Resource Center Copes With Dual Losses

Resource Center volunteers restock shelves at their food bank, visited by 40 people a day.

After relinquishing supervisorial duties at the city’s homeless shelter, the Laguna Resource Center is focusing on restocking its food pantry for people in need and overcoming the loss of a major food donor due to the questionable diversion of food to Mexico.

Helping Hand Worldwide and its founder, Laguna Beach resident Sita Helms, lodged an official complaint against the Laguna Relief and Resource Coalition last September, City Manager John Pietig and Police Chief Paul Workman confirmed this week.  HHW previously delivered two tons of food to the Resource Center daily, according to Helms. The complaint alleged that the donated food, much of it coming from Trader Joe’s markets, was being taken to an orphanage in Mexico.  Police turned the complaint over to federal authorities.

“Helping Hand Worldwide terminated all deliveries to the LRRC for noncompliance of HHW’s contribution guidelines and the USA Patriot Act,” Helms said in a statement Wednesday.  The guidelines, she said, require that the donated food stay in the U.S. and be stored at the center.

“We cannot be associated with a nonprofit that knowingly engages in illicit activities or uses its nonprofit status to divert food intended for Orange County’s needy and homeless away from its intended recipients,” said HHW’s letter of complaint to the Resource Center’s board in September 2010.  “To do so places both our organizations in jeopardy.”  The letter also offers the possibility of reinstating deliveries once the Resource Center complies with its guidelines, which have been followed without incidence by other food banks, the letter says. HHW assists 43 nonprofits throughout the county.

Laguna resident Don Campbell, a Resource Center board member and former HHW volunteer, said he took surplus Resource Center food to an orphanage in Baja.  He acknowledged storing staples delivered to the Resource Center in garages that he owns for delivery to Baja, but no longer makes food deliveries south of the border. “That hasn’t been happening for more than three years,” stated Campbell.

Campbell now provides food to an orphanage in Ensenada under the auspices of the Laguna Presbyterian Church.  “I’m not sending food to Mexico at all now,” he said.  “We’re buying food at Costco in Ensenada in Mexico for the orphanage near Ensenada.”

Documents released by the city manager show that two years ago Helms sent a “cease and desist” letter to Campbell warning him to quit sending “federally allocated” food to Mexico. She described being “interrogated” by a government food bank official over the volume of food ordered by the Resource Center compared to the number of families being served. In an email to Resource Center board member Ed Sauls dated June 19, 2009, Helms said Campbell informed her the practice had board approval.

No such diversion is underway today, said Andy Siegenfeld, the Resource Center’s current chairman and a food pantry volunteer. “The food we pick up stays here and is given free to our clients,” he said.  “We want the community to know that we are viable, we’re solvent and we’re doing good things.”

The Resource Center’s food pantry, which houses five refrigerators and an upright freezer, now receives surplus produce, dairy, bread, meat and kitchen items donated by Pavilions, Ralph’s and Whole Foods Market as well as by Hoag Hospital.  The center also buys food from the Orange County and Second Harvest food banks in Garden Grove and Irvine, respectively.

“We used to get massive amounts of food from Trader’s,” added Siegenfeld, “and I would like for us to get Trader’s back.  We want to solve that problem.  Right now we’re really working hard on that ourselves.  It’s important to me for the community to support this, whether it’s in canned food drives or donations.”

Due to the change in supervision at the city’s Alternative Sleeping Location for homeless people, the Resource Center’s food bank, located adjacent to the shelter at 20652 Laguna Canyon Road, will no longer provide food for a daily hot breakfast, which was prepared by two men staying at the shelter, to the 45-plus people sleeping on the floor there.

The Friendship Shelter, another nonprofit organization in town, will take over daytime as well as continue overnight supervision at the homeless shelter and will now offer a Continental-type breakfast.

Last week, the Resource Center resigned its daytime supervisory commitment at the shelter. Siegenfeld said the responsibility was impinging on operating the food bank and providing medical vouchers and casework for homeless and low-income people.

More than 40 people come to the food bank every morning, down from 90 a day at the height of the recession in 2008. “We had people who had made six figures saying they had borrowed money to put gas in their car,” Siegenfeld said. “These are people who bought these nice cars, can’t pay for their cars, can’t pay their rent.  They’re coming here to get their food.

“There are a lot of people in this town who need this food bank,” Siegenfeld continued.  “A lot of seniors come here.  A lot of day-laborers, a lot of housekeepers come here and we welcome them, and because they work in Laguna Beach or go to school here, they’re qualified.  It’s not just if you live here.”

The HHW complaint against the Resource Center was sent to the U.S.D.A. and the Office of the Inspector General, which delegated it to the Food and Nutrition Services agency, Workman said.  The investigation is still pending. No criminal charges were filed locally, said Workman. “If it was a valid case that we could have done something with, we would have done it.”

The HHW complaint against the Resource Center was sent to the U.S.D.A. and the Office of the Inspector General, which delegated it to the Food and Nutrition Services agency, Workman said, adding that the investigation is still pending and that no criminal charges were filed locally. “When you have violations like this, the primary recourse is to discontinue supplying the food.  If it was a valid case that we could have done something with, we would have done it,” he said.

Federal agents were asked to locate the case Wednesday to determine status of the investigation.



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