Strike Is Feast or Famine for Charities

Times Staff Writer

The metal racks at the Share Our Selves food pantry in Costa Mesa have been unusually bare for weeks now. No baked desserts, not much fresh produce and hardly any bread.

"We just don't have the food, and it's disappointing," said retiree Helen Cordwell, a volunteer who sat idle Thursday instead of filling bags with donated food, as she usually does. "It's been a blow here."

As the supermarket workers' strike finishes its first month, attention remains largely focused on the frustrations of customers and what's at stake for union members and management. But the region's charitable food organizations are feeling the pinch too.

Donations from stores to some organizations have dwindled, whether the stores' workers are striking, locked out or still on the job.

Ordinarily, the stores can be relied on to provide a steady stream of foodstuffs that the food pantries convert to grocery giveaways or hot meals for the needy.

Share Our Selves, for example, gets much of its food -- either at low cost or as donations -- from the Orange County Food Bank. But some comes directly from Ralphs and Vons markets in Orange County, which have had less to donate lately.

Meanwhile, smaller stores and medium-sized chains such as Trader Joe's have seen a spike in the number of their customers, with the increased business leaving little for these stores to donate, said the development director for Share Our Selves, Karen Harrington.

The result has been a less-balanced offering in the grocery bags that the charity gives to low-income families, seniors and homeless people.

Harrington said she hoped the strike "doesn't go on forever. It will mean we will have to increase" the amount of food purchased and rely less on donations.

But the situation at Share Our Selves is an extreme example, charity officials said.

Food banks in Los Angeles, Orange County, the Inland Empire and Ventura County have reported little disruption in the flow of donated and distributed food.

In some places, there was actually a surge in donated food early in the strike because the stores were faced with full shelves but empty aisles.

"Different charities are experiencing different things. Some are having a tight time with food supply" and some aren't, said Michael Flood, director of the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, which hands out food to about 1,000 charities. "It's a mixed bag out there."

Chris Fisher, South Bay director of the Food Finders food bank, said it appeared that "the people who are giving a lot more are balancing out the ones giving a lot less." Fisher oversees collections from dozens of Vons, Ralphs and Albertsons stores.

Some food pantry directors said they had seen small but critical differences in their supplies since the strike began.

"Food banks are benefiting from extra food because of the strike," said Christopher McCullough of the Adopt-a-Neighbor pantry in Lake Forest. "But on things like bread, stuff the families need to make sandwiches, it's been in short supply."

Serving People In Need, a Costa Mesa organization that runs substance-abuse and housing programs in addition to a food program, has made a direct plea for more donations since the strike began.

"The donations are probably down by half," said Jean Wegener, the group's executive director. "I've made it known that it's down."

While some pantries are struggling, the Los Angeles Mission on L.A.'s skid row reported an increase in its food supply, thanks in part to a more direct connection to grocery stores, said mission spokeswoman Brenda Springer.

But the upcoming holiday season, particularly Thanksgiving, is an especially needy time for food charities. "We absolutely still have need," Springer said. "This is our most crucial time of the year."

Stores, meanwhile, said there have been no interruptions to their long-standing donation practices.

Vons spokeswoman Sandra Calderon said some stores with closed bakeries have had to cut back bread donations since the strike began.

"Most of our bakeries are starting to open back up" and will be able to donate bread again, she said.

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