DOWNEY – Every Saturday morning, not far from the Downey Farmers Market, a local food bank opens its doors to assist with a common problem faced by many of today’s working poor and those on fixed incomes - insufficient food.
Despite statistics that show a rebounding economy, many people find they have little left for the grocery store after paying their rent and utilities.
“We’re here to help,” says volunteer Marty Fehn. “We only want to know, are you hungry? Do you need food?” The application form is basic, asking how many people are in the family and if there are any special dietary needs or food allergies.
It is hard to name the most impressive feature of this all-volunteer operation known as FoodHelp – the number of people being served, the quality and variety of its food, or the community-wide collaboration among churches, civic groups, and businesses that makes it all possible.
In a crowded, and often anonymous, urban environment, FoodHelp’s network of volunteers and donors gives new definition to the words “neighbor” and “community.”
FoodHelp is a homegrown Downey organization, started 10 years ago by Bob Varden in the back lot of the Downey First Christian Church on New Street. There is no paid staff, but dozens of committed volunteers now serve close to one hundred families every week.
DFCC provides office and storage space, which now includes a storage bin with refrigeration for perishables. Other organizations regularly contribute food and money to stock the shelves for Saturday mornings when the food bank is open.
“There’s usually a line when I get here about 8:30 on Saturday mornings,” says Fehn. “The earliest I’ve heard of people coming was at 4:30 one morning. I know that someone needs food if they’re willing to stand in line for several hours.”
FoodHelp’s capacity has grown over the years through the cooperation of community organizations. It receives no government assistance. Porto’s Bakery is a regular donor, as was Fresh and Easy until it closed. Various grocery stores contribute slightly bruised fruit that is no longer marketable.
Even Downey Unified School District has a procedure for contributing excess produce and milk that can not be kept over Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. The Food Services department sought permission for this innovative program several years ago because district regulations do not allow employees to personally benefit from surplus food.
“We would rather see any perishable food going to someone who needs it rather than throw it away,” says Nadine Silva, Food Operations Coordinator for DUSD.
FoodHelp also collaborates with PTA H.E.L.P.S., a food bank sponsored by the Downey Council PTA with its distribution point at Apollo Park. PTA H.E.L.P.S. is a resource for all Downey residents that is open mid-day every Wednesday and Friday. School personnel often make referrals for needy families.
“We have special holiday distributions for Thanksgiving and Christmas,” says Director Beth Gendreau, “and families with children are encouraged to apply.” Applications are available at all of the public schools and at the Barbara J. Riley Community and Senior Center.
Together the two food banks supplement each other’s services and often share collections from food drives and related activities.
“We don’t get much call for baby food,” reports Gendreau, “so we pass on donated baby food to FoodHelp. We also pass on any surplus of particular canned goods, such as cranberry sauce during the holidays.”
Gendreau tells that one year they received a donation of 400 lbs. of chicken. Some of it was in bulk, frozen, and some was already packaged in family-sized quantities. Gendreau says PTA H.E.L.P.S. kept the packaged chicken and shared the bulk quantity with FoodHelp because of it refrigeration facilities.
Both organizations report increasing numbers of people seeking assistance. On the Saturday before Thanksgiving, FoodHelp organizers reported 132 families receiving food, totaling over 600 people. This was the highest number of people served on a weekend in 10 years.
PTA H.E.L.P.S. now serves about 200 families every month. A special holiday basket will be distributed to approximately 600 families between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
According to school board member Martha Sodetani, DUSD estimates about 200 of its students are homeless. Families are identified as homeless if they are living in a hotel room rather than an apartment. Gendreau says PTA H.E.L.P.S considers a family’s cooking facilities when giving out food.
Family circumstances are a sensitive issue, requiring respect and discretion by those giving assistance. Both Gendreau and Fehn at FoodHelp say that allowing clients to maintain their dignity is a priority for all volunteers.
Fehn reflects on the worrisome implications of the increasing numbers being served by the food banks.
“We are the only organization I know of that doesn’t want their clients to come back.” Fehn estimates about five percent of FoodHelp clients are homeless. About thirty percent are on fixed income, and the remainder are people who are underemployed or in transition from life-changing events such as divorce, job loss, and medical conditions.
Weekend preparation at FoodHelp begins on Friday mornings when some volunteers arrive at the church to bag bread and bakery items into smaller, family-sized bundles. Men with trucks and strong arms drive to Help the Children, a food distribution center in Bell, where FoodHelp is able to purchase fresh produce and dairy products to supplement the canned and boxed goods that people donate. When possible, they also purchase frozen chicken, meat, or fish.
“Every Friday is my day to give back to the community,” says Marcos Labrin, who is self-employed and volunteers his time and truck to pull a trailer laden with cases of food.
Labrin explains that they usually pick up five pallets of food, and the quantity and variety are different every week depending on availability. Two of the pallets are loaded by hand, so the volunteers have some choice in what they bring back. They often alternate purchases of milk one week with purchases of juice the next. This week they have also returned with frozen, wild-caught fish from Taiwan.
As the project grew over the years, FoodHelp acquired two large bins for food storage, one for canned and boxed goods, and one with two freezers and refrigerators for perishables. This week milk and fish are unloaded into the refrigerated units, and much of the produce is stacked up on tables in a small church annex where it will keep overnight.
The produce available for Saturday’s distribution reflects the care that is given to offering healthy food. In addition to the staple of potatoes, there are brussel sprouts, eggplant, chayote, bell peppers, apples, bananas, pears, mangos, tomatoes, and blackberries. Over a dozen people have contributed their Friday morning to getting everything ready.
By 9 a.m. the doors to the church activity room are open and everyone in line is invited to wait inside. There is a sign-in sheet and Fehn describes the process as being on a first-come, first-serve basis, “unless there is someone I know who has a serious medical problem.”
A few clients on fixed incomes have degenerative illnesses that make waiting in line difficult. “I move them to the front,” he says.
Fehn pulls the card for each family that walks in and records the date. First-time visitors are given an application and asked about any special needs.
“We’re not trying to pry,” says Fehn, “but we like to let them know that we can give referrals for other resources, such as unemployment counseling, shelters, resume workshops, etc. We also want to be sure we give them enough food for a family if only one person shows up but there are three others at home.”
FoodHelp asks that clients only visit the food bank once a month, but Fehn says they won’t turn anyone away if there is an emergency.
Members of the Key Club from Warren High are among the volunteers who help escort clients through the small annex where the food is distributed. About 20 volunteers are needed each Saturday to make things run smoothly.
The food is arranged so that people can make selections based on their preferences, but quantities are limited depending on what is available and how many people show up that day.
Fehn says volunteers have learned from experience how to apportion the food so that everyone gets something. It’s an efficient system that is both generous yet careful to maximize the number of people being served each week. Volunteers escort clients to their cars and help load the food.
Impact on Volunteers
Fehn says being a volunteer has been a life-changing experience for some high school students. At one time the FoodHelp application used to ask, “How long has it been since you last ate?” The answer by one woman, “48 hours,” was a shock to the high school volunteer who took her application.
“I’ve seen students change their goals and majors based on what they have seen here,” says Fehn. One student said she wanted to go into occupational therapy after seeing the needs of food bank clients.
On at least one occasion, Fehn says, a student saw the mother of a classmate. Volunteer training and a FoodHelp Code of Conduct serve to prepare people for such events.
“Treat all guests and fellow volunteers with respect,” is the first guideline. “Food is not earned, it is given…no individual is more entitled than another…Foul or harsh language cannot be tolerated…this includes gossip…Volunteering is an act of sacrifice and sometimes the needs are not glamorous.”
Fehn says that Key Club members come to the food bank needing service hours and he tells them, “You will leave being a servant to your community.”
Food Bank Partners
Recognizing that duplicated programs can often result in wasted effort and resources, a number of churches have worked to coordinate their efforts. First Baptist Church of Downey supports FoodHelp with food drives and regular financial donations. Downey United Methodist Church met its goal last year of contributing one ton each of rice and beans for the food bank.
The Women’s Guild of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, which makes sandwiches for the homeless every week, has partnered with the food bank on food drives. Members of Calvary Chapel bring donated bread from Von’s Bakery in Commerce to the Saturday distributions, and sometimes get donations from Trader Joe’s.
PTA H.E.L.P.S. receives donations from community groups such as the Sertoma Club and Kaiser Retirees. Gendreau reports that Kaiser Hospital makes an annual donation.
Other businesses also participate actively in supporting the food banks. Last April Downey Federal Credit Union partnered with FoodHelp to package meals of rice, lentil beans, and spices that would serve four.
Jim Wilkinson, Director of FoodHelp, says close to three hundred people came in to help, and bagged over 41,000 meals at the Rio Hondo Event Center. This was a significant increase from the 27,000 meals bagged in 2014. Wilkinson says they plan to do it again in 2016.
Recently Toyota Lift of Santa Fe Springs donated an electric hand lift to facilitate moving food from truck to storage bin. Red Wing Shoes donates work shoes in various sizes that are made available to FoodHelp clients on Saturday mornings. Some businesses, such as Farmers and Merchants Bank and Mambo Grill, serve as collection points for donated canned goods.
Other Downey youth groups besides the Key Club also help with keeping the shelves stocked. Gendreau says that scout troops often hold food drives. One troop organized a Scouting for Food at Ralph’s supermarkets. They stood outside with fliers and collected both food and financial donations.
Volunteers point out that people may be surprised at other valuable ways to contribute. Surplus fresh fruit from backyard trees is always welcome.
Lana Wahlquist from La Lecha League encourages mothers who are breast-feeding their babies to donate any sample formulas received from advertisers to FoodHelp.
“Breast-feeding mothers don’t use the formula milk,” Wahlquist explains, “and that way it will go to a baby who is already being formula-fed.”
For all of the activity, Downey’s food banks and their extensive network of donors and volunteers are “under the radar” for most people. Their weekly impact is significant, and they highlight in a different way what many residents have in mind when they refer to the “sense of community” in the city of Downey.
People wishing to volunteer in any capacity are encouraged to contact either food bank by phone or on their websites:
Downey Council PTA H.E.L.P.S.