A Close- Up Look At People Who Matter : Glimpses of Sadness, Hope at the Pantry

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

As bags of food are handed out one by one through the door of the North Hollywood Interfaith Food Pantry, stories trickle back in.

"I'll tell you what's heavy," said Jerry Rabinowitz, pausing for a second as he restocked the bags. "One woman came here who lost her job a month ago. Now, she's lost her apartment. She's on the streets, a young woman, about 35, and that's heavy."

Rabinowitz has volunteered for six years at the pantry and hands out the food quickly and good-naturedly, often saying, "You got it, pal. Good Luck!" like a friendly grocer to a customer.

"When you talk about real," said Rabinowitz, a retired wholesale-grocery salesman, "This is real."

It was a busy morning at the pantry, and the number of cards handed out--which keep the recipients in order--was probably going to get close to 200 for the day. Recipients fill out a form while waiting in line as volunteers line up the bags. There is not much time or inclination to tell one's life story here, but in brief moments, glimpses of tragedy and need come through.

"One woman said, 'I'm not poor, I've got a $50 bill,' " said Marjorie Luke, a pantry board member, remembering a single mother who openly cried at the door because she needed to pay a utility bill with the money. "How do I get food?" the woman asked Luke.

Luke is one of five women from five local Christian and Jewish congregations who joined forces 12 years ago to form the pantry. It has grown into a 10-congregation organization and gave out more than 80,000 grocery bags of food--many of them for return visitors--in its peak year of 1993. Food is donated by individuals, religious and community groups, local stores and supermarkets, with a portion coming from federal surplus.

Recipients are allowed six visits in six months, but that often seems too few. If someone comes more often than that, a red mark goes on their file card and the pantry has to remove federally donated food from their bag and the person he or she should not come so often.

Senior citizens tend to come by at the end of the month, after their Social Security checks run out, Rabinowitz said. There is a core of homeless who visit often. But most faces could blend into any crowd.

"We've seen a lot of people who have always thought of themselves as middle class, who never had to do this before," Luke said.

One well-dressed woman stormed at volunteers because her friend's bag had a box of cereal and hers didn't, said Luke, who laughed the incident off. "The madder she got, the more attractive she became. You have to keep some sort of sense of humor. You can't go home with anger."

The camaraderie among the volunteers is one of the reasons retiree Jerry Rosenstock spends 20 hours a week with the crew of grocery bag packers. "There is nothing like this group of guys," Rosenstock said. After work, they often sit down and share their problems over coffee.

The pantry is also a support group for volunteers, Luke said, and as much as it runs on hard work and donations, faith also plays a major role here.

"Every time we have had an increase in need, it has been followed by an increase in our base of support," said Luke.

Taking another quick break from lifting and handing out bags, Rabinowitz stopped to tell another story.

"Four years ago, a man walks in and said, 'I'd like to stand here a few minutes and watch,' " Rabinowitz said. They were busy, so they directed the man to a quiet corner while they continued to complain among themselves about a lack of baby food and a need for a freezer.

After the man's visit, the pantry got a check for $10,000 and a note: "For baby food and perhaps a freezer," Rabinowitz said. "It just blew our minds."

"And that," Luke said, "is what we mean by faith."

One in an occasional series on the winners of the 1995 Los Angeles Times Community Partnership Awards appearing in Personal Best, a weekly profile of an ordinary person who does extraordinary things. Please address prospective candidates to Personal Best, Los Angeles Times, 20000 Prairie St., Chatsworth, 91311. Or fax them to (818) 772-3338.

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