The mothers and grandmothers, some with children in tow, started gathering almost an hour before the food pantry would open at noon on a recent Saturday at St. Jane Frances de Chantal Church in North Hollywood.
They talked softly in Spanish as they waited in the shade, while parishioner volunteers from the predominately Hispanic parish set up outdoor tables for the bi-monthly “Pan de Vida” food pantry providing free bread, eggs, fruits, canned and packaged goods to as many as 100 needy families from the area.
The two-year-old parish project — which was held outdoors this day because the gym was in use — arose from a ministry begun 12 years earlier when Mexican-born Jose Maria Ruiz, a restaurant waiter/overnight shift manager, came home to his wife, Olivia, and 11-year-old daughter, Carla, and said he wanted to start bringing sandwiches to the homeless on L.A.’s Skid Row.
“He was so passionate about it that my mom and I said, ‘Ok, let’s go!’” said Carla, now a 26-year-old preschool teacher who staffs the Saturday Pan de Vida sign-in table and still accompanies her parents and her 14-year-old brother on their last-Monday-of-the-month trips to Skid Row.
There they hand out 1,200 sandwiches starting at 5 a.m. with the help of parish volunteers. The Sunday before, parishioners assemble the sandwiches, including peanut butter with jelly, baloney with cheese and plain cheese.
“It’s truly a home-grown, lay parish ministry,” said Carmelite Brother John Sprissler, who notes that a similar ministry was run in the late ’80s and early ’90s by a nun serving the neighborhood needy at the time. “It’s almost like a passing of the torch to a different culture,” said Brother Sprissler. “They do it their way and buy [from farmer’s market-type places], like they do in Latin America.”
Ruiz, who contributes half of his earnings to Pan de Vida, makes weekly pick-ups at a bakery for bread and also buys produce at downtown L.A. wholesale markets. The ministry also receives donations from parishioners — they held an International Food Court March 23 which raised $7,000 — and the Carmelites of the Province of the Most Pure Heart of Mary centered in Darien, Illinois, gave $8,000 in seed money.
“Due to the economy that we have going on right now, a lot of people lost their homes and their cars, and they needed help from someone to give them food and hope to keep going in life,” said Ruiz in Spanish while his daughter translated. “Sometimes people can’t pay their rent, and we help them with a portion of it if it’s possible. We give them that hand of hope.
“A lot of people come back and they thank us for what we gave them, and they become sponsors and donate to us,” noted Ruiz. “So, it’s a big blessing to see them come back and be very successful because of the hand we granted to them.”
“We would be hurting if we didn’t have this food pantry,” said Esperanza, 55, who lives in a household with four adults and three children. She also goes to another church’s food pantry on Fridays but “they give just the bare minimum — it’s not enough, like [just] two potatoes, two carrots.” She appreciates Pan de Vida’s generous quantity and quality of groceries.
Single mom to two teenagers, Nuria, 40, an unemployed cancer patient who has been coming to the food pantry for three months, says her disability checks are not really enough to support her family. “Sometimes at the end of the month you don’t have anything, so it helps a lot because at least you can make an omelet” with the eggs, said Nuria.
Mark, a 61-year-old veteran on disability, has been coming to Pan de Vida for a while, taking home grocery bags hanging from his bicycle’s handlebars.
“I barely make ends meet,” said Mark. “This is a great supplement and the finest food bank I’ve ever found. These people really elevate your spirits. They’re not only helping you with food, they help you with the soul, too. They’re very good people.”
Norma Jean Jackson, the parish’s new director of evangelization and faith formation, told The Tidings that she was very impressed by Pan de Vida’s social justice outreach.
“I arrived here about a month ago, and when I saw it, it just captivated my heart because this is the mission of the church,” said Jackson, noting that many get up long before dawn for their monthly trips carrying food to Skid Row. “The people work together, they know what they’re going to do and they know how they’re going to do it. They’re so organized and so disciplined.”
Recalling her own childhood excitement when her farm laborer family received food and clothes from church members at holidays, Jackson reflected, “I know how grateful I was just those one or two times a year. But when you have this year-round, there’s nothing like it, to be able to give like this, and to do it with the heart.”