Food banks struggle to meet basic needs of LA County residents

In Summary

Nonprofits distribute 80 million pounds of food in Los Angeles County per year, helping low-income people survive. 

With a part-time job and seven children to feed, Ivonne Vargas, a single mother living in East Los Angeles, has found it difficult to survive. Fortunately, she says, food banks have always pulled her out of trouble. 

Every week, Vargas visits a food bank to stock up on basic products. She has no choice. Because she works only two days a week in a supermarket, her income doesn’t meet her family’s basic needs.

“With that job, I barely make about $236 a week,” said Vargas, who emigrated from Mexico City more than two decades ago. 

For eight years, Vargas has rented a four-bedroom house in the El Sereno area, where she currently pays $1,500 per month. “The money wasn’t enough, but I can’t give up. I had to bring food to the house every day.” 

On any given Friday at Monte Sion Food Center, with a donation of just $7, Vargas fills the trunk of her old pickup truck with more than 80 pounds of fruits, vegetables, milk, pasta, tomatoes and other items she says, will be enough for a week. Despite the financial challenges Vargas faces in paying rent, dressing her children and putting food on the table, she has managed to ensure that four of her daughters are on their way to a college degree.  

“Thank God my children are studying for their careers,” she said. “They’ve struggled, but they’ll be a different and better generation and I’ll support them in any way I can.” 

Over the past 19 years, the needs of distributors for food banks have more than doubled, said Michael Flood, president and chief executive of the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank (LARFB).  

 “In California, we have high levels of poverty,” Flood said. “That’s a clear indication that many people can’t meet their basic needs.”

The regional food bank distributes about 80 million pounds of food per year to Los Angeles County residents. Of the estimated 7.1 million people reached annually, 12% are seniors and 24% are children under the age of 18.

In Los Angeles County, some 635,000 people among more than ten million suffer from economic insecurity and hunger, according to the latest analysis by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.  

The highest prevalence of food insecurity was reported in the Antelope Valley at 16.3% and the city of Los Angeles at 16.9%; the lowest was in west Los Angeles with 6.4%.

“The Antelope Valley is considered a [food] desert where residents have low or limited access to a grocery store,” said Tony Kuo, director of the Division of Chronic Diseases and Injury Prevention at the county health department.

Lack of transportation is a barrier in the Antelope Valley, he said. Without access to a car, residents struggle to get to and from places.

Mario Rivera, president of Monte Sion Food Center in East Los Angeles, said that since he opened the food bank in 2015, he has helped people survive the uncertainty of whether they will have food the next day. The food is left over from private companies and California farmers. 

“We would like to help everyone to meet their most basic needs,” he said. “We know it’s not easy, but we do our best to give them a little light of hope.” 

Born in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, Rivera said that “a person can live a long time wearing the same clothes, but they can’t live if they stop eating.” 

Working families like Jorge Carmona, a mechanic, and his partner, Maribel Santos, a restaurant worker, said they also rely on food banks.

The couple visits the Monte Sion Center every Friday so they can feed their family of six, including their three-year-old granddaughter.   

“I barely earn $500 a week,” Jorge said while loading in his car “the indispensable for a week”: tomatoes, oranges, pasta, milk and other necessities.  

“I get paid the minimum of $14.25 an hour because I work at a fast-food restaurant,” Santos added. “We live in Boyle Heights, and sometimes we have trouble paying the $2,500 rent.” The couple said they live in a two-bedroom apartment because in Los Angeles there are no places for a six-member family where the monthly payment is about $1,600.

Last April, AB 534 by Assemblyman Chad Mayes, a Republican from Yucca Valley, would have set a budget of $11.5 million for the Department of Food and Agriculture to map food deserts in the state and provide local hubs to distribute food in those locations. However, the initiative was frozen in the state Senate Appropriations Committee.

Food insecurity in California affects 12.5% of the population, or 4.9 million people, mostly Latinos, and African-Americans, according to the bill.  “Unfortunately, the project got stuck,” said Joe Justin, Mayes’ chief of staff. “We were fighting for what’s right.”

Hilda Solís, a Los Angeles County Supervisor, said one way to combat poverty is to focus on nutritional programs that give low-income families the opportunity to buy healthy foods. “This is the time when we need to expand our food safety net for the most vulnerable and not reduce support,” Solís said.

Solis said she promoted the expansion of CalFresh in June by announcing that people who receive Social Security could qualify for the food stamp program. People can contact the Department of Public and Social Services at (866) 613-3777 to find out if they are eligible for support. 

Jorge Macías is a freelancer at La Opinión, the only Spanish newspaper printed in Los Angeles. This article is part of the California Divide project, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequality and economic survival in California.

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