Welcome To The LA Food Bank That Works Like A Grocery Store

A customer shops at World Harvest. (Elina Shatkin/LAist)

Glen Curado got the call one night at 2:30 a.m.

"I nudged my wife, and I said, 'Baby, God just spoke to me. I have to open a food bank.' And she goes, 'Go back to sleep. You don't even go to church. He should be talking to me,'" Curado says.

The next morning, Curado, a businessman in the medical field, told his realtor to start looking for a 10,000-square-foot warehouse. It had to be in the Los Angeles neighborhood with the most students relying on discounted school lunches.

Curado's realtor couldn't stop laughing and warned him he was going to lose his shirt... and his pants and everything else. Not long after that conversation, Curado signed a lease on a warehouse in Pico-Union, an area where approximately 95% of the students at public elementary schools are accessing free or reduced price meals.

"When God asks you to do something, it's huge, it's glorious," Curado says. "Just like when you ask God for something, you don't ask for 10 cents, you ask for an abundance. It's the same thing."

In 2007, he opened the doors of World Harvest Food Bank — and from the start, it would operate more like a grocery co-op than a food bank or food pantry, allowing people to come in and fill up two shopping carts with as much food as they want for $40.

Founder and CEO of World Harvest, Glen Curado. (Elina Shatkin/LAist)

NO STIGMA, NO RED TAPE

Years ago, to work off a parking ticket, Curado, 59, was doing community service by helping out at a local food pantry. He says he was "absolutely horrified" when he saw how little food the organization gave out.

"Two cans of Campbell's soup. Spaghetti. Macaroni and cheese, one box each. One loaf of bread. Some fruits and some vegetables," Curado says. "At any given day, they would have a whole case of apples or oranges or bananas, and you'd take two. You can't take three, you can't take four. One day, a family came in, and I gave them an extra loaf of bread. My supervisor grabbed me on the shoulder, and said, 'I told you, one loaf of bread.' I said, 'I'm so sorry but I've been here six hours. This is the second family that's been here and you have a ton of bread here.' She grabbed the loaf of bread out of this family's little box. That was the trigger."

At most food banks, clients don't have much choice. They get what they get — and they rarely get fresh, organic vegetables or fruit.

"The pantries, they make you stand in line," Curado says. "You have to fill out all this paperwork. People want to pray for you. It was a really down-and-out place, and dreary."

Maybe the two things Curado dislikes most about traditional food banks are the red tape and the stigma. He hopes his business model cuts out both, offering people dignity and choice.

The exterior of World Harvest. (Elina Shatkin/LAist)

HOW WORLD HARVEST WORKS

From the outside, World Harvest looks like a larger version of a typical L.A. corner market. Located at Venice Blvd. and Arlington Ave., its small lot is packed with cars on an autumn Saturday morning.

When people walk in, they're asked to fill out a form with their name, address, phone number, the number of people in their family and their income. If they don't want to share any of that info, that's fine. Nobody will make them prove their income level or ask for their ID.

"We don't need to see it," Curado says. A World Harvest staffer will only ask, "How did you hear about us?"

Shoppers pony up $40, either with cash, debit or EBT. If they can't afford that or need to save their money, they can arrange to work at the store for four hours — sorting, cleaning, stocking shelves, greeting people, making baskets, sweeping the floor.

When they're ready to shop, they get a cart and they go through the market to pick out whatever produce they want, approximately two-thirds of which is organic. You want one potato? Cool. 10 potatoes? Fine. 30 potatoes? No problem.

"As long as the shopping cart can hold it, you can have it," Curado says.

Shoppers then go to a station where they receive the "catch of the day," usually seafood or another meat. The day I was there, it was a 54-pound box of chicken. Yes, you read that right, 54 pounds.

The catch of the day at World Harvest. (Elina Shatkin/LAist)

Shoppers aren't done yet. They get a second cart, pre-loaded with more groceries. That Saturday, everyone received zucchini, mangoes, Mexican squash, loaves of bread, 30 pounds of grapes, a 50-pound case of potatoes and a bunch of other stuff.

"I think it's awesome," says Adeshawa Sanusi, a 35-year-old mom who heard about World Harvest from a friend.

"You get so much food that you don't have to come every month. I was able to give to neighbors who might not be able to make it, the elderly. I have a church that gives out to the homeless, so the first time we came, we gave a large shipment to them, and I still walked away with a lot of stuff to take home."

Sanusi is working to incorporate healthy foods into her two-year-old daughter's diet. She loves all the fruit and vegetables she gets at World Harvest and says the quality is great.

"I'm glad I found it," she says. "It's a really awesome program, especially for someone who single-handedly is trying to take care of a family of two. For $40, you can't beat it. If I need to go to the store for anything additional, I'm gonna be spending less than maybe $50. For a whole two months of supply of food, I spent maybe 100 bucks."

Adeshawa Sanusi shops at World Harvest. (Elina Shatkin/LAist)

'WE RISE BY LIFTING OTHERS'

Where does all the food come from? And how does Curado make World Harvest work?

"Our main donation source is people," Curado says. "They come in here and they donate the $40. That's how we stay alive. Just enough to pay the rent. And then we have private funders that maybe instead of doing a can drive, they say, 'We'll donate some money.'"

Curado has also built relationships with most of the major supermarkets in town — we won't name names but that includes the fancy ones — so World Harvest gets produce that's close to expiring but is still edible and appealing. He also receives items that didn't sell.

"We are always two months behind," he says. Thanksgiving turkeys in January. Valentine's Day chocolates in April. Easter candy for Mother's Day.

Fresh vegetables and fruit at World Harvest. (Elina Shatkin/LAist)

Curado mostly avoids grants because they have too many requirements that limit who he can give food to and how he can distribute it.

Maybe 50 to 100 families a day come through World Harvest and he says most are working poor or middle class.

"Most people have cars. Most people live in a house or in an apartment. I would say probably half of them are homeowners and the other half are renters. That's the population I serve. I don't get into their business," Curado says. Whether you pull up in a beat-up, decades old Ford truck or a shiny Mercedes Benz (and people do, according to Curado), you are welcome to shop at World Harvest.

Shopping carts piled high with food at World Harvest. (Elina Shatkin/LAist)

Curado's goal is to lift people up. His office, tucked between the market's retail area and its loading dock, is papered with motivational slogans. "We rise by lifting others." "Be fabulous today." "Follow your heart."

"So when people come in here, I want them to have that same feeling," Curado says. "They come here because they're hard working families. We recover and we redistribute to families, and they get to have food that they otherwise could not afford to have."

A customer at World Harvest. (Elina Shatkin/LAist)

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