It’s Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving, and masked volunteers are preparing for a busy day at St. Margaret’s Center (SMC) in Inglewood. The food pantry, which opened in 1987, is filled with boxes of canned goods, food donated from grocery stores and packaged pies and turkeys. Boxes of supplies are stacked along the outside of the muraled building. Cars carrying unhoused and food-insecure families are lined up along Inglewood Avenue.
St. Margaret’s Center is one of hundreds of food pantries in Los Angeles bracing for the holiday season as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to devastate families, leaving millions unsure of where their next meal will come from. Positive cases in Los Angeles continue to climb, with more than 10,000 new infections each day. Since March, unemployment has skyrocketed to 12.3%, and approximately one in four households in Los Angeles County—nearly 873,000 families—are experiencing food insecurity, leaving pantries in the area strained and overwhelmed.
“We thought we were ready for it, but we’re not,” said Ramon Gaxiola, the food pantry coordinator at St. Margaret’s Center for the past four years. “When we first started during the pandemic, a lot of people came in. We didn’t know how we were going to deal with it. As the time has gone by it’s been up and down, like a rollercoaster. There are months that are really heavy and months that slow down a little, but it’s been really busy.”
Since the start of the pandemic, the center has lost a number of its regular volunteers. This change has forced St. Margaret’s to open its food pantry just once a week, as opposed to three times a week before the pandemic.
“We used to have about 60 families each day but now we’re getting about 220 just on Wednesday,” said Mary Agnes Erlandson, the director of St. Margaret’s Center.
The food pantry at St. Margaret’s Center receives food from the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, and collects donations from local grocery stores and markets, which provide fresh food. Clients register for CalFresh food stamps, and volunteers in the pantry package boxes of food that are then delivered to them in their cars.
“The food bank, for most of the pandemic, has been dropping off 20 pound boxes of food each week,” said Erlandson. “We would just supplement with all the fresh food — produce, dairy, meat. They stopped a couple weeks ago but we have a lot of canned goods on hand and we’re always getting donations.”
In addition to its overarching mission to feed the poor, St. Margaret’s Center also provides assistance with English as a Second Language (ESL) classes, immigration counseling and nutrition classes. However, even as the demand for its services has increased during the pandemic, the volunteer capacity has decreased due to concerns about the spread of the virus. This shortage has caused the center to cut back on these valuable services.
“We can no longer have ESL classes, we can no longer have in-person tutoring,” said Yesica Villalobos, the volunteer coordinator.
It is unclear when or if these services will return.
“Our teachers are older and they can’t really do all the Zoom classes,” said Erlandson. “I really hope we can bring those back, but we just don’t know.”
The holiday season will look different for St. Margaret’s this year. The pantry’s annual Christmas event, a key part of its service during the holidays, will be conducted via a drive-through on Dec. 12. Instead of a celebration filled with food, activities and presents, those who use the pantry’s services will receive donated gift-cards while in their cars.
“We’re hoping to still have 500 families. Right now I think we have about 400 lined up,” said Erlandson. “We’re going to give each family grocery gift cards and for each child a $25 Target gift-card.”
St. Margaret’s Center will also allow individuals to walk-through in case they do not have cars.
“A lot of the drive-through food programs don’t allow any walk-ups, but I think that’s hard for some families that don’t have cars,” said Erlandson.
Despite the pantry’s best efforts to meet the demands of hundreds of food-insecure Los Angeles residents every week, people are still in need of more.
“I got hurt at work and now I’m not working anymore, and I’m disabled,” said Juan Razo, a 55-year-old who is without housing. “It’s been helping me a little but it’s not enough.”
There are unknowns about the future for St. Margaret’s Center — whether it will be able to sustain the rising numbers of food-insecure people, if its ESL classes and immigration services will return. For now, pantry workers say they are taking it day by day.
“We have a long way to go and we’re going to continue struggling,” said Gaxiola. “Our goal is to make sure we feed everyone: homeless, low-income families, anybody that needs it.”
What a great story! Well written and reported.