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Addressing hunger in LA

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By Arin McKenna

 

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series on poverty in Los Alamos.

 

The day before LA Cares’ monthly food distribution, rows of tables in the Bethlehem Lutheran Church parish hall are stacked with nonperishable food items. 

LA Cares board member and food bank coordinator Jeanne Butler oversees the operation. Volunteers move along the rows, labeling and filling boxes for families who have registered for this months’ distribution. Between Thursday evening and midday on Friday, LA Cares will distribute from 75 to 100-plus boxes of food and supplies.

Those in need of food assistance run the gamut: seniors living on fixed incomes, minimum wage workers (especially those with families), those who have lost a job or are underemployed. 

People with insufficient or no medical insurance may face financial difficulty if a critical illness strikes a family member. Others may struggle when an illness forces them to take unpaid sick leave. 

 “Then they fall behind and it’s really hard to get out of that hole once you fall into it,” said LA Cares board member and treasurer June Gladney.

Families of four or less receive one box of food, larger families two. 

“LA Cares doesn’t try to feed a family for a month,” Gladney said. “We’re a supplemental food bank, not a sustaining food bank. So people have to piece it all together.”

In addition to the monthly food distribution, LA Cares assists those in danger of having utilities shut off or losing their housing. Households may apply for emergency assistance once per year. Those who qualify for Section 8 housing may also receive help with the security deposit. The organization assisted 102 families with rent, utilities and deposits last year. 

LA Cares relies on a number of sources for both food and monetary donations.

Collection boxes are available at the Larry R. Walkup Aquatic Center (the aquatic center closes for renovations Aug. 15, for approximately two months) and the Los Alamos County Social Services Department (1505 15th St., Suite A). Bethlehem Lutheran Church does not have a donation box. 

LA Cares’ volunteers will also pick up donations.

Critical food items include nonperishable vegetables, fruits, hardy soups, meats and fish, cereals, pastas, dried potatoes, flour, sugar, juices and kids snacks. Paper towels, toilet paper, laundry and dish soap and dried cat and dog food are also in demand. Personal care items such as shampoo, conditioner and toothpaste are also appreciated, including travel-sized items.

The space provided by Bethlehem Lutheran Church has been invaluable. 

“They have just been so gracious and so kind to us over two decades,” board member Mari Mahler said. “As far as the churches in town, they really are our major support, by allowing us to have space and allowing us to be there for so many years.”

Trinity on the Hill Episcopal Church, White Rock Presbyterian Church and First United Methodist Church encourage congregants to donate food on “First Sunday, Food Sunday.” The Los Alamos Jewish Center sponsors an annual food collection. 

U.S. postal workers from the Los Alamos branch team up with local Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts for May and November food drives to benefit LA Cares. Many county schools also host food drives, and Curves of Los Alamos has collected food in the past. 

Some organizations and businesses support LA Cares through monetary donations, and many Los Alamos residents make monthly contributions. Several local thrift shops also donate. 

Ruby K’s sponsors an annual Yum Run fundraiser, and 25 percent of money raised by the local Crop Hunger Walk (a Church World Service event) also benefit LA Cares.

LA Cares parent organization, The Food Depot in Santa Fe, provides some food. Smith’s Food and Drugs and the Los Alamos Cooperative Market both donate day-old bakery items and produce. Smith’s also donated a $1,000 gift card at the Marketplace opening. 

LA Cares is in the process of signing up for Smith’s Community Rewards program. Schools or nonprofits can earn points toward donations every time a customer who has designated them as the recipient swipes their Smith’s card. 

Those multiple sources are necessary. Requests for assistance have grown steadily since LA Cares was founded 20 years ago, especially since the 2008 financial crisis and since Congress reduced food stamp benefits in 2013. No more than 25 or 30 families participated in the food distribution program in the early years. Now an average of 75 to 90 families are served monthly. 

In addition to the ongoing need for food and monetary contributions, LA Cares’ has one large item on its wish list: a permanent home.

 “A number of us have a vision of what LA Cares could become in the community, to better support our clients and better serve the community,” Mahler said.

A permanent home would provide a centralized location for food storage (TRK Management, Inc., currently donates storage space, augmented by space in the Los Alamos County community building). It also would open the possibility for more frequent food distribution.

“A permanent home would give us a face in the community that now we don’t have. We’re a virtual organization more than a physical presence. And if people could say, yes, that’s where LA Cares is, right over there and have food drop off there and have volunteers come to that location…it’s a little more elusive now,” Gladney said. 

LA Cares is hoping for a generous donor to provide such a space for little or no rent, since the organization has minimal financial resources. 

Food bank clients must live in Los Alamos and meet federally established income qualifications (guidelines are a little broader for rent/utility assistance). Some have the mistaken notion that receiving food stamps disqualifies them, when in fact it proves their eligibility for the program.

Those needing food assistance must register no later than Sunday prior to the secnd Friday.  Required information is identified on the answering machine.

Volunteers are needed on Thursday before the second Friday of the month (which is not always the second Thursday) to help prepare for the food distribution, and during distribution hours Thursday evenings from 7−8 p.m. and Friday’s from 10:30 a.m.−12:30 p.m. 

Volunteers also deliver to those unable to pick up their boxes who have made arrangements in advance. 

LA Cares’ “virtual space” consists of P.O. Box 248, Los Alamos, N.M.,   87544, where donors may send checks, and a message phone (661-8015) which is checked daily.