22nd STREET — Roughly 90,000 people received some form of food assistance last year from the 65 pantries, soup kitchens and homeless shelters supplied by Santa Monica-based Westside Food Bank, officials with the nonprofit announced Wednesday.
That is a 50 percent increase from 2005, said Bruce Rankin, executive director of the food bank, who has noticed an increase in the number of young couples and seniors seeking support because of rising food costs and a sluggish economy that has forced many to file for unemployment or seek part-time work.
The food bank provides roughly 78,000 meals per week, supplying local organizations like OPCC, St. Joseph’s Center, Upward Bound House and Common Ground.
“It’s definitely a record high,” Rankin said. “This increase in need goes right along with the increase in unemployment. It’s a struggle for many people out there to put food on the table, and many people we are seeing are coming to pantries for the first time.”
The Westside Food Bank isn’t alone. The Los Angeles Regional Foodbank, which supplies food to nearly 900 charitable sites in the county, released a report on Tuesday which showed a record 983,400 residents — nearly one in 10 in the county — received food assistance last year. That is a 46 percent increase from 2005, the last time the food bank conducted a detailed survey.
The local findings mirror national figures, which show demand at soup kitchens and food pantries also has grown 46 percent in the last four years, according to Feeding America, the country’s largest network of food banks. In all, one in eight Americans, more than 47 million people, received food last year from the network.
The report, “Hunger in Los Angeles County 2010,” showed that 37 percent of families seeking food at soup kitchens included at least one employed adult, though about two-thirds of those had only part-time jobs. Twenty-seven percent had a college or technical school education, but were faced with paying bills or buying food, the report found.
In Los Angeles County about 12 percent of residents — an estimated 584,300 people — are unemployed, more than double the rate four years ago.
The need is “cutting across a broad spectrum,” Los Angeles Regional Foodbank president and chief executive Michael Flood said.
Children make up 40 percent of those benefiting from food at shelters, pantries and soup kitchens, a number that has more than doubled during the past four years.
Seniors represent just 5 percent of the total.
“The profound health problems that a lack of nutrition can have, especially on children,” is of particular concern, he said.
“It is an economic issue,” said Dr. Jonathan Fielding, director of the county Department of Public Health, because malnutrition “affects school performance, affects graduation rates, affects future productivity.”
Though the type of starvation found in developing countries is rarely seen in the U.S., Fielding said a lack of healthy food can instead lead to obesity and lifelong health problems.
The report provides the most comprehensive snapshot of the charitable food assistance network in Los Angeles to date, its president said.
“Supporting local food banks is critical,” Fielding said, while the report said nearly half of food pantries report “problems with funding.”
“People are rightfully appalled with what we see in Haiti … we should be equally concerned with what we see in our own backyard.”
Health difficulties also appear to be a factor for many families seeking food assistance, Flood said. The study found that 30 percent of the households have at least one member in poor health, and 35 percent of adult recipients do not have health insurance.
Families are being forced to make tough decisions about how to spend scarce resources: 48 percent reported having to choose between paying for food and paying for utilities, 46 percent between food and rent and 42 percent between food and transportation.
Many resort to less-expensive options with low nutritional value, such as fast food, soda and chips, Fielding said.
Rankin said despite the economic downturn which has forced many families to tighten their belts, donations were up during the holiday season. That said, the food bank still needs more canned vegetables, tuna and baby food.
“It’s surprising for us. People have really responded with food donations and financial help, but we certainly need more of both,” Rankin said. “The increase in need has hindered our ability to increase the distribution of food, which means shopping bags at pantries are getting smaller.”