They showed up at the Lawndale Community Center an hour before the bags would be handed out -- seniors, families with young children and many others in between.

At a table in the front of the room, a team of volunteers had handed out 72 numbers, each one good for a plastic bag containing such foods as canned beans, pork, rice and beef stew.

There were frozen chickens to pass out, too -- they came at no cost from a Long Beach food bank -- although not enough to cover the six dozen people in line. Volunteers planned to also hand out turkey loaves to large families, but there weren't enough of both to go around.

"I see a lot of new faces today," said Charmaine Doty, a volunteer who helps stuff grocery bags that are handed out at 10 a.m. on Wednesdays. "Probably because it's near Thanksgiving, and they hope we're giving turkeys out."

Lawndale's food program, like others around the South Bay, serves dozens of local people struggling to stock their cupboards each week -- a task made more difficult by the persistently stagnant economy that has driven up the numbers significantly.

Since then, serving more people has become the new norm for many South Bay and Harbor Area pantries, which rely on different sources for food and therefore have different challenges when it comes to filling their shelves.

Lawndale, for example, is completely dependent upon commodities from the Foodbank of Southern California in Long Beach, which means the stock will fluctuate depending upon what the program requests and receives from the bank on a weekly basis, said Mike Estes, the city's community services manager.

At times this spring and summer, he said, the plastic bags reserved for needy families contained just a handful of items, while at other times recipients could get as many as 14.

"As far as we're concerned, we're seeing inconsistencies that we haven't seen in a long time," Estes said.

The city pledges $100 each month to its program -- money that can buy food the bank offers for sale at discounted prices. But knowing how much to order is an inexact science because no one can say for sure how many people will show up, he said.

John Knapp, executive director at the Foodbank of Southern California, says business is good in Long Beach and surrounding areas. The local food bank takes
John Knapp, executive director at the Foodbank of Southern California, says business is good in Long Beach and surrounding areas. The local food bank takes in about 40 million pounds of food per year that is distributed at no cost to about 785 local agencies. (Brittany Murray / Staff Photographer)

And because the program relies on help from a small group of volunteers, it can only handle so much and is advised not to stockpile leftovers, he added.

What the Foodbank sends to community-based agencies "depends what the government gives us that month," said President John Knapp, explaining that the agency accepts surplus commodities from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

But he said there is "no shortage" of food to distribute to local pantries, which are encouraged nonetheless to take donations from more than just one source.

Other South Bay food pantries deal with different problems, although many directors say they've still managed to meet the needs of a growing clientele.

The Food Pantry LAX in Inglewood three years ago saw a "sharp jump" in the number of families it feeds weekly on either Tuesday or Friday mornings, President Scott Tanner said. Since then, the count has grown from about 150-160 families to around 300.

"That's the order of magnitude," he said.

And within that time, the cost of procuring food has just about doubled, Tanner said.

The pantry obtains what it can from the Westside Food Bank in Santa Monica, a supplier for various social service agencies around the area, and also relies on church food drives and fruit tree donations from the community. But it needs to purchase additional food -- at a higher cost -- to supplement these contributions, Tanner said.

"We're eating into our endowment right now. It's not dangerous," he said, "(but) at some point we have to balance our budget."

Meanwhile, volunteers are scrambling at Harbor Interfaith Shelter, a San Pedro nonprofit that has provided shelter, food and other assistance for families since the 1980s.

The facility, which does not receive any free food bank commodities, wants to provide Thanksgiving dinners this year to 325 families.

"Day by day it's a challenge," Executive Director Tahia Hayslet said. "People are in need across the board."

Complicating the situation this year is the recent completion of a new $6.9 million building that tapped reserves. While the long-planned project was needed to consolidate the group's services in one location -- at 670 W. Ninth St. -- the new three-story structure also has bumped up operating and utility costs.

"The reality is that (the construction and relocation to the new building) has left us struggling as we get to the end of the year," she said.

The primary need now is for holiday food donations; families are set to pick up their Thanksgiving baskets on Tuesday. But right after that, the nonprofit will have to again ramp up donations for Christmas.

Some local food pantries seem to have fewer worries, even as they see more families in need.

"We don't take any government funds," said Julie Miles, facilitator of the food pantry at St. Lawrence Martyr Church in south Redondo Beach. "We turn away no one. If we get very low, we put out a call to our parishioners."

Gardena's pantry program provides nearly 200 people a month with boxes of food, said Janice Quinn, one of its coordinators.

"The situation now is kinda looking good," Quinn said. "If it keeps up this momentum, it's going to be really great. The Boy Scouts and other South Bay groups have come with toys and food certificates for our holiday programs.

"There are more people in need, but the donations are coming along. I think more people are aware of the need."

The program offered at Carson's Juanita Millender-McDonald Community Center provides canned goods, rice and cheese from the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank to 700 to 1,000 seniors each month -- and remains well-stocked, said Jenny Batongmalaque, executive director of the Filipino Veterans Foundation, who helps distribute food boxes.

"We get a very large response from people in the area," Batongmalaque said. "There's more than enough food to give out. We are looking for more seniors to sign up."

One South Bay resident who got some help last week was Ann Watkins of Torrance, who'd turned out for the first time Wednesday morning as volunteers distributed groceries in Lawndale.

A former dancer and aerobics instructor, Watkins, 70, said she stopped working first to care for her ailing husband, who died in 2005. Now she's dealing with her own health problems, including dizzy spells, she said.

"This is what's put me in the position I'm in now," Watkins said. "I've never been to a food pantry."

After she uses her Social Security check to pay rent at a subsidized senior housing development, there's often not much left over. So she waited until the Lawndale volunteers called her number -- 59 -- and walked up to the front of the line for a bag of groceries.


kristin.agostoni@dailybreeze.com
donna.littlejohn@dailybreeze.com
sandy.mazza@dailybreeze.com
douglas.morino@dailybreeze.com
Follow them on Twitter at http://twitter.com/kagostoni, http://twitter.com/sandymazza, http://twitter.com/douglasmorino and http://twitter.com/donnalittlejohn