When it comes to the hungry, Los Angeles County has an eating disorder. Well, technically, it’s a disorder of food supply, demand, and distribution.
The county has the nation’s largest population of people who are “food insecure,” or don’t know where their next meal is coming from. At the same time, the food banks that serve the region have to throw away food or turn down donations because of lack of adequate storage space or the means to get food to people who need it, and the difficulty in matching the flow of food donations to the demand.
All of this results in a lot of food waste and frustration for those working to support people struggling to survive in the region with a cost of living among the highest in the country.
“Our warehouses are almost always over capacity,” explained Genevieve Riutort, chief development officer for the Westside Food Bank. “That is a real challenge for us – to have enough space – because Los Angeles is very expensive.”
Ground zero in the battle to match those in need of food with the available supply is Riutort’s Santa Monica-based Westside Food Bank, which distributes nearly 100,000 pounds of produce and packaged goods every week to local agencies with food assistance programs. Just recently, the food bank had to turn away donations. Their 7,000-square-foot warehouse space was nearly full with donations they hadn’t been able to distribute in time to receive the new supply.
The logistical problem of not having room in warehouses and coolers has become the biggest obstacle to fresh food delivery.
Fresh produce – such as apples, milk, and eggs – needs to be delivered within four days. Otherwise, they may go bad in the warehouse, which is the last thing that they want to see: food bankers becoming the people who throw food away.
Westside Food Bank is not unique. L.A. Kitchen had similar logistical problems that ultimately contributed in some part to it shutting down last month. CEO Robert Egger has worked in the industry for more than 30 years. Before coming to Los Angeles, he found success with D.C. Kitchen, an East Coast food bank that landed him on the list of 50 Most Powerful and Influential nonprofit leaders from 2006-2009.
But when he attempted to duplicate the operation model of D.C. Kitchen to L.A. Kitchen, it didn’t work.
“In D.C. we probably had 12 refrigerator trucks driving all around the city,” Egger said. “And L.A. is such an enormous town. I don’t want to spend money on drivers, gasoline on trucks going around just picking up what we know is going to be a smaller and smaller amount of food.”
At Westside Food Bank, the operation relies on eight employees and hundreds volunteers to service what amounts to 10 percent of L.A. County. One factor that in the past had helped the food bank maintain a stable food supply was USDA assistance through The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP). But in the past three years, support has dropped by half.
“I would say less than five percent of our food came from USDA this year,” Riutort said.
The drop resulted from a calculation based on average wages in Los Angeles County, which exceed its funding standard. According to the Emergency Food Assistance Program 2017 Income Guidelines, a median household income should be lower than $43,170 per year in order to qualify. The average income of an L.A. household was $55,909, which was above the national standard. But the high cost of living in Los Angeles means residents at that income level aren’t any better off than those making less in other parts of the country, Riutort said.
Los Angeles County has the largest population of people with food insecurity than any other county in the nation. Approximately 1.4 million people, 16 percent of LA County residents, do not know where their next meal is coming from, according to Los Angeles Regional Food Bank’s research. Many families with double incomes can’t afford their living, housing and eating.
“People end up spending 70 percent of their income just on housing, and the standard that is considered healthy is to spend 30 percent,” Riutort said. “They make too much money to qualify for the program, but they do not make enough money to buy food for their family.”
Director of Los Angeles Regional Food Bank Elizabeth Cervantes said via email that the majority of people they serve “live in households where at least one person is employed, but wages have not kept up with the rising cost of housing causing many families and individuals to need food assistance.”
Feeding hungry people has become a more urgent matter than ever, with pressure on food banks to provide meals. An estimated 80 percent of families who shop at food pantries rely on food banks on a regular basis. Westside Food Bank wants to provide high quality food that could provide balanced nutrition to people in need, despite their financial strains.
In the absence of government support and growing hunger, food bankers are doing their best to manage the food distribution problem. Ruitort said food banks are not capable and will never be capable of providing all of the food a community needs.
“There is a great need, and we are doing our best to fill it,” Ruitort said. “But we need more help.”
Although it is very hard to manage these problems, food banks in Orange County have managed to succeed. Waste Not Coalition helped Orange County Food Banks with food distribution management. They enlisted drivers who were already on the road – including UPS and taxi drivers – and provided them with software to track their location and their availability to shuttle food during work lulls.
The software alerts, food bankers of drivers’ whereabouts, so they can be ready to receive deliveries, or redirect them if they don’t have space. The system is working, said Mike Learakos, executive director of Waste Not Coalition. The food banks have become more efficient. Less food is wasted and more food is delivered more quickly.
“We use yellow cabs for after school program delivery,” said. “The cab drivers do not touch the food. Pantry staffs will load food and keep them fresh and safe. All we need is wheels.”
However, if food bankers from L.A. County copy the technology models from Orange County, it may still be not realistic. Learakos said a lot of food pantry operators are not tech savvy, and it takes time to learn the software.
The reporting for this story was completed as coursework in the Journalism M.S. Program at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.