South LA food lines are lines of survival

By Melissah Yang

Every month for the past four years, Donna Alexander has gone to the food line down the street from her home in South Los Angeles. Sometimes, she waits in line. Other times, she helps pass out food.

This month, she does both.

imageDonna Alexander (Photo by Melissah Yang)

Alexander, 59, first takes a bag of food for herself and then grabs more bags for her neighbors who have trouble walking and can’t leave their homes. After checking in with them, she returns to the corner of 79th Street and Vermont Avenue to help manage the food line in front of New Antioch Church of God in Christ.

“I guarantee you, for everybody that was in that food line, they can tell you where 10 other food lines are, what days they are and what times,” Alexander said. “Those are the people that live and breathe on food lines because they have no choice.”

According to the most recent figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, about one out of three people in South L.A. are living below the poverty line, double the average for Los Angeles County. More and more people in South L.A., including Alexander, have to depend on food lines to stock their refrigerators.

Alexander says she feels lucky compared to others so she does her best to help her neighbors when she can. Everyone on South L.A.’s 79th block knows that the front door of her home is always open. When a neighbor calls out, “Donna, Donna,” from the sidewalk, she walks out to see what she can do.

Alexander says her role of helping others is like a full-time job.

But that job doesn’t pay, and Alexander is still unemployed after being laid off as a counselor for parolees with drug and alcohol addictions two years ago. Since having a stroke in 2000, Alexander has struggled with maintaining a job. She supports herself and her 19-year-old son, Le’Ron, who also can’t find work, through disability checks from Social Security’s Supplemental Security Income program.

James Kornegay, who runs New Antioch’s monthly food line, drove to two food banks earlier in the week to collect three truckloads of groceries in order to help feed the neighborhood.

While church members put whole frozen chickens, beef patties, bread and juice into brown paper bags, Kornegay holds up a sign-in sheet with a list of people’s names, addresses and family sizes. He passes out the first bag of food promptly at 9:00 a.m., although people began to line up two hours earlier.

“Food is an issue,” Kornegay said. “These families are making $25,000 to $30,000 a year for six people. They just need a little help.”

Alexander says the issue isn’t whether food is easily accessible. There are two grocery stores within half a mile of Alexander’s home. The problem, she says, is that her neighbors can’t afford to shop there.

And to further save money, families and friends are living under the same roof.

The average household size in South L.A. is 3.39 people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, almost one person more than the average American household. A bigger household means more mouths to feed, and South L.A.’s high unemployment rate of 12.9 percent – five percentage points higher than the national rate – is not only leaving people without work, but also keeping food off of tables.

New Antioch’s Senior Pastor, Jeffrey M. Lewis, says the economic difficulties of the past few years hit South L.A. especially hard. New Antioch’s food line has always been busy, but now it wraps around the corner every month.

“When the recession hit, people who had normal blue-collar jobs lost them,” Lewis said. “They don’t have college degrees so they were just left hanging.”

Alexander points out that the people who are in the food lines aren’t homeless. She says that they just don’t have enough money to feed their families.

Alexander spends two-thirds of her social security income on rent and utilities. Without the lines, Alexander says she would have to spend another $75 per week on food, money that she says she does not have.

“Now, where do groceries come in at? So, what else are we gonna do but get in the food line,” Alexander said.

St. Francis Center welcomes new director

There is a little street south of downtown. The buildings of the city center cut out the skyline to the north; the blue line light rail runs perpendicular to the south. On this two-block chunk of Hope Street, food insecure families and homeless people gather several times a week, all turning to help from St. Francis Center, a nonprofit that aims to feed and assist the needy.

imageBut on Sunday, Jan. 23, a different crowd gathered at St. Francis. The center was filled with people dressed in their Sunday best and traveled from all over Los Angeles. They were donors, friends and family, there to attend a celebratory mass and brunch in honor of the new Executive Director, Jill Remelski, and the transition of the former Executive Director to the President of the Board of Directors, Gerald A. Gumbleton.

Remelski came to St. Francis Center in summer of 2002, when she was an undergrad studying business at the University of Southern California.

“I had plenty of opportunities to get a job downtown,” said Remelski. “But I didn’t feel that I was going to love going to work everyday. I wanted to love to go to work.”

The center offers a variety of programs to help feed the needy. Its soup kitchen is open to the homeless six days a week, and its Family Food Distribution program provides families with bags of free groceries every week.

Remelski says that her motivation stems from the relationships she has built with the people who come into the center.

“That’s always been really interesting,” said Remelski. “Because when you see someone on the street, you don’t think about, that person has a mother, that person has a father, or they might have kids who are worried about them. It’s interesting to think about the human that is there, and that we don’t really treat the homeless as people.”

The center started as a Franciscan Friars outreach program in 1972. The first parishioners gathered extra food from their own pantries and gave them to the homeless.

Today, the center has grown and offers 100,000 meals a year to the hungry and provides groceries to 300 unique families every week. Though it is still loosely affiliated with the Franciscan Friars, the center receives no resources from the church.

Gumbleton has been with the organization for over 30 years. After years of training Remelski, Gumbleton is officially transitioning to Chair of the Board of Directors, a fundraising role.

“My goal is to raise enough money to support Jill, so that she can be successful,” said Gumbleton. But Gumbleton is careful to not measure success exclusively in numbers. “The emphasis is not the number that we serve, our emphasis is in the way that we serve them, treating each person with dignity.”

Remelski hopes to provide more comprehensive services in the years to come. For example, she hopes to hire a full-time advocate for the families and the homeless. Remelski says that landlords take advantage of families with illegal members, using their immigration status as leverage to avoid meeting minimum requirements. She hopes an advocate will be able to get them in touch with the right opportunities and organization.

“It’s not an opportunity for us to recreate the wheel and do things that other organizations in the area are already doing, it’s just a chance to be able to direct them to the right spot and introduce them to the right people so they can feel that trust with those organizations that they feel with us,” said Remelski.

Among her other plans, Remelski wants to help families get on food stamps and expand the center’s hygiene program, which provides showers, clean clothes and toiletries to the homeless.

Photographs from the St. Francis Center:

The center operates off of private donations and grants from foundations, with a small federal grant. The grant is from FEMA, because homelessness is considered a national emergency, and makes up $40,000 of the center’s $900,000 budget.

Gumbleton says the last four years have been touch and go. The center doesn’t have an endowment, so they raise the money year by year.

“We can do whatever we want, if we have enough money for the programs,” said Remelski. “We do what we can with what we have.”

Remelski says that the recession has fueled individual donations, as hard times make individuals more aware of hunger and food insecurity.

For Remelski, working at St. Francis has given her a new perspective on her own waste. She says she no longer will throw out food just because it’s beyond the expiration date, if it still smells and tastes fine.

“It’s not just a job, and none of our employees treat it like it’s just a job,” she said. “That’s what really makes the difference.”

Gumbleton echoed this sentiment.

“[The homeless are] my life,” he said. “I love what I do and I continue to do it. I only do what I like to do. I’ve never done anything for more than 15 minutes after I did not enjoy it.”

More stories about food issues in South Los Angeles:

Los Angeles school cafeterias boast healthier options

Experts discuss the ‘politics of food’ in South L.A.

Food Not Bombs takes alternative approach to feeding homeless

Bank of America donates $50,000 to L.A. Regional Foodbank

Bank of America presented a check for $50,000 to the Los Angeles Regional Foodbank Saturday as 150 of its employees gathered at the facility to assemble about 1,000 packages of food for low-income senior citizens.

The Los Angeles Regional Foodbank, a 96,000-square-foot facility in South Los Angeles, disburses 34 million pounds of food each year through a network of 875 distribution centers across Los Angeles County.L.A. Regional Foodbank President and CEO Michael Flood receives a check for $50,000 from Bank of America.

The seniors who will receive the bags of food are part of the Commodity Supplemental Food Program. Many of them live only on Social Security, which on its own often does not provide enough money for a nutritious diet. Other seniors in the program are able to work but have lost jobs due to the economic recession. “The program is designed to provide them with a pretty substantial amount of food on a monthly basis, so it can prevent them from going hungry,” Los Angeles Regional Foodbank President and CEO Michael Flood said.

Bank of America has donated a total of $1 million to organizations that fight hunger in several cities across the nation. “It’s something that Bank of America wanted to do because they’ve heard that the demand for food assistance has increased so markedly throughout the United States,” Flood said.

According to the Department of Labor, California has fared particularly badly in the economic recession. The state’s unemployment rate of 11.2 percent is one of the worst in the nation, and the number of people out of work for a year has doubled in the last 12 months. These numbers are reflected in the 36 percent increase in demand for food assistance in Los Angeles.Bank of America employees assemble bags of food for low-income seniors.

“Although the Foodbank has increased its volume as far as what we can distribute, it’s still not enough to meet the demand that’s out there,” said Foodbank Communications Director Darren Hoffman.

In 2008, the Bank of America Charitable Foundation donated $200 million to charities, a record for a financial institution. This year the bank pledged to donate $2 billion over the next 10 years to nonprofit organizations “engaged in improving the health and vitality of their neighborhoods.”

Bank of America National Program Manager Dannille Campos said that even though banks are struggling through the economic crisis, “This is a time when the needs are so great, so there’s no way we can cut out philanthropic dollars when the community is so in need right now.”

In addition to assembling food packages at the Foodbank, Bank of America employees also volunteer at food distribution sites in El Monte, Van Nuys, Pacoima and Inglewood, which serve over 1,000 senior citizens. At the distribution sites, Bank of America teaches financial education courses that focus on budgeting and savings.

Organizers of Saturday’s event said it was easy recruit the 150 Bank of America employees needed to assemble the food packages. “The Bank of America associates are very much involved in the community events that we do, so they’re constantly looking to see what we have,” said Marketing Program Development Specialist Angela Molina. “It’s a good feeling to know that the associates are so involved.”