently passed a $200 million appropriation, and the Senate is looking at funding the program at $260 million.

The real hit has come through the so-called “bonus foods,” products the USDA purchases from farmers to keep commodity prices steady. That food is then distributed to the school lunch programs and food banks. But high commodity prices over the last few months meant that USDA didn’t have to buy surplus foods. While it distributed around $350 million worth of bonus food in 2010, it has only reached around $170 million in bonus product through August 2011, and has not yet recovered from the summer’s steep drop-off.

For the L.A. Regional Food Bank, that translates into a cut from 1.4 million pounds of food a month to 700,000 pounds. SOVA went from 20,000 pounds a week of USDA food to about 7,000 pounds.

In addition, since 1980, FEMA has funded food banks through its nondisaster Emergency Food and Shelter Program — Los Angeles County took in about $5 million in past years to fund food banks and homeless shelters — but that program was slashed from $200 million to $120 million during May congressional budget negotiations. FEMA decided to give priority funding to communities experiencing the worst unemployment — good news for Los Angeles food banks — but that still meant a cut of more than 30 percent for the L.A. Regional Food Bank. On top of that, because over the past year, Congress passed budgets as stop-gap measures for a few months at a time, rather than as a yearly budget, and because FEMA has had to reconfigure the distribution of funds, the money has been held up and food banks hadn’t received any of it just weeks before the 2011 fiscal year ended Sept. 30.

While L.A. Regional Food Bank has tried to make up some of that in purchased food — a cost passed on to pantries — it has also reduced its distributions to the 640 food banks it supplies and the 100 sites it runs. The L.A. Regional Food Bank moves about 63 million pounds of food a year, worth about $55 million.

Over the last three years, many pantries have not been able to keep up with the still-increasing demand from clients — neither financially nor in terms of storage space and manpower.

“A lot of pantries have struggled to be able to accommodate more pantry visits, and in some cases couldn’t handle more food from the food bank even when it was available,” said Bruce Rankin, executive director of the Westside Food Bank. But, he said, “SOVA is a more professionalized pantry that has been able to make adjustments to handle more food.”

Summers said he is working to create new relationships with bulk suppliers and with supermarkets that donate items it can no longer sell — dented cans or items close to their “sell by” date.

He is also continuing to build more farmers into the supply chain — he can now buy fruit at 10 cents a pound.

“We don’t want to accept the premise that we have to deny service to people, or that we have to put limits on who we can serve or give people even smaller bags,” Summers said.

He hopes the community will step up, and the High Holy Days food drive usually pulls in significant food and monetary donations.

“The need, this year is greater than ever, and we would appreciate if people consider how generous they can be. We’re asking rabbis to encourage congregants to do more than they did last year, because more people are in need than ever before,” Summers said. “For us, just doing as well as last year isn’t really enough.”

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