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Los Angeles Charities Highlight Hunger Problem - 2002-06-06

Los Angeles and its suburbs have the highest number of families living under the poverty line of any metropolitan region in the United States, according to census figures released this week. The need puts a heavy demand on charities that provide food for the poor, such as soup kitchens and food banks. Los Angeles charities highlighted the problem Wednesday, which was National Hunger Awareness Day in the United States.

Michael Flood, executive director of the Los Angeles Regional Foodbank, says there is both good and bad news on this first-ever day devoted to hunger. "The bad news is, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 33 million Americans are food insecure, which basically means they have difficulty putting food on the table for their families," he said.

The problem in Los Angeles is compounded by a high cost of living, which often leaves families with little money for food after the rent is paid. "So the problem throughout America and throughout Los Angeles is great," he said. "The good news is, food banks collectively collect and distribute 1.5 billion pounds (680 million kilograms) of food annually. That helps tremendously, but it's not enough."

Hunger worsened in cities like Los Angeles last year when thousands of people lost their jobs following the terrorist attacks of September 11. The economic downturn hit hardest in the travel and airline industries, affecting workers like Justina Reyes. She worked for 11 years for a Los Angeles company that makes aircraft cables.

She says she was one of many workers who lost their jobs at the plant near the Los Angeles airport. A neighborhood charity helped her through the crisis.

Steven Neal works for an emergency food program sponsored by the Los Angeles labor federation and the United Way charity. He says 5,000 local union members lost their jobs the week of September 11. The regional foodbank and the unions stepped in to help. "We set up food banks and food pantries within those unions," he said. "And then we came here and provided food for them, trained their membership on how to bag it, distribute it, etc. That was our immediate response. And since then, probably another 15,000 workers have been displaced. "

Some displaced workers in the travel and aviation industries have gone back to work, but many others have not.

The Los Angeles Regional Foodbank distributes fresh poultry, rice, beans, canned fruit and other products to senior centers, religious organizations, shelters and community food programs. Director Michael Flood says some food is donated by individuals, but most comes in shipments from the food industry. "We also get a lot of commodities through the U.S. Department of Agriculture commodity program," he said. "But on the food industry side, a lot of this food ended up going to land-fills years ago. And we are abler to take wholesome food, which is just excess, maybe slightly damaged, may be mislabeled, it may not have sold as quickly as the manufacturer thought it was going to sell. And that food flows into food banks and goes out in Los Angeles County to 1,000 non-profit organizations that serve a wide variety of people who are dealing with the issue of hunger."

The Los Angeles Regional Foobank is one of hundreds of charities across the United States that are addressing a growing need, fueled in part by an economy emerging from recession and partly by high levels of immigration. These factors have pushed the poverty rate in Los Angeles to double the national average. The problem affects children disproportionately. 30 percent of the children in Los Angeles County live under the poverty line.

Matt Sharp of the organization California Food Policy Advocates says in coming months, conditions will only worsen as poor children who now receive hot lunch at school leave for their summer vacation. "And so there are perhaps 10 or 15 million kids who might have been able to get lunch during the school year but are in need during the summer," said Matt Sharp. "Programs are in place in some areas, but it's certainly not as comprehensive as it needs to be to reach all those in need."

The anti-hunger activist says in cities like Los Angeles, even families with incomes above the poverty line have trouble making ends meet. He says public and private programs are only partly meeting the need for food in the city.