No Free Lunch? Not For Some Hungry Angelenos

They arrive in waves, ebbing and flowing with the irregular rhythm of the Los Angeles public bus system.

For more than 14 years, people have been coming to the Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church for food, picking up bags of beans, rice, canned vegetables, powdered milk, dried fruits and more. Not far from the legendary intersection of Sunset and Vine and open three days a week, the food pantry here is a lifeline for the less glamorous inhabitants of Hollywood.

With unemployment at historic levels in L.A. County, the pantry is more vital now than anyone can remember. One volunteer estimated that last year at this time, they were serving about 30 people a day during the week. Now, she said, that number is closer to 200.

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On a recent Thursday afternoon, Erol Gokcrdag, who took the bus from Koreatown, southeast of Hollywood, noticed the change. "The past one or two years, it's gotten much busier," he said. "Prior to the downturn, there weren't as many."

But this change is not due entirely to an increase in need. Several food pantries in Los Angeles have closed in the past few years, just when they're needed most.

"Some areas of L.A. don't have them at all," said Tyrone Adams, who runs the pantry at Blessed Sacrament.

This means that more people are coming from farther to wait in line for basic necessities.

"We're getting people from the [Hollywood] hills now," added one of Adams' volunteers. "The film industry is broke. We get a lot of screenwriters."

There are a lot of tough-luck stories in the line—a man who claims he is owed $4 billion by the government, a would-be professor missing a glasses lens and living off money his parents send him, a woman living in a shelter while she waits for her inheritance settlement. But one gets the feeling that those with more pedestrian woes, those who just for the moment are skidding rock bottom while they wait for the economy to right itself, aren't quite as willing to share their stories.

"We're seeing people well into the middle class who were laid off, who have dwindled all their savings, and they don't qualify for food stamps, because they made too much last year," said Darren Hoffman of the Los Angeles Food Bank. An economic report issued earlier this month by the United Way, highlighting the growing gap between rich and poor, found that the number of working poor is 7.5 percent greater in L.A. County than nationwide.

Demand for food relief in L.A. has risen 40 percent in the last year, according to a report issued in January by the Los Angeles Food Bank, an organization that provided 39 million pounds of food to residents of Los Angeles County in 2008. That number went to 54 million pounds in 2009.

With unemployment in Los Angeles County at 12.4 percent in December, fully one in seven people in Los Angeles are facing a food need, according to the Food Bank report.

The Blessed Sacrament pantry has managed to continue handing out USDA-certified goods free of charge, but others have begun charging for their food, albeit at a fraction of supermarket prices.

A Mexican woman who didn't speak English stopped while she rearranged the contents of her box for the walk home. She agreed to let her school-age son translate. She'd said she'd been coming to Blessed Sacrament's food pantry for about a year, and that her family worships at the church on Sundays. She works at a laundromat and has another son, as well. When asked why she started coming to get food, she laughed:

"Necesito comida!"

"I need food" sounds the same in any language.

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