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Pantries Fill Overlooked Needs

TIMES STAFF WRITER

FISH, a West Valley food pantry, goes practically unnoticed among the supermarkets, restaurants, residences, gas stations and churches along Lassen Street at Mason Avenue in Chatsworth.

Yet the pantry--a three-room cinder-block building that shares a lot with the Congregational Church of Chatsworth--for three decades has been a beacon of hope for the west San Fernando Valley’s hungry.

As it marks its 30th anniversary this year, the nonprofit agency has no plans to celebrate the milestone, but will continue to quietly go about its work of feeding those in need, officials say.

Born in the aftermath of the 1971 San Fernando earthquake, the volunteer organization has distributed tons of food, toiletries and cleaning supplies to the working poor, elderly and homeless living on the edge in one of Los Angeles’ wealthiest areas.

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“In more affluent communities, sometimes people are unaware that there are a lot of people living on fixed incomes, even though they live in a nice community,” said Ileene Parker, assistant director of community support services for the San Fernando Valley Interfaith Council, which oversees 20 pantries in the region, including FISH.

“There are a lot of hungry people--the elderly, the disabled, students, day laborers, cleaning ladies,” she said. “The percentages of these groups are small, but they still are in need.”

The Westside Food Bank in Santa Monica, for example, provides food to agencies in Beverly Hills, Culver City, Santa Monica and other upscale communities.

FISH, an acronym for Friends in Service Here, distributed 16,173 meals last year to low-income residents in Canoga Park, Chatsworth, Porter Ranch, Reseda and Winnetka, officials said. So far this year, the agency has provided 4,832 meals, but that number is expected to increase markedly in November and December.

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Low-wage jobs, insufficient public assistance and the high cost of living in the West Valley are some of the reasons clients seek help at the pantry in Chatsworth, a community where the median annual income was $68,601 in 1999, according to the Economic Alliance of the San Fernando Valley.

“Many people who are not directly involved with the poor are surprised that we have a pantry in Chatsworth, or that there is poverty in the West Valley,” said the pantry’s director, who gave only her first name, Irene.

“But people here are receiving monthly incomes that are barely enough to cover the rent,” she added. “Never mind utilities, food, transportation, clothing or child care.”

Irene declined to give her last name, following the group’s strict bylaws that require privacy and security to discourage possible harassment from unhappy recipients.

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For Melissa, a 25-year-old unemployed woman from Northridge, the pantry helps keep food on her table.

“The pantry helps because it has been hard for me to find a job,” she said, waiting outside.

At the West Valley Food Pantry in Woodland Hills, volunteers spent a recent morning loading shopping bags with poultry, produce, dry goods and bread and distributing the supplies to families.

The pantry, which opened in 1985 when several congregations decided to pool their resources and establish a single operation, provides 2,000 meals a month to families in the southwest Valley, officials said. The median annual income in Woodland Hills was $59,902 in 1999, according to Economic Alliance figures.

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“There is a misconception that the West Valley doesn’t have a need for a food pantry,” said Lana Tickner, pantry board chairwoman.

“But when there were layoffs in the aerospace industry there were a lot of well-educated people whose benefits ran out and they needed food,” Tickner said, referring in particular to Boeing Co.'s Canoga Park facility.

Even in prosperous Thousand Oaks, the need for food is great, said Pauline Saterbo, who oversees operations at the Manna food pantry there.

“People are shocked to find out that there is a food pantry and that we help so many people,” she said. “We serve people who have had a death in the family, an illness, a job loss--all kinds of temporary difficulties.”

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But there are also the chronic poor who routinely come to the 29-year-old pantry for food, said Saterbo, who has worked there for 20 years. “We have a lot of men and women whom I have seen over and over again. They just can’t seem to get ahead in the game.”

At FISH, Irene said she can’t believe that the pantry has been open for 30 years, a dozen of which she’s worked to serve people in need.

Asked why she has dedicated so many years to helping the poor, Irene just shrugs her shoulders.

“I didn’t come from an impoverished environment. I’m a firm believer that everyone should support themselves,” she said. “But there are those who are sick or have problems--that’s a different story.”

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