Michael Flood, Executive Director of the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, describes the unique nature of the pandemic. Unemployment and high housing costs forced many people who never sought food assistance to reach out for aid. Some people were at the end of their careers and spent their entire life savings over the last 12 months.
Throughout Los Angeles County, mobile food pantries typically operated out of community colleges and health clinics. Lines streamed many blocks as people waited to receive assistance. Then the food bank decided to move the distribution to a drive-thru operation.
Michael Flood tells KCRW:
“Prior to the pandemic, the LA Regional Food Bank was partnering with 600 other organizations, food pantries, soup kitchens and meal programs, older adult and children's programs throughout Los Angeles County. And the biggest issue at that time was our area's high housing costs, and how that was putting a lot of pressure on household budgets and forcing people to really struggle between paying the rent and other basic expenses, and paying for food.
Since the pandemic hit, the story is unemployment and people who have been thrown out of work, laid-off, furloughed, or had hours cut back severely, and the pressure that has put on so many more households needing food assistance. And a lot of people are brand-new to need. We've heard this over and over again from people telling us this is the first time they've ever had to seek food assistance in their lives. They were doing fine, but when the COVID-19 situation hit, and parts of the economy started closing down, it put them in a situation of needing food assistance overnight.
Prior to the pandemic, the food bank runs what's called a mobile food pantry program. And we move those distributions around to community colleges, health clinics, community sites throughout Los Angeles County.
In mid-March, with some initial distributions of our mobile food pantry program, we saw lines streaming many blocks and people on foot seeking food assistance. We would have to dispatch truck after truck to try to just serve everyone who was in line. And we quickly decided — let's move a lot of these distributions to drive-through distributions for those who have a vehicle. For those who don't have a vehicle, they continue to go to a food pantry or other partner to get food assistance. We saw that starting right in mid-March, and it has not abated in the year that's followed.
People start lining up early. Prior to the holidays, when we had distribution at Santa Monica Airport, cars started lining up at 6:30 a.m. for 9 a.m. distribution, even though we had plenty of food. It was just families really worried about getting that food assistance for themselves.
One of the reporters who was there interviewed the family who was first in line, and when I asked what their situation was, both husband and wife had worked in the hospitality industry, and had been laid off since March. They had been recycling cans to try to provide a little bit of income for themselves, but really have been struggling with unemployment benefits and any other way they could get help.
What struck all of us was that this was food for their Christmas dinner. They were out of food, and this was the difference for them in terms of eating that day, the next day, and through the holidays. We see this from so many families and individuals coming through. This food assistance is essential and critical.
The three best ways for people to help are to volunteer, to donate, and to advocate. We ask for people who are not dealing with the COVID situations and who are not in threat of underlying health conditions to think about volunteering their time. People can donate financially, both to the food bank and to our agency partners. Because we rely so heavily on donated food, the Food Bank is able to distribute the equivalent of four meals for every dollar that is donated. Advocacy is a really important part of our work. The decisions that are made in Washington, D.C., Sacramento, and locally have a huge impact on the families, people, workers, and small businesses to turn things around. The Food Bank lends its voice and advocates for policies that are going to help residents here in Los Angeles County not only deal with food issues, but really be able to turn things around, because so many people have lost everything.
We have a lot of people that have gone through their entire life savings. They’re towards the end of their working career, and this has completely upended their financial life. They have nothing left.
It speaks to the overall issue that this is something that we can all do something about. Let's do what we can. Let's make it an opportunity, so that we can come out of this not weaker and more fragmented, but stronger in providing the kind of help, assistance, and opportunity that we all want individually, and that we should hope for others.”