David Navarro drove south from the Los Angeles Boys & Girls Club in Lincoln Heights on a recent sun-drenched day, headed to his weekly destination in a dust-gray Ford pickup.
As usual, he couldn't simply cruise into the crowded parking lot of the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank on 41st Street near Alameda. He was stopped by an employee who works miracles in the lot, arranging rigs in jigsaw patterns as drivers wait their turn to make food pickups.
The Salvation Army was already there, along with the Good News Central Church and the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles. Hollywood West Tenant Action Council was pulling in behind Navarro.
"I'll go in now and see what they have today," said Navarro, who told me that back at the Boys & Girls Club, people would be lining up for whatever he brought back.
Once inside the sprawling warehouse, Navarro moved as if he was in a race, trying to get his hands on as many perishables as he could before other drivers claimed them.
"They like any nice vegetables like this," he said, hoisting several crates of firm, stout zucchini onto his pushcart.
Over the course of an hour, Navarro worked up a sweat gathering boxes of bread and mounds of bananas, apples, lettuce and tomatoes. All of this tipped the scales at 556 pounds, and Navarro pushed the teetering cargo outside and loaded it onto his truck.
I thought he was done, but no.
"Now I go back," he said, "and fill the cart again."
In a region of staggering abundance, there is still desperate need. In a culture that wastes tons of food, there is still considerable hunger. And no charitable organization does more to balance the scales than the food bank, which began exactly 40 years ago, on Feb. 20, 1973.
It all began with a Pasadena cook named Tony Collier, who hated seeing perfectly good food getting thrown out at the recovery center where he worked. He began redistributing it to those in need, and the operation just kept growing. Today, it distributes some 200,000 pounds of food daily. A staff of 106 is backed up by 32,000 volunteers who pitch in at least one day a year, sorting food that includes non-perishables such as canned corn, as well as foods such as navel oranges and frozen chicken that have to be turned around quickly, before they go bad.
Each morning, a convoy of food bank trucks retrieves surplus food from farms, supermarket chains and other donors and brings it back to the warehouse, where it is picked up by about 650 agencies. Another 600 groups are on a waiting list to be included in the daily giveaway.
"Four hundred thousand of the 1 million people we serve each year are kids," said Michael Flood, president and chief executive of the food bank.
The challenge of the food bank has been to hook up with farmers whose harvest is sometimes bigger than the demand, or with supermarkets that have stocked more perishable food than they can sell. Ralphs and Vons are among the biggest donors to the food bank.
Still, billions of dollars worth of food ends up in dumpsters every year in the U.S., Flood said. He encourages citizens to be more conscious of waste and get involved in food donations or volunteering at a local pantry or the food bank (for more information, http://www.lafoodbank.org).
If you do happen to wander into the food bank, watch your step or you could get run over by a forklift. They zip around like bumper cars, honking horns as they wheel hulking loads toward the exits. And one of the employees who supervises the flow from delivery trucks to conveyor belts to palates is Valerie Rodriguez.
Rodriguez, like the food she processes, didn't get where she was supposed to go on the first try. The food bank is her second chance. As a teen growing up in South El Monte, she got it all wrong, becoming a drug addict, getting married way too young, losing kids she couldn't care for, and ending up in rehab at several skid row agencies, including the L.A. Mission and Union Rescue Mission.
But then she began straightening herself out, and as part of a welfare-to-work program, Rodriguez was assigned to volunteer at the food bank, not knowing anything about it. That's when she saw the trucks roll in from the missions and made the connection:
The food she'd eaten at the missions came from the food bank. She'd gone from recipient to supplier. And the food bank liked her so much that she was offered a temp job.
"It was after about a year of volunteering here," Rodriguez said.
Later, she was promoted to full time, and she's since remarried and regained custody of her children.
"It's still a struggle," she said. "But my hope and dream and desire is to save and buy a home. I want to have a home for my kids to grow up in."
While Rodriguez supervised volunteers, David Navarro finished loading his pickup and drove north from the food bank with more than 1,000 pounds of food. That evening, volunteers bagged the goods as men and women inched closer to the door of the Boys & Girls Club, eagerly awaiting their care packages.
Jo Ellen Kitchen, a volunteer at the club since the 1980s, told me she'd heard that the country has started to see an economic recovery.
"But it never really seems to get here."
It was Valentine's Day, and 20 people were in line. As dusk drew in around them, Alvina Rodriguez and Teresa Olmeda talked about the challenges of temporary work, low pay and hungry children. On this night, they and the others would go home with dinner because a simple act of compassion 40 years ago keeps rippling across the city.