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Food Banks in O.C. Find Cupboards Looking Bare

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Liz, a disabled former postal worker, only has one kidney and has to be careful of what she eats, even when she’s picking up a bag of free food from the Lutheran Social Services food bank.

But the food’s very existence, she said, is a godsend.

“It isn’t food that’s conducive to my health, but it is conducive to not starving,” Liz, who spoke on the condition that only her middle name be used, said as she waited for her turn last week with a caseworker at the Garden Grove emergency services office. “For those who really need it, it doesn’t take them through the week, but it gives them a little time to deal with other stuff instead of trying to find food.”

These days, Orange County food banks find themselves living a bit like their beneficiaries, running short of food and wondering where to get more in the future. A continuing national depression in food donations--giving is down 3% from a year ago, according to the Chicago-based Second Harvest, a national distributor of foodstuffs donated by major corporations--has local food banks scrambling to maintain the supply to local people who need the help.

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With Orange County donations at a 10-year low, food bank operators said they are scrambling to meet demand. And they fear more serious shortages might occur this summer as supplies continue to dwindle and demand spikes under welfare reforms.

“It’s a real big concern,” said Pam Hope, manager of the donated food program at the Orange County Community Development Council in Garden Grove, one of two major distributors to nearly 300 Orange County organizations that hand out food to clients.

“If you talk to agencies that come here for food, they’re frustrated because they’re getting more people coming to them and they’re getting smaller quantities,” Hope said. “They either have to turn people away or reduce the days they serve people.”

Many of the agencies find themselves spending more of their budgets or seeking outside donations to make up for food they can’t get through the Community Development Council or the Food Distribution Center in Orange, the county’s largest distributor of donated goods.

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Bonnie Miller, who directs the Lutheran Social Services’ food banks in Fullerton and Garden Grove, said the supply of nonperishable items--such as canned goods--has become sporadic.

“You have to go almost on a daily basis to be lucky enough to find the thing you really need and in the quantities that you use, and I just don’t have the time to do that,” said Miller, whose program hands out a bag of food per month to about 1,000 families.

Usually January and February are relatively easy months for food banks as they continue to run off holiday donations. But this year, that reserve was gone by the end of January. Earlier this month, Miller said, she had to go out and buy $500 worth of staples to meet February’s demand.

“That’s half of my [total] budget for the month,” she said. “That doesn’t happen very often.”

The crunch comes from a mix of better inventory control by food manufacturers and the proliferation of secondary market outlets. Those brand-name crackers in damaged boxes you buy cheaply in the discount shops used to get donated to food banks.

“Unsellable foods are moving into the secondary market more heavily than they ever have in the past,” said Ron Blake, director of the Food Distribution Center, part of the Second Harvest network. “They’re in the 99-cent discount markets, at swap meets.

“It is affecting people getting served. Agencies are feeling the squeeze and having to locate other alternatives, and having to buy food that they didn’t have to buy in the past. They’re having food drives where they’ve never had them before.”

Blake said he expects his center to distribute about 10% less food in 1997 than the more than 10 million pounds it handed out last year.

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As nonperishable donations are decreasing, donations of perishable foods are on the rise, Blake and others said. While that’s good news for the recipients’ diets, it creates new problems for food bank operators as they train workers in new handling techniques and try to find ways to speed up distribution.

“It’s great, but [the food] goes bad quickly,” Hope said. “And we’re usually getting it when it’s already going bad.”

Agencies are struggling to find fresh sources for donations. Lutheran Social Services probably will ask member churches to increase the number of food drives they conduct, Miller said.

Salvation Army officials are looking for solutions too, said Dolores Barrett, director of social services, adding that the organization already had held one food drive this year because of the shortage.

“We did a public campaign for goods that held us until this last week, and we have enough for the next three to four weeks,” Barrett said.

If the distribution centers have food as the Salvation Army’s supply dwindles, she said, there won’t be a problem.

“What if they don’t have it?” she said. “There’s a potential in the next month or two that we will have to close our doors. There will be days where we won’t have enough.”

An added problem, she said, is that while the food bank might have some supplies, they run the risk of being unable to offer clients balanced assortments of foods.

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“We like our package to be nutritionally balanced and last a minimum of two or three days,” Barrett said. “We don’t want people to go from us and the next day have to go to another agency. We want it to be enough so they can go solve another problem instead of turning around the next day to find food again.”

Donations may be made to neighborhood food banks directly, or to the main distribution centers:

* Orange County Community Development Council Food Bank, 12640 Knott St., Garden Grove, (714) 897-6670.

* Food Distribution Center of Orange County, 426 W. Almond Ave., Orange, (714) 771-1343.


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