The volunteers at Iglesia de la Comunidad Presbyterian Church in Highland Park carry boxes from the food delivery truck to the food pantry, where the groceries are packed for distribution. | Photo by T.A.Hendrickson

Keeping Hunger at Bay, NELA Food Pantries Face New Challenges

2020 Editions June More News

By Emily Jo Wharry

The surge in unemployment amid the coronavirus pandemic has led to longer lines at food pantries in Northeast Los Angeles and, at the same time, new distributions methods to maintain social distance.

The dual need – for food and for distance – poses a logistical and spiritual challenge: At the twice-monthly pantry run by Iglesia de la Comunidad Presbyterian Church in Highland Park, what used to be a two-hour shift for volunteers now takes a full day of work, said Pastor Roberto Ramirez.

The story is similar at Iglesia Pentecostal Esmirna, also in Highland Park, which runs a food pantry once a week. A third local pantry, at Hathaway-Sycamores Child and Family Services in Highland Park, recently switched to distribution by appointment.

Two other neighborhood pantries, run by the Central Filipino Seventh Day Adventist Church in Eagle Rock and the All Saints Episcopal Church in Highland Park, have temporarily shut down.

Meeting the need

Demand has tripled at Iglesia de la Comunidad, where a 14-person volunteer team prepares and distributes food boxes on the first and third Thursday of every month. Pastor Ramirez and Luis Quintanilla, a church leader, estimated that before the coronavirus, their food pantry typically served 60–80 families per distribution day — but on a recent Thursday, more than 185 families visited. Quintanilla said families begin lining up at 6 a.m. to secure a ticket for a 10:30 a.m. or 2:30 p.m. distribution time. Ramirez noted that more young adults and families are visiting the food pantry now compared to pre-coronavirus distribution days.

With new sanitation and social-distancing measures in place, Iglesia de la Comunidad volunteers pack boxes for families in advance, working inside a food pantry area now restricted to the general public. Volunteers also operate a new delivery service, bringing boxes to the homes of older community members who have been asked not to stand in line or volunteer at the pantry.

At Iglesia Pentecostal Esmirna, the food pantry has also seen increased demand at its weekly Friday distributions. According to Reverend William Rodriguez, throughout over 10 years of operation, the food pantry has typically distributed to 70–80 families per week. Now, it serves up to 130 families. More families and middle-aged adults are visiting, Rodriguez said. Similar to other food pantries, volunteers at Iglesia Pentecostal Esmirna have adopted additional hygienic measures, such as wearing gloves and masks and enforcing a six-foot social-distancing queue. Because so many families were lining up ahead of the original 4 p.m. opening time, Rodriguez said they decided to open the food pantry earlier in the day.

“We didn’t want people crowded on the sidewalk or in the parking lot of the church, so we decided to move it up to 12 p.m. and make the distribution quicker than it used to be,” Rodriguez said.

Iglesia de la Comunidad and Iglesia Pentecostal Esmirna report that they are receiving higher amounts of food from Los Angeles Regional Food Bank in order to meet the influx of new visitors. Thankfully, Ramirez and Rodriguez said, with the exception of some older volunteers staying home, their volunteer teams have remained consistent.

“We’re going to be doing this as long as we can and continue monitoring the health department’s postings online every day,” Ramirez said. “If I see the cases in Highland Park are really, really bad, I’m just going to close it, because I don’t want to risk the safety of my volunteers.”

Hathaway-Sycamores, which typically gives food to about 120 families per month, is now providing food by appointment only, according to Assistant Director of Fund Development Mary Kay Wilson. The center currently has a waiting list of over 100 families. Based on food availability from the L.A. Regional Food Bank — which Wilson said is currently plentiful, save for fewer perishable products — Hathaway-Sycamores expects to distribute the same amount of food as they did pre-coronavirus.

“With the current waiting list and specific appointment time system, it looks like we will potentially reach more unique families each month,” Wilson said. “We will go through the waiting list and then back to the beginning of the list.”

To receive groceries: 

To add your name to the waiting list at Hathaway-Sycamore Child and Family Services call (323) 257-9600 ext. 7201

To help:

Community members interested in volunteering or donating food and other essential household items can contact Iglesia de la Comunidad Presbyterian Church at (323) 257-4352 and Iglesia Pentecostal Esmirna at (323) 254-0191. Or, make a monetary donation to the L.A. Regional Food Bank.