Nearly 1 in 10 in L.A. County turned to food banks for help in 2009, study finds


A record 983,400 Los Angeles County residents -- nearly one in 10 -- received food assistance last year from community pantries, soup kitchens and shelters supplied by the Los Angeles Regional Foodbank, according to a study released Tuesday.

That is a 46% increase from 2005, the last time the food bank conducted a detailed survey of staff, volunteers and recipients at some of the nearly 900 charitable sites it supplies in the county.

“It’s a disgrace,” said Dr. Jonathan E. Fielding, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. “It’s very, very disturbing, not only on the face of it, but because of the implications in terms of health and education and economic productivity.”

Fielding expressed particular concern about the sharp rise in children who received distributions last year, 393,000 or 40% of those served. That was more than double the number in 2005.

“We know that if kids don’t get the right kind of nutrition during the early period of life . . . we are handicapping them with respect to their outcomes -- educational outcomes, financial outcomes, social outcomes,” Fielding said. “It is a terrible thing.”

The local findings mirror national figures, which show demand at soup kitchens and food pantries also has grown 46% in the last four years, according to Feeding America, the country’s largest network of food banks. In all, one in eight Americans, more than 47 million people, received food last year from the network.

“The need is escalating at such a rapid rate,” said Paula Thornton Greear, spokeswoman for Feeding America. “We continue to grow, but the need continues to outpace the growth.”

Michael Flood, president of the Los Angeles Regional Foodbank, said some local nonprofits have already had to turn people away. If unemployment continues to grow or if more cuts are made to social services to help close California’s yawning budget gap, he said, there is rising concern that needs will not be met.

At Catholic Charities’ St. Mary’s Center, Ruth Funez surveyed the nearly empty shelves Tuesday and selected some pasta, canned goods and popcorn. She was particularly pleased when she spotted eggs in the refrigerator.

Officials at the East Hollywood center said they have struggled to keep the shelves stocked. In December, they provided food to 1,420 households, nearly double the number two years ago, said coordinator Marlene Rodriguez.

Six months ago, Funez didn’t need help feeding her household of eight, which includes four children.

“My husband lost his job, and things are getting really bad for us,” she said. “He was driving a truck for a pizzeria. They just cut back on people.”

In Los Angeles County about 12% of residents -- an estimated 584,300 people -- are unemployed, more than double the rate four years ago. Although 37% of the households who received assistance from the Los Angeles Regional Foodbank include at least one working adult, two-thirds of these people are in part-time jobs, the local study found.

The recession has affected many families who never thought they would need to get food from a charity. More than a quarter of the adults assisted (27%) have a college or technical school education, the study found. Of those still working or who have been employed in the past, 20% have held professional or managerial positions.

Health difficulties also appear to be a factor for many families seeking food assistance, Flood said. The study found that 30% of the households have at least one member in poor health, and 35% of adult recipients do not have health insurance.

Families are being forced to make tough decisions about how to spend scarce resources: 48% reported having to choose between paying for food and paying for utilities, 46% between food and rent and 42% between food and transportation.

Many resort to less-expensive options with low nutritional value, such as fast food, soda and chips, Fielding said.

“What seems like a food bargain is hardly a bargain over the long haul when it comes to one’s health,” he said. “Poor nutrition is a leading cause of many of the major killers in our society, including heart disease, stroke, diabetes and many types of cancer.”

The food bank is attempting to provide more fresh fruit and vegetables, Flood said. It has also joined forces with youth groups to provide after-school snacks and summer meals to nearly 2,000 local children. An additional 850 children identified by teachers at seven schools in South Los Angeles and Compton receive backpacks filled with food on Fridays, intended to feed them through the weekend.

To ease the pressure on nonprofits, Flood said it was also important to get more people onto the federal food stamp program. Just 46% of the eligible Californians were believed to be receiving the benefit in 2007, the most recent year for which figures are available.

More than 37,000 nonprofits and 61,000 of their beneficiaries participated in the national survey. The local study was based on interviews with 451 beneficiaries and staff at 363 programs.

Times staff photographer Anne Cusack contributed to this report.