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Once Aided by Stars, a Food Bank Disbands : Assistance: Agency founded 16 years ago by Dennis Weaver and Valerie Harper ran out of funding.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

One of Los Angeles’ largest food banks has closed its doors, leaving scores of charities scrambling to find a new food outlet for their clients.

Love Is Feeding Everyone, known as LIFE, was created 16 years ago amid much publicity and fanfare, partly because of the celebrity of its two co-founders, actors Dennis Weaver and Valerie Harper.

It was launched with the ambitious goal of salvaging tons of edible but unsalable food that would otherwise have gone to waste. The effort quickly gained the support of major corporations and an A-list of celebrities. Among those who lent their names were Garth Brooks, David Geffen, Whoopi Goldberg, Bette Midler and Shirley MacLaine and a host of other stars from movies, television and the music industry.

As recently as a year ago, LIFE was salvaging more than 6 million pounds of food and feeding 187,000 people each week through its 200 participating community agencies. It had expanded its mission to include educating children about hunger through a play that was performed in local junior high and high schools. The group had also launched a job program, working with former gang members and other at-risk youths to help them find employment.

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But LIFE had been struggling to keep itself going in recent years, according to several knowledgeable people in the charity community. Although its closing did not come as a surprise, many were shocked that it came so suddenly. The directors of some charities, who did not wish their names to be used, said LIFE’s board of directors seemed to abandon the agency.

LIFE’s president, Michael Stevenson, declined interview requests. Neither Weaver nor Harper could be reached for comment.

In recent months, the staff at LIFE’s Hawthorne warehouse had been reduced to eight workers. Operations Manager Brenda Pierce said most of the agencies that relied on LIFE will be supplied by the much larger Los Angeles Regional Food Bank.

Signs of LIFE’s serious financial straits surfaced in a 1998 fund-raising appeal written by former Executive Director Sandy Mullins.

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“Cutbacks in funding by almost every major corporation and foundation has crippled our organization,” the letter said. “LIFE once enjoyed support from 1,000 active volunteers and thousands of donors. Today LIFE exists with the very vigorous support of about 350 donors and volunteers.”

Elsewhere in the letter, Mullins wrote that her agency had reduced its budget to $20,000 a month--and that she might be forced to lay herself off as executive director unless more resources were forthcoming. Mullins ultimately did leave the group, but could not be reached to comment Wednesday on the agency’s final demise.

Part of the problem may have been that the stellar list of star supporters made it appear that outside donations were not needed, some charity directors said. Although many of the stars may have been active fund-raisers in the beginning, their participation had dwindled. As a result, support from major corporations that enjoyed an association with big-name celebrities evaporated.

There had also been some tensions between LIFE and the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank over competition for resources, admits Los Angeles Food Bank Director Doris Bloch.

The food bank last year distributed nearly 33 million pounds of food through more than 800 participating agencies. Bloch said her group will absorb from 80 to 100 of the food pantries, churches and other charities that had relied on LIFE.

“I don’t see how we can continue to have competing organizations in any field in the world of philanthropy without something giving,” said Bloch. “It’s really such a shame as I look back on it. I was never able to convince Dennis and Valerie what a dynamic organization we could have made had we combined our efforts.”

LIFE supporters say it provided a service that uniquely served its low-income community, with a more personalized, family approach. Through its auspices, many grass-roots agencies were able to salvage food directly from grocers and food distributors.

“I became a familiar person and the supermarkets could see directly the influence they were having on the community,” said Marcella Gay, who has worked with LIFE almost since its inception.

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That feeling of family was still present Wednesday as Pierce and a few others helped clear out the 91,000-square-foot warehouse that once thrived with activity. Throughout the day, former volunteers and supporters dropped by to say goodbye and express their disbelief.

“It was the greatest group of gentle, wonderful people,” said past board member Bobby Howe. “Valerie said it best, that our mission was to go out of business. But there is still such a need for us out there.”


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