Our day on January 7th started early. Though not as early as our bus driver’s! Mistakenly informed by her company that she needed to meet us at 6:30 in downtown Los Angeles, our driver had been curbside already for more than an hour before anyone showed up. She took it all in stride, though, and, by 8:00 or so, the LASA contingent had arrived, braving the rain and the early hour, fortified by the coffee and donuts Elizabeth provided.
Our destination was not far away: the Los Angeles County Food Bank is, as the crow flies, not far from downtown. But we were also traveling a world away from the skyscrapers of Los Angeles, a world away from the banking and legal centers of downtown. We drove to the Food Bank, housed in a gargantuan warehouse in warehouse-rich Vernon, and joined a large group of a couple hundred volunteers already assembled and receiving registration and work instructions. The Food Bank is a calorie-processing machine: its employees skillfully guide hundreds of volunteer workers through their tasks, all with the objective of organizing tons of food into manageable and “gleaned” parcels which, within days, find their way to distribution centers and to the county’s hungry and homeless. One out of seven residents of L.A. County experience food shortages – that’s more than a million people rendered hungry every single day.
We did our part, or at least helped a little, in our morning at the Food Bank. Our group was brought into the “gleaning room.” Brrr. The food, which included a lot of perishables (and a lot had already perished), had to be kept cold, which it, and all of us, were. Somewhat hurried instructions about what we were supposed to do did not really register with any of us, but we clearly had the job of separating out food that could not continue on the journey to the hungry. It all became clear pretty quickly, as we split up into labor lines and, helped by Food Bank staffers (all of whom work hard, quickly, and with humor), we began “to glean.” Glean we did. Rotten vegetables? Toss them (weigh them first). Expiration date well past? Toss it (weigh it first). Unfrozen turkey? Ick. Toss it (weigh it). Lots of syrup containers. We got the idea that some wholesalers of food may use the food bank as a charitable way to divest themselves of foodstuffs and products that even they knew would not make it to the hungry. But, to be fair, the vast amount of food we encountered – fruit, vegetable, meat, eggs, boxed and dry food, candy, cakes, soft drinks, cheeses, snacks, and on and on – did pass muster, did get boxed by our assembly line efforts, and did move through the system to the next steps in other parts of the warehouse, to be further separated and re-boxed again for shipment out to the needy.
We worked nearly three hours. We processed the entire mountain of boxes that sat before us as we walked into the gleaning room, and we were not cold any longer. It was tiring and inspiring, both (it always is). And we worked as a LASA team, all of us, and we were proud of ourselves.
The Food Bank says it can feed someone a meal for a quarter. A family of four for a dollar. That stunned us, as did the sheer number of those among us who are hungry every day. As we moved off to lunch in downtown’s Central Market, we were all reminded of the disparities across greater L.A. We each had a budget of about $15 for lunch in the Market. Not extravagant in the least, given the rise in prices (and options) in recent months. We ate well, and we had the chance to sample some of the great array of ethnic food that continues to be a keystone attraction of a revitalized downtown. But, we thought, our $15 for, let’s say, a bowl of rice, chicken curry, a spring roll, and a Coke, could become a meal for 60 people if it were run through the amazing operation of the LA Food Bank.
Food for thought.
See you next month!