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Center helps hungry students gain needed nutrition

Times Staff Writer

Eight years ago, Monrovia public school officials polled their children about what they would like to buy with leftover money in the district’s after-school care program.

More computers? Art supplies? Electronic games? Volleyballs?

The overwhelming answer: more food.

That’s when Foothill Unity Center, a Monrovia-based nonprofit organization that provides food, clothing, motel vouchers and other essential goods to low-income families in the San Gabriel Valley, decided to launch an after-school snack program per the school district’s request.

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Although the district provides one snack during the after-school program, Foothill officials said that just wasn’t enough for many students -- most of whom are low-income and may get just one good meal a day.

“They were hungry,” said Joan Whitenack, Foothill’s executive director. “It was such a heartfelt need that the children expressed.”

Today, Foothill provides daily snacks to 650 children from six Monrovia public elementary and middle schools and to a Pasadena boys and girls club. The proportion of students who qualify for the free lunch program for low-income children ranges from 50% at one school to 71% at another.

On a recent afternoon, Foothill’s food service coordinator, Albert Rodriguez, made his delivery rounds of healthy snacks to three of the six schools.

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At Plymouth Elementary School, Rodriguez unloaded boxes of Granny Smith apples, dried bananas, cinnamon-flavored cookies and yogurt and delivered them to the waiting children.

Site manager Patty Treliving said some of the 103 children in Plymouth’s after-school program arrive as early as 6:30 a.m. and stay until 5 p.m., long hours that lead to empty stomachs.

In one family, she said, the father is unemployed and much of the meager income the mother brings in is spent on medicines for their child’s liver problems. There seems to be little left over for nutritious, filling meals, Treliving said.

“My heart breaks,” she said. “The kids are always hungry.”

At Santa Fe Middle School, site manager MaryLou Pichardo said Foothill’s healthier snacks have been a godsend. The apples and other fresh fruit have been particularly popular, she said, helping to replace the district’s previous fare of churros, cinnamon bread and other sugary, fatty foods.

The children themselves seem to enjoy the healthy snacks -- most of the time. At Bradoaks Elementary School, Alexis McPherson, a freckled-face fourth-grader, munched on Foothill-provided vegetable crackers and proudly pointed out that it contained “real vegetables and no trans fats.”

But she confessed that she also liked junk food, including potato chips.

“I like a mixture of both, because too much healthy stuff can get boring,” Alexis said.

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Rodriguez said that healthier food, such as fresh fruit, is more expensive than junk food. A case of 750 apples costs $500, he said, while cookies can be bought for a fraction of that price.

Whitenack said Foothill depended on grants to help improve the quality of snacks. This year, the Times Family Fund awarded Foothill Unity Center $20,000, primarily for its after-school snack program.

“It really makes a huge difference in the level of quality of snacks we’re able to provide the children,” Whitenack said.

The after-school snack program is just one small part of Foothill’s extensive activities. Last year, the center gave out more than 1 million pounds of food to 2,076 families who earn less than 150% of the federal poverty level. That amounts to an annual income of $15,315 for an individual or $30,975 for a family of four.

The families are given packs of canned and dry foods each month and weekly supplements of perishable items, such as meat, milk, fresh fruit and vegetables.

A “choice shelf” is stocked with personal hygiene items and ethnic foods such as Indian curry, Thai coconut milk, black beans, hummus and Chinese chili garlic sauce for those who want them.

Foothill also distributes lunches for the homeless, clothing, motel vouchers and other items.

The program, which started in 1980 in a church closet, is now nonsectarian and serves 11 cities, including Altadena, Arcadia, Duarte, Monrovia, Pasadena, Sierra Madre and South Pasadena.

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“I’m proud to work here,” Rodriguez said. “Imagine if your job is just to help people. It’s a tremendous feeling. You never go home unsatisfied.”

The annual Holiday Campaign is part of the Los Angeles Times Family Fund, a fund of the McCormick Tribune Foundation, which this year will match every donation at 50 cents on the dollar.

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