By Jennifer Erickson | LB Indy
Andy Siegenfeld’s goal at the Laguna Food Pantry is twofold: provide free food to those in need and remove the stigma attached to accepting help so keenly felt by most customers.
The pantry’s chairman largely succeeds, signing in customers with a warm smile and kind word before handing them off to pantry manager and board member Marianna Hof. Cheerfully solicitous, she helps patrons navigate the neatly organized bins, shelves and cold storage units containing produce, dry goods and refrigerated items available in a constantly varying level of supply.
“There wasn’t a bean left on the table,” Siegenfeld said of the Friday before Christmas, when a record 146 people stopped by for provisions during the pantry’s two-and-a-half-hour shopping window each weekday.
Siegenfeld and Hof do everything in their power to safeguard the dignity of the people they serve: a mix of formerly middle class residents, unemployed due to recession cutbacks, as well as low-income families, many of whose bread-winners hold minimum wage jobs in Laguna’s hospitality industry, and an increasing number of fixed-income seniors.
The volunteers who run the pantry, formerly known as the Laguna Resource Center, try to erase the guilt many feel over not earning enough to provide for themselves or their families.
For Laguna Beach resident Jeremiah Weller it worked. A single dad, Weller confessed discomfort at having to rely on the pantry when he was out of work, “but Andy does a good job of taking away the embarrassment,” he said. “It’s a very loving place there.” Working again, he gives back by trekking to Trader Joe’s five days a week to retrieve their pantry food donations.
Many among the 10 or so volunteers who restock the pantry’s shelves with boxes and bags of arriving donations are current or former customers bent on giving back. Rick Goodman, a homeless shelter regular, serves tirelessly and admits that besides pay back, his involvement “helps my depression better than any drugs they could give me.”
In addition to a financial overhaul two years ago led by secretary-treasurer Susan Thomas, board members decided to narrow the entity’s scope. Conceived as a relief organization after the 1993 fire, its multiple missions grew to include homeless outreach and disaster relief as well as supplying food to low-income families.
“We decided that what we could do well is give away free food,” said Thomas, who insists on a professionally run operation that keeps records of input and output.
Walk in any morning between 8 and 10:30 a.m. and you’ll see shoppers seated in chairs outside the door, waiting to be invited in. To minimize chaos in the small space, customers are staggered and called by name. Siegenfeld greets them with a bright smile, matches their name to a list and takes notes on where they are from and how many people they are shopping for. Hof then helps them find their needs from the available, well-organized inventory. Some shelves are marked: one per shopper.
That inventory relies entirely on donations of groceries or money from the public, businesses, other nonprofits and especially the unsold goods of food merchants that include Laguna Beach’s Whole Foods and Pavilions, Trader Joe’s in Crystal Cove and Laguna Hills, and Laguna Hill’s Fresh and Easy.
Without the markets, the pantry could never keep up with a sky-rocketing customer base.
In addition to making daily contributions from its own shelves, Whole Foods chose the pantry as the local recipient for the company’s two-month Feed 4 More holiday donation program. “We love the Laguna Food Pantry,” said marketing supervisor Joanne Ekblad.
Proceeds from the drive will be put to good use by the pantry, which last year signed in 25,000 shoppers, representing 60,000 people, a 150 percent increase over 2012. The pantry also provides breakfast and lunch daily for the 50 homeless people who stay overnight at the adjacent shelter.
It’s hard to tell how much of the increase can be attributed to greater awareness of the pantry’s mission or whether there are more families in need. Either way, the pantry serves as a welcome way station for a largely invisible population that defies the county’s stereotype.
Despite an improving economy “many, many of the people coming to our agencies are the working poor,” whose minimum wage jobs fail to cover their rising living costs, said Barbara Wartman, marketing director for Irvine-based Second Harvest Food Bank, which sells and sometimes donates surplus food to the pantry. Likewise, seniors on fixed incomes find themselves in a similar fix. Additionally, families that counted on a special recession supplement to government food stamps — about $36 a month for a family of four — lost them in October.
She anticipates a new influx of cash poor people. The threat of discontinued unemployment benefits also looms for about 150,000 residents countywide, Wartman said.
Though overhead is low for Laguna’s all-volunteer pantry, there are expenses, said publicist Barbara McMurray. While the organization pays nominal rent and no utilities to its landlord, the city of Laguna Beach, the pantry purchased and maintains 10 on-site refrigerators and freezers and reimburses volunteers for the gas they burn to make the 35 weekly food pick ups.
Importantly, cash donations to the pantry procure discounted staples from county food banks; $10 buys 120 pounds of food, Siegenfeld said. Six staples are always in need: pasta, pasta sauce, peanut butter, jelly, canned tuna, and cereal.
Donations can be made at their website, or by dropping a check or a bag of groceries at the pantry, 20652 Laguna Canyon Road, just past the dog park, weekday mornings between 8 and 10:30 a.m.
“This is pure, 100 percent joy for Marianna and me,” said Siegenfeld. If you stop in to make a donation, you will see why.