Helping the hungry
Two Saturdays past Christmas, food pantry volunteers at Our Lady of Lourdes in Tujunga and St. Didacus in Sylmar arrive early on a misty morning to prepare for their guests.
“The Pasture,” at Our Lady of Lourdes, which opened in June, and the parish food ministry at St. Didacus, dating from the 2000 Jubilee Year, both distribute food with a smile to whoever shows up: fathers, mothers, children, singles and seniors struggling to make ends meet in the down economy.
“We’ve been incredibly surprised with the increase of people,” said Jim Lank, a founding member of The Pasture. Since the ministry’s opening Saturday when it served 27 people picking up food for households each averaging three family members, it has expanded its assistance in seven months to more than 100 people representing a total of 274 family members.
The Pasture, like St. Didacus’ food ministry which also serves about 100 families, relies on donations from parishioners and individuals/businesses in the community but not government programs which come with regulations regarding recipient eligibility and accessibility.
“The government has so many rules,” said Bob Delaney, who arrives early at The Pasture on the first and third Saturdays of the month to start the coffee for the guests’ waiting area outside the trailer where the canned food has been carefully stocked on shelves by Girl Scout Troop 14316.
As he told The Tidings while preparing to open Jan. 7, “We tell the people, ‘We don’t care where you’re from, we don’t care about your status, we don’t care if you come up in a solid gold Cadillac --- we don’t know what your circumstances are.’
“Some people come up very embarrassed and they say, ‘We’ve never done this before,’ and they’re in a very nice car,” noted Delaney. “The reason they’re here is that they just lost their job, or they have horrendous medical bills and they need this help, and they appreciate it.”
“A lot of them are just people like you or me who had a few bad breaks --- they got hurt on the job, or got sick or they lost their job and had nothing to fall back on, so now they’re just stuck,” added his wife, Pat. “They’re so grateful we don’t ask a lot of questions and make a lot of demands.”
First-timers fill out a client information sheet requesting their name, phone number, names and ages of children in their family as well as questions about their cooking facilities, diet restrictions or food allergies and their need for cleaning/personal/baby items. They are then handed a number indicating their place in line and a “runner,” often a Girl Scout or a youth ministry member, takes their information clothespinned to a recyclable grocery bag to be filled by a two-person team in the trailer.
“They’re good people here,” said Chas, 84, who shows his appreciation by donating a 12-pack of Pepsi each time he visits The Pasture for food, which he often shares with others. “You don’t have to wait so long for your food, and they give you good stuff. Some pantries make you wait so long and then they say you’re only allowed so much.”
“They’re really nice here and it’s really pretty quick,” said Pamela, 59, who had come with her daughter and granddaughter. “I’ve been unemployed for quite a while, so it really helps.”
Her daughter described The Pasture as one of the better food banks she has frequented. “The people here are open to suggestions and they really care about making you comfortable and getting you set up,” said the mother of three children. “It’s a really good food bank --- I would be going hungry without it.”
Katherine, 65, who lives on a fixed income and shares a rental house with her daughter and grandson, comes every other Saturday to The Pasture. Though her daughter works part-time as does her grandson, Katherine says most of their income goes to rent, utilities and the cable bill for the TV.
“If it wasn’t for the churches and the food banks, we wouldn’t survive --- we’d be out on the street,” said Katherine, who added that most of the family’s food, except for staples like flour, comes from food pantries.
In a note handed to a Pasture volunteer, a father wrote of his family’s food shortage. “I have my daughter and grandson with me until next Friday, and I literally have nothing for them to eat. Anything extra you can help with will be greatly appreciated as [my daughter] lost her job and home this past week and is going to go live with her ex in-laws next Friday.”
“It’s a very humbling experience to be here to help people, because I’ve been on the receiving end and I know what it’s like,” said volunteer and OLL parishioner Candy Piscitelli, 63, who is a “greeter” at The Pasture’s outdoor reception table. “It’s something that I wake up in the morning and look forward to.”
Linda Huffman, a shopper for The Pasture, says she volunteers because she wants to give back to the community. “I’m at a point in my life where things have changed,” explained Huffman, who is unemployed since she was laid off from her job at Bank of America after 35 years.
“I’ve seen a lot of friends going through situations and issues and I just wanted to be able to do something.” Because she is not working, she can shop for the food pantry using monetary donations and pick up food donations from the church.
“It’s a very big need, and I’m really glad the parish had a group that wanted to take it on and pull it all together,” said Huffman.
For years, the parish’s food ministry was mainly handled by one parishioner, Morry Crawford, 80, who, with the support of the parish deacon and pastor, brought donated groceries to the homeless in Sunland Park or needy families in the neighborhood. “I think it’s a good thing for Catholics to do,” said Crawford.
“It’s the least we can do,” said Lank. “‘Feed the hungry’ is the missive that we hear about in the Gospel all the time very clearly.”
He added that the growing ministry intends to reach out to other churches to invite them to join in an ecumenical effort to alleviate hunger.
“We’re looking for any kind of support that we can get,” he said, “and we’re also looking for people who need the help to come and avail themselves of our services.”
Editor’s note: An article on St. Didacus’ Food Ministry will appear in the Tidings’ next San Fernando Region Section, Feb. 17. For information on The Pasture, contact Jim Lank through Our Lady of Lourdes parish office, (818) 352-3218.