The responsibility to care for the needy is a core value shared by all major world religions, and a coalition of more than 14 local congregations — along with individual volunteers, schools and community groups — is fulfilling that commitment to giving back through the North Hollywood Interfaith Food Pantry (NHIFP), which has been working to address hunger in the East Valley area for nearly 40 years.
“The role of NHIFP in our community is very simple: to supply food to anyone who is experiencing food insecurity,” Director Philip Lester explains. The group distributes more than 320 bags of food every Monday and Friday from 7:30 to 11 a.m. at First Christian Church in Studio City, along with providing other necessities whenever possible, including hygiene products, diapers and pet food. While that may sound straightforward enough, the operation represents an effort that centers on creative solutions and truly encompasses the whole community.
In addition to goods donated through food drives held by local schools, congregations, neighborhood councils and other organizations, “there are also regular deliveries we receive from various grocery stores and bakeries in the area, including Ralphs and Vons,” Lester says. “The Bagel Brigade delivers unsold bread and pastry products to us, and we distribute them on the same day. Food Forward brings fresh produce and locally harvested items such as oranges, lemons, avocados and grapefruit collected from neighbors in the area. We also attempt to provide our clients with access to other resources, such as where they may find clothing, showers, housing and legal services.” In addition to physical donations, supporters also make monetary contributions, and, Lester adds, the gift of space: “The temple where we store our food, Temple Beth Hillel, and the church where we distribute, First Christian Church, give us those spaces lease-free. They could be receiving rent money for the valuable real estate we are occupying, so in a sense, they are losing income by providing these spaces and utilities to us.”
Of course, money, food and facilities are only part of the equation; at the center of NHIFP are the people who make it happen. “The volunteers are the lifeblood of the pantry,” Lester says of those who give their time to gather, sort, pack and distribute donations. “Without them, the pantry could not exist. I am constantly amazed by the dedication I see from people who come to serve the community — those who are getting nothing else out of being here than the feeling of gratification one gets by helping a fellow human being.” In addition, “we could not continue to adapt and grow without the vision and creativity of the board and members of the committees, who all volunteer their time to help make the pantry function. These are people who are members of various religious organizations in the area, who feel a calling to serve. I am grateful to each of these people who really want to find a way to make the pantry the best it can be.”
With that goal in mind, the NHIFP has continually grown and evolved over time. “The pantry was begun by five women from four congregations, Jewish and Christian, as a response to a rise in food insecurity during the recession of the early 1980s,” says Pastor Louise Goben, president of the executive board. It soon became clear that it was going to take a major endeavor to achieve their aspiration of eliminating hunger in the area: “Their efforts just kept getting more complex and the need was way larger than they had anticipated.” Originally affiliated with the Valley Interfaith Council, the NHIFP established its own 501(c)(3) nonprofit and board two years ago and, after decades as an all-volunteer undertaking, shifted last year to having a part-time paid director to handle the ever-increasing workload involved in running the growing organization. And the changes haven’t only been administrative — operations have also adapted as new needs arise, most significantly in response to the pandemic, which affected nearly all aspects of how the pantry functioned while simultaneously driving an increase in the need for services.
Incredibly, “we only closed one week during the pandemic, in an abundance of caution,” past director Barbara Javitz notes. But volunteers were asked to stand down, especially since many were senior citizens more vulnerable to complications from COVID. With a small group of helpers, the pantry transitioned to a drive-through service model to allow people to pick up food with minimal contact. At the same time that supply-chain issues were making necessities harder to obtain, the number of community members experiencing food insecurity rose dramatically as many people were furloughed or laid off from their jobs due to pandemic shutdowns and economic uncertainty. “We were really fortunate that we never ran out of food,” Goben says. “Everyone who came received food. I know of a couple of food pantries that had to close. Others just stepped up their game. And people wanted to help in so many ways.” With the growing importance of food pantries getting media attention, the NHIFP was fortunate to receive a steady stream of cash and goods donations that allowed it to continue aiding people throughout the crisis.
While demand has leveled off somewhat after its pandemic peak, with inflation spiking high food costs and the economic divide continuing to widen, the NHIFP persists in looking for new and innovative ways to help those in need, including the recent establishment of a visioning committee to help steer it into the future. Goben says she’d love to see the pantry be able to provide more fresh food, including produce and proteins, in addition to nonperishable supplies. “The biggest challenge for this is lack of space and the ability to add refrigeration,” she explains. Both Goben and Javitz express the wish for a warehouse to store the food and distribute it from the same location, although “finding that kind of property in this area is a pipe dream,” as Javitz puts it, and the organization is extremely grateful to the congregations that provide its current two facilities free of cost.
In addition, the NHIFP is working to extend its services to people who aren’t able to get to the pantry. “There are people who are homebound, or do not have the means for transportation to our distribution address, so we are in the process of putting into place a delivery service to them,” Lester says. To start with, the organization is working with the homeless services charity LA Family Housing to deliver groceries several times a month to residents of its buildings, and with the NoHo Home Alliance to deliver weekly to one of its facilities. With the help of a DoorDash program that provides free delivery services for nonprofits, the pantry hopes to continue to expand the system. “I have been personally delivering a couple of bags to homebound people for a couple of months, and I want to provide that service to everyone who cannot get to us, for whatever reason,” Lester says.
For those in the community who want to help NHIFP continue its mission, Javitz emphasizes that the pantry is always looking for volunteers. “We have a dedicated group, yet many are aging, and we must engage a younger group of adults and children to help us with the physical work,” she says. And while the nonprofit enjoys broad support from the Toluca Lake, Studio City and Valley Village neighborhood councils, as well as its participating congregations and many local schools, having organizations step up to hold scheduled food drives is an ongoing need. But simply getting the word out that the pantry exists and is here to help is important, too. “When someone on the street asks you for money, tell them where they can get a bag of healthy food for free, two times a week!” Lester suggests. “I have cards with all of our information printed on it, and when someone asks me for change, I hand them the card. I explain that I am director of a food pantry, and that they can come every Monday and Friday for food and hygiene products. There’s no reason for anyone in our community today to go hungry.”
Hopefully, that awareness will not only connect people in need with the services to help them, but also ensure that the community partnerships that make NHIFP’s work possible can continue for years to come. “The pantry is a living, breathing organism, consisting of people doing physical work, and it relies on those people for its sustenance and maintenance,” Javitz says. “Part of our mission is to educate our community about our work, so that the ‘giving back’ tradition of all of our faiths continues among the future generations.”
For more information about NHIFP, including how to volunteer, donate or hold a food drive, visit nhifp.org.