MAKING A DIFFERENCE
By Darlene Donloe
Prior to COVID-19, the Westside Food Bank had already begun to see record-level increases in the need for food assistance.
Today, in the midst of a burgeoning pandemic and an economic downturn, the food bank is bursting at the seams as the need for food has grown exponentially.
The face of hunger has changed in recent months with many who are trying to make ends meet seeking help from food banks and pantries for the first time.
With so many people being furloughed from work and seeing a reduction or loss of income, food banks and pantries continue to remain a lifeline to the community.
No one knows better what a family is going through when they find themselves without enough food than Genevieve Riutort, the food bank’s chief development officer. At times, she too has found herself in need.
“I have a personal history of having to need food assistance, first as a child and then when I was going through a divorce with three small children and not working,” said Riutort, who has been with the organization for 16 years and became its chief development officer this past July. “That food safety net was there for me when I needed it. There was that sense of relief of having food. Nothing is as scary as not having food for your kids. That’s why I’m dedicated to our mission.”
Westside Food Bank’s mission is to end hunger in communities by providing access to free nutritious food through food acquisition and distribution, and by engaging the community and advocating for a strong food assistance network.
“Food is a human right,” Riutort said. “There is more than enough of it. It’s a compassion issue.”
When COVID-19 sent industries into a tailspin, the Westside Food Bank had to change its operation.
“It was a different world,” Riutort said. “Before COVID, we could have people bring food donations. We would get 1½ million pounds of fresh produce each year. It came in giant boxes, so we would have volunteers put it in manageable size boxes so they could send it to our partners.
“Now we can’t do any of that,” she added. “We were running 400 food drives, now we’re not able to do that except on a much smaller scale. Whatever we didn’t get in donations we would make up in purchases.”
Westside Food Bank works with 55 agencies that became “extremely overwhelmed,” when the pandemic hit.
“First, everyone was concerned about getting enough … hand sanitizer and masks,” Riutort said. “Now the [equipment] is more reliable. They saw a huge surge overnight. The need doubled. Twice as many people were relying on our 55 food pantries, including people who never needed it before.
“Luckily, we were able to respond immediately. We started ordering twice as much food. The food was flying off the shelves. We couldn’t get it in fast enough.”
According to Riutort, the Westside Food Bank is distributing 75% more food than usual and its member agencies continue to request even more. The vast majority of the food is distributed to people via food pantries. The rest is provided at shelters, transitional housing, community kitchens and school-related and veterans’ programs.
Riutort said there was and still is a huge emphasis to purchase and provide lots of nutritious food.
“Understand that we have a huge emphasis on nutrition,” she said. “The food is a balanced reality. We provide a full range of nutrients. Plenty of green vegetables, onions, carrots, food like that.”
All the other food the food bank buys is from the wholesale market.
“We’re like the middleman because food pantries don’t have the capacity to buy all that food at once,” Riutort said. “We buy the food and we get big truckloads and then we distribute it out to the agencies that directly serve the public. Our service area is one-10th of L.A. County.”
The Westside Food Bank services from La Brea Boulevard west to the ocean and from Inglewood to Malibu.
“A million people live in that area,” Riutort said. “So that means our food is reaching 110,000 people. This year our food will reach 200,000. When they were hit with the stay-at-home order, some of the people we’re servicing became food insecure overnight. We’re talking everyday people.”
Riutort said senior citizens are the biggest group of food insecure people and that during this pandemic, many have become homeless for the first time.
“I can only speak anecdotally,” Riutort said, “but about 40-45% of the people that are getting food assistance now are getting it for the first time. Our demand doubled overnight.”
Riutort added: “Thankfully,” the people who work in the social service world have been on top of handling the people whose lives are being uprooted for the first time.
“This pandemic has caused us to reach out to other partners and make new connections,” Riutort said. “We now partner with Meals on Wheels West. They also deliver groceries with meals. We are providing groceries that they give away for free.”
Half of the food Westside Food Bank provides to pantries is donated, according to Riutort. A “big chunk” of it comes from farm-to-family programs.
“We share produce with others around the state,” Riutort said. “More than half of what we distribute is fresh produce, eggs and frozen chicken. We also have shelf-stable milk. People think of food banks as warehouses full of cans. It’s not. We distribute a wide variety of food.”
Riutort said less than 10% of the food they distribute goes to the homeless. The vast majority goes to low-income households, people who work low-wage jobs, and seniors.
Westside Food Bank is currently meeting the food security needs of tens of thousands of additional households including families with children, home-bound seniors, people working in the entertainment industry, gig workers, housekeepers and custodians, restaurant workers, college students, veterans and more.
As great a job as food banks do, Riutort said they can’t do it all.
“There is an effective and efficient program in place to help people,” she said. “The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or what is now called CalFresh — is the single best way to get nutrition into people’s hands immediately. Food banks are an important supplement to that. Every food bank in the country can’t solve hunger. It’s a much bigger problem than they can [solve].”
With an increase in the need for food assistance, schools not reopening and no end to the pandemic or economic crisis in sight, food banks are in great need of financial support.
“Prior to COVID, our budget was about $2.2 million, with about half of that being spent of food, Riutort said. “Thankfully, we have received a lot of support. We also are dipping into our reserve. Now our budget that started in July, is $3.3 million. Of that, $1.8 million is just to purchase food.
“We are always accepting donations. People should know that $5 can feed 20 people. Let me say it again. Five dollars can feed 20 people. We need the community to step up.”
“Making a Difference” is a weekly feature profiling organizations that are serving their communities. To propose a “Making a Difference” profile, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.