Why some L.A. food banks are handing out Thanksgiving chickens this year

Some food banks in Los Angeles are having such a hard time this holiday season that they’re handing out Thanksgiving chickens instead of turkeys in anticipation of an economic crisis that will last through Christmas and into the New Year.

Kenny Jones, director of People for Community Improvement, said he had no choice but to do the poultry swap at the non-profit food bank in Willowbrook given the rising inflation and increased demand since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Last Thursday we passed out chickens because we couldn’t afford the turkeys,” he said earlier this week. “We’ve seen more people come out this year and we just need to get more donations and help. … Everything’s gone up — the food, the gas, the utilities, the insurance.”

These are common sentiments among those working to provide food and other necessities to low-income Angelenos. Some report a drop in food and cash donations. Others, like Jones, say they don’t have enough volunteers to keep things running smoothly during the busy holiday season.

A person holds a free turkey at the 37th Turkey Giveaway in Watts on November 19, 2022.

Saadia Jackson holds her complimentary turkey as she waits for a bag of ingredients at the 37th Turkey Giveaway hosted by Sweet Alice Harris and her organization Parents of Watts on Saturday.

(Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times)

They all say they’re feeling the pinch this winter. For small, independently operated food banks, this can mean handing out lighter bags or even closing down altogether. For some organizations that have been able to meet much of the need in their communities, this has meant offering less traditional holiday meals.

Every Tuesday afternoon, the Unity Fellowship at Christ Church Los Angeles hands out food to dozens of people who queue under a sign that reads “Love is for everyone” in black block letters.

Two days before Thanksgiving, Rev. Art Miller, the church pantry coordinator, oversaw a small team of volunteers handing out pasta, fillings, and canned vegetables and fruit outside the modest West Adams store.

In anticipation of Thanksgiving, Miller said the food bank was hoping to serve turkey, as it has done every year since it opened seven years ago. But it’s receiving groceries from the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, which distributed thousands fewer turkeys to food banks this month than it did in previous Novembers.

People sort inventory at a grocery store in Los Angeles.

Volunteers Kirk Hill (from left) and Kimberley Coleman and Rev. Art Miller of the Unity Fellowship at Christ Church Los Angeles Tuesday sort through the inventory of the church’s plaque in Willowbrook.

(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

As a result, many of the people who rely on the grocery bags they picked up at the West Adams Food Bank Tuesday are instead serving chicken or fish for their Thanksgiving meals.

That’s fine by Monique Smith, who lives nearby and said she has been attending the panel for two years. On Tuesday, the 51-year-old put plastic bags of cans and boxes into a pink-patterned roller bag, which she pulled to the distribution table after the queue ended.

“I’m short on food and the day after tomorrow is Thanksgiving,” she said. “I don’t know what I would do without this.”

Michael Flood, executive director of the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, said it feeds more than 800,000 hungry Angelenos a month — up from a peak of more than 1 million a month earlier in the pandemic. The nonprofit organization distributes food directly to people and to more than 600 food banks and pantries, churches and other nonprofit organizations throughout LA County.

But Flood said it’s been a “constant struggle for his organization to meet aggregate needs and demands for food,” especially given the sharp inflation and sustained demand in recent months. The outbreak of bird flu, which has contributed to reduced availability of turkeys nationwide, and problems in the food supply chain have made it difficult for the organization to source certain foods.

Anthony Daniel, right, walks away with bags of groceries during a distribution at a Los Angeles food bank

Anthony Daniel (right) walks away with bags full of groceries November 22 during a distribution at Christ Church Los Angeles’ Unity Fellowship in Willowbrook.

(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

Ahead of this Thanksgiving, only five truckloads of turkeys could be sourced, versus about 10 purchased in previous years, Flood said.

“This year the supply is less,” he said. “We bought truckloads of frozen chicken so families celebrating Thanksgiving could at least have a meat protein option.”

Food donations at LA County’s Department of Aging and Disabilities facilities have also declined. A spokeswoman for the department said the number of people in need of food at many of its community and senior centers has increased over the past year. At the same time, she said, many of the centers are still receiving fewer food donations than before the pandemic, a drop some have attributed to inflation.

During the pandemic, more than a fifth of Californians faced food insecurity on a daily basis, according to researchers at Northwestern University.

Nationwide, before COVID-19 impacted the livelihoods of millions of residents, more than 15% of households with children were food insecure. That number nearly doubled in the early days of the pandemic, according to California Assn. from food banks.

The state has provided hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for food banks over the past decade. More than $100 million was allocated to support food banks in the 2022-23 state budget, which Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law in June. Corporations, foundations and individuals donate millions of dollars to LA County food banks each year.

But the need for nutritious food is often simply too great in this city. These are lean times for many boards and pantries.

People for Community Improvement provides bags of groceries to hundreds of families each week. Jones, the group’s director, said his food bank is still trying to recover from the economic impact of COVID-19.

“It’s been really hard to get going again since the pandemic. That’s the hard part. Before the pandemic we had eight people, now we are only three [workers] so that was a fight,” he said. “We don’t have to turn people away. … But it was pretty hectic.”

Volunteer Morice Jones prepares bags of groceries for distribution at a Los Angeles food bank.

Volunteer Morice Jones prepares bags of groceries Tuesday during a distribution at the Christ Church Los Angeles Unity Fellowship food bank in Willowbrook.

(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

Morice Jones, a Unity Fellowship of Christ Church food bank volunteer, kept the dry goods distribution table moving this week.

“You can have another mac and cheese,” he told an elderly woman with a walker as she turned to walk with less than her allotted amount. “Continue.”

He said one reason the holiday season is so busy for food banks is the added pressure and costs the season brings.

“I feel like a lot of people reach out at this time of year because otherwise they might not want to admit they need help,” he said. “But sometimes they let go of their pride around the holidays because they don’t want to let their families down.”

A few minutes later, Mark Darby was holding bags of groceries from the food bank outside West Adams Church and listening to music on tiny earbuds while waiting for a ride home.

He and his disabled brother have relied on food banks for years, the 59-year-old said, but their needs grew during the pandemic when their monthly costs for shelter, utilities and groceries soared. Rising inflation has only made their living conditions more difficult.

“We’re paying huge rents and if we get through we’ll be broke. That leaves very little for Vittles,” he said. “But I’m blessed, I’m getting through. With the help of chalkboards, the cupboards are never empty.”

https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-11-24/why-some-l-a-food-banks-are-giving-out-thanksgiving-chickens-this-year Why some L.A. food banks are handing out Thanksgiving chickens this year

Alley Einstein

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