By Nina Aghadjanian
After nine months of COVID-19 and a third wave underway, the need for food assistance has reached unprecedented levels, sending Los Angeles County into the throes of the one of the worst food crises in modern history.
Today, nearly 3 million Angelenos don’t know where their next meal is coming from. The Los Angeles Regional Food Bank is working to meet the heightened demand, having distributed 143 million pounds of food, or 118 million meals, since March — a 145% increase compared to the pre-pandemic period.
“You can just see the worry on people’s faces when they come by; they’re concerned and understandably so,” said Michael Flood, the food bank’s chief executive.
“Given all the uncertainty, they don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, next week or next month. So it’s been really rewarding to see the appreciation people have for our service.”
A report from the Urban Institute shows that food insecurity was the most commonly reported hardship in the early weeks of the pandemic. The situation has only worsened. To put things into perspective, Flood’s organization provided food to 300,000 people monthly before the pandemic. That number has since tripled.
To fill the gap between supply and current demand, the food bank is using $10 million from the county, as well as donations from companies and individuals to purchase food items at wholesale prices. This is to supplement the food it already receives from farmers, retailers, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other organizations. In addition, the food bank was forced to expand from two warehouses to four — a 256,000-square-foot space it recently purchased and a temporary space that was donated by Prologis.
At the onset of the pandemic, the food bank was quick to deploy emergency food boxes, which contain enough fresh produce and shelf-stable food to feed an entire family for one week. To date, it has distributed 1.6 million of these boxes. The holidays have compounded the demand as some families that previously had the means to celebrate can’t afford to anymore. For Thanksgiving last year, the organization bought three tractor-trailers full of turkeys. This year, it purchased more than double that.
“We’ve had people roll down their windows and say, ‘This is dinner tonight for me and my family. We’re out of food.’ It’s heartbreaking to hear it’s that dire for so many families locally,” said Flood, who’s also a member of local boards focusing on disaster response and nutrition policy.
The food bank helps food-insecure populations in two ways — through direct distribution programs such as its Mobile Food Pantry, and a network of partner agencies. Before the pandemic, its network comprised 600 nonprofits. One hundred more have been added since March. These organizations provide relief to both homeless and low-income populations in the form of groceries, rent and utility assistance, hygiene products and more.
“We feel so fortunate to receive assistance from the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank,” said Lisette Reyes, a case manager at Loaves & Fishes Glendale. “They have helped us feed many, many families, and made a huge difference in our clients’ lives.”
Many partner agencies have observed a surge in visits from seniors and households with children. But perhaps the most shocking of all new visits are those from previous donors. According to research from USC Dornsife’s Public Exchange, COVID has struck groups that historically were less likely to face food insecurity. The study found that about 20% of struggling households weren’t classified as low-income, with roughly 14% reporting annual incomes of $60,000 to $100,000, and nearly 6% earning over $100,000.
The food bank relies heavily on volunteers, too — more than 30,000 annually. Still, given that many of its volunteers are seniors, stay-at-home orders in March led to a significant drop in on-site help.
Donors are equally important — with volunteerism down due to restrictions, monetary donations can help make up the difference, adding more resources. The food bank is bracing for more challenging months ahead. Flood worries that if the pandemic persists, partner agencies’ expenses will become unsustainable and prevent them from operating at maximum efficiency.
Officials at the food bank are regularly meeting with state legislators to advocate for additional food funding. The organization is also in talks with congressional members and senators to ensure that food relief is prioritized, particularly around the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the Emergency Food Assistance Program and the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program.
Fortunately, a glimmer of hope has surfaced. At the end of November, the county Board of Supervisors approved the appropriation of $65.2 million, marking the second supplemental plan for its allocation of the CARES Act. The funds will provide support not only for L.A. County food and nutrition programs, but also child-care programs, nonprofits and small businesses that have been hit especially hard by health orders.
To make a financial contribution, volunteer, host a virtual fundraiser through Go Fund Me or Facebook, visit lafoodbank.org/wefeedla. Every $1 donated helps the food bank provide four meals.