September 27, 2011
Food banks short, SOVA amps up High Holy Days appeal
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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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