Mis Ángeles: How A Downey Food Bank Is Helping Feed Families Who Have No Safety Net
Some people came in bunny ears. Some came in tejanas. They all wore masks.
Some 300 people lined up in downtown Downey this past Saturday before Easter, hoping to get enough food to feed their families for the week. With social distancing measures in place and the unprecedented number of folks who are unemployed, the line stretched around several blocks of the Southeast L.A. hamlet I call home.
The front of the line, where the hope springs, is a weekly food bank at Downey First Christian Church. The building used to scare me when I was a loitering high school student but in the past decade, it has become a source of aid for hard working families who struggle below the poverty line — another place I've lingered at times.
The food bank is one of the few places in the Southeast L.A. area that has been a consistent source for undocumented and mixed-status families, thus far left out of federal stimulus programs. These workers can't even file for unemployment or brag about getting a government check despite contributing $3.2 billion in state and local taxes each year.
"Our community's not immune at all from the effects of COVID-19 on the economy," said Tessie Borden, a spokesperson for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles or CHIRLA, as it's known.
"Our folks are also going without," she said during a phone interview. "They are going with reduced hours, with reduced salary. The soup kitchens and food banks that are helping keep folks from going hungry are a very important resource."
Up until a few days ago, when both Governor Gavin Newsom and Mayor Eric Garcetti announced respective plans to help undocumented folks, workers without legal status who've been hit by the economic fallout of COVID-19 have had to rely mostly on non-profits for help feeding their families.
And the kindness of people like Marty Fehn, the Downey food bank's director.
While it sits in Downey, a city whose name has become synonymous with the Latino middle class, the church food bank draws families from all over the Southeast: Bell Gardens, Bell, South Gate, Maywood, and much farther away, too. Families who were struggling before and are struggling even more now.
When I called Marty, he told me:
"We've broken our all-time attendance record three consecutive weeks in a row. We're up over close to 300% of our usual in a four-week span."
Though the line is long, it moves smoothly. Most people these days come alone, though there are a few couples. There are stations filled with things like rice, beans and produce. As people move through the line, they point at what they want and a volunteer puts it into a cart for them. At the end, everything is put in a box and that's what people get to take home.
But the more people that come each week, the smaller that box of food gets.
The food bank needs money and food donations now more than ever. The major influx in families seeking aid has put a major stress on the food bank's resources. For one thing, grocery stores usually have excess food that they donate, but this is not the case right now, thanks to pandemic panic buying.
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Many of the food bank's volunteers are also over the age of 65 and required to stay home for their own safety, at first leaving it short-staffed.
"But we also saw something very incredible at that same time," Marty said. Volunteers have stepped up in large numbers to meet the need. But that's also come with its challenges.
The food bank needs money to buy protective gear like face masks and gloves for its growing volunteer force.
And supplies to feed everyone who keeps showing up in larger numbers in the weeks since non-essential businesses were ordered to close.
"Before the announcement was made, we were serving 120 families a week," Marty explained. "But as soon as the crisis hit, we jumped that first week to 268. So that was a new all time record for us. And then the week after that, we jumped again. And last week, we had 332 families."
Doing the math, if the average family is about four people, the Downey First Christian Food Bank is most likely feeding more than 1,300 people a week.
In his 13 years of running the food bank, Marty has never seen numbers like this, although he did see them double during the Great Recession. "They never went back down," he said.
It keeps Marty up at night sometimes thinking about how this will be the new normal. But every weekend he's out there again with the volunteers, giving away food and walking the line to pray for those who want it and at least say hello to those who need it.
And they aren't doing it alone.
When people in this affluent, overwhelmingly Latino city started seeing the line wrapped all the way around several blocks, they started coming to donate whatever they could.
One day a man pulled up to the end of the line in a large van and started handing out groceries.
"He had seen the line the week before and said he came back because he worried the people near the end of the line wouldn't get anything," Marty recalled.
This past weekend, a street vendor came, her cart loaded with Easter Baskets filled with Easter eggs, toys and candy. Marty thought she was selling food but it turned out the señora was giving it away.
"Those are the kinds of things that charge me," Marty said. "They give me hope. I'm always amazed at how these difficult times really show the best in people."
So am I.
About the Mis Ángeles column: Erick Galindo is chronicling life in Los Angeles for LAist. He took on this role after serving as our immigrant communities reporter. Erick came to us last year from LA Taco, where he was the managing editor.
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