By Justin Swanson | LB Indy
Families wait and fan themselves in the shade on a dry, sweltering Santa Ana afternoon. They anticipate the arrival of a tall, white, refrigerated truck, which at long last pulls up to the famous Downtown Orange County water tower, adjacent to the fenced and secured Davis Elementary campus.
Laguna’s Richard Leavitt rolls up his sleeves with a great smile and joins fellow members of Newport Beach’s Newport Church, wearing white t-shirts emblazoned with their “Food With Love” logo, who surround the truck’s rear, forming an assembly line to organize close to 10,000 pounds of donated food for distribution to families of the Davis school children in need.
Helping hands alternately man a heavy-duty dolly and arrange canned and dry goods, bars, fruits and vegetables, crates of potatoes, bread, and meat.
The families, who took numbers earlier in the day, form a queue. Food With Love serves anywhere from 130 to 150 families, averaging five children per household, reckons churchgoer and volunteer Denise Topete, of Santa Ana, who checks in the recipients of the give-away.
In less than two hours, the windfall is dispersed.
Food With Love’s bounty has been underwritten since December 2011 by donations from members of Newport Church, founded in 2006 by pastors Jonathan and Dianne Wilson. What began with weekly visits to Monte Vista, another school in Santa Ana, expanded to Davis this year. Another 16 schools are now clamoring to be included in the church’s program to nourish the families of hungry students.
Food is bought mostly from Second Harvest, a food bank in Irvine. According to Barbara Wartman, marketing and public relations manager for Second Harvest, there are 379,690 people at risk for food in Orange County, 20.8 percent of whom are children. In Santa Ana, where 45 percent of school children count on free lunch or other food programs, family food needs increase over the summer when school’s out.
Laguna Beach resident and real estate broker Richard Leavitt, 64, makes it his practice to help out at every distribution. “I am passionate about people being hungry,” he explains.
Growing up, Leavitt recalls uncertainty over the source of his next meal. He wasn’t always starving, he says, but by the end of the week, food became relatively scarce. Born in Chicago, Leavitt moved to Gardena at the age of 10. His parents divorced, forcing his mother to provide for four kids. Income went to bills. Leavitt says he did not realize for a long time there was any hardship, rather that is just how things were for his family.
Leavitt, who went to Temple as a child, was urged by his daughter Alexis to give the Newport Church a try. The church’s energy and will to give back to the community through Food With Love grabbed Leavitt, and he became a regular churchgoer.
Leavitt suffered a brief setback last year when he was convicted of possessing marijuana with the intent to sell. He pled guilty.
“When you walk a path close to God, you are tempted,” he explained. But he has learned to resist temptation when something is wrong. “If you know you shouldn’t do it, you shouldn’t do it.”
Leavitt insists that despite his probationary slap on the wrist, he already knew his mission to help Food With Love thrive.
His relentless contributions of time and money to make sure families have enough food help Food With Love to keep up weekly deliveries.
“It’s a blessing; this keeps getting bigger and bigger and bigger,” Leavitt says.
Food With Love is the way the church reaches local people in need, explains worship pastor Graham Bronczyk. “It’s just like our motto: ‘Loving God, loving people, loving life.’”
It only takes $250 a week, per school, to purchase food through Second Harvest. “One dollar buys a lot of food,” Leavitt observes.
Still small, Newport Church rents out Lido and Segerstrom theaters for its Sunday gatherings. The other American location is in Santa Monica. The church’s founding pastors hail from Australia’s Hillsong Church.
Karen Alvarado, of Newport, organizes Food With Love and notes its success through the community aid and emotional support provided. She says church members were inspired by a visit to a similar program in Tennessee that they decided to make their own.
“It’s a local mission for now,” Alvarado says, adding that while expansion to a third school is imminent, they have an eye toward increasing operations and seeing how sustainable they can make Food With Love.
“So far the funds are good,” she explains. “We’re always looking for more financing and for different ways to keep it running.”
Santa Ana resident Karen Adams, a mother of two who receives donated groceries, makes time to help out the distribution every week.
“I got to do something to help them out,” she reasons. “Each time there is more and more people. I get very excited. I say, ‘Thank you, and thank God.’ I can’t wait to see another smile on a child’s face.”
“You’re supposed to feed people: body, soul, and spirit,” says Leavitt. “It’s nice to have direction. That’s why I do this.”
For more info on Food With Love and to donate, visit newportchurch.com.
Photos by Mitch Ridder