Annenberg Radio

Los Angeles food distribution centers fight hunger amid COVID-19

The directors of Project Angel Food, Jewish Family Service L.A. and North Hollywood Interfaith Food Bank talk about feeding Angelenos in the midst of the pandemic.

According to a study by Columbia University, millions of Americans fell below the poverty line during the pandemic. With numbers like that, food banks became even more important than they already were. Reporter Nataly Joseph talked to directors of food distribution in Los Angeles about their plans for fighting hunger in 2021, after such a devastating year.

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Richard Ayoub, director of Project Angel Food in Los Angeles, helped distribute meals outside of his facility for Thanksgiving last year, with a few new additions: masks and social distancing.

Since his organization targets older Angelenos and those with underlying health conditions, they had to find a way to get them their meals without putting them at risk.

2020 turned our world upside down. We had to do more in a shorter time and we didn’t have the luxury of slowing down or shutting down.

Richard put up plexiglass at every station and reworked their AC system for better air filtration. To minimize the risk of exposure, they had to release all 200 of their volunteers.

We hired nine out of restaurant chefs to help us. And so we’re taking on the added cost. Also what happened is we did 40% more meals last year with fewer people because they were professionals, so our efficiency went up.

But Richard wasn’t the only director having to accommodate the steep increase in food-insecure Angelenos.

Eli Veitzer has worked for Jewish Family Service L.A. for over a decade. But says he’s never seen the level of food insecurity brought on by the pandemic.

We certainly are seeing people who in the past wouldn’t have come to a food pantry—wouldn’t have needed to come to the food pantry in need of food. Absolutely. But I will say that the notion of food insecurity may be misunderstood because it’s not only the unemployed, poor families that are food insecure even before the pandemic.

Eli said that food insecurity in L.A. remains a serious problem, especially with its expensive living costs.

Certainly in L.A. County, the cost of housing, of rent and other costs, many families who may have one or two working adults are still in need of food support by the end of the month.

Since the pandemic hit, we initially saw that fortysomething increase in need.

Barbara Javitz directs the North Hollywood Interfaith Food Bank. She said she faced the same demand. Soon after the pandemic started, she also lost all of her volunteers, since most of them are older and could no longer safely help out.

The lack of volunteers is a constant challenge because food distribution is physical. It’s manual.

With obstacles piling up, and fast, they had to find a way to feed Angelenos most in need. Eli added food delivery to Jewish Family Services L.A.’s already long list of social services.

We’re actually delivering now to about 1,200 households. And those deliveries are primarily for older adults and disabled individuals throughout Los Angeles.

Barbara took a completely different approach and hired all new volunteers to help with their new pickup system.

We’ve been fortunate in that we’ve been able to recruit two different new groups of volunteers. And it’s been people who are working from home, people that have more of a flexible schedule and people who are younger. We’ve become a 100% drive-through model.They drive in front of the pantry, they pop open their trunk, they get the appropriate either cooking or not cooking bag and off they go.

Eli says his organization also works to help fight the causes of food insecurity by enrolling his patrons in government programs and providing counseling services to families.

Working with trained staff on benefit enrollment, we can actually help appeal decisions. We can make sure that people actually get access to the benefits that are there for them, which goes to the whole goal of sort of income support to enable people to make it through the pandemic.

The decline of COVID-19 cases won’t mark the end of food insecurity in Los Angeles. Directors like Barbara say they’ve made valuable changes to their services that will last long after 2020.

We’ve decided to keep our drive-through model forever and never go back to walking inside because it’s very efficient and it works.

Eli says he’s prepared for the food insecurity caused by the pandemic to last into the coming years, as it did years after the great recession ended. Amidst the chaos of the past year, Eli found silver linings.

I think if the result of all of this is that we end up with a stronger community and a more caring community and a more tolerant community, that would be fantastic.

At least a million Americans could be lifted out of poverty with the recent passage of the Biden administration’s nearly $2 trillion relief package.

But directors like Barbara, Richard, and Eli know that the real work happens on the ground. And for Richard, whose organization was founded to deliver meals during the AIDS epidemic, tough times are when it’s most important to help your fellow human being.

Here we are. Another pandemic… We truly feel we were born for this moment.

And he and his team go back to handing out meals—one at a time—to alleviate the suffering.