Belinda Crawford & Dennis Luppens
SCV Food Pantry

Interview by Leon Worden
Signal Multimedia Editor

Sunday, January 15, 2006
(Television interview conducted January 4, 2006)

Belinda Crawford
Belinda Crawford
    "Newsmaker of the Week" is presented by the SCV Press Club and Comcast, and hosted by Signal Multimedia Editor Leon Worden. The program premieres every Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, repeating Sundays at 8:30 a.m.
    This week's newsmakers are Belinda Crawford, executive director, and Dennis Luppens, incoming board president, of the SCV Food Pantry. Questions are paraphrased and answers may be abbreviated for length.

Signal: Tell us about the SCV Food Pantry.

Luppens: This year we're celebrating our 20th anniversary. We got our start 20 years ago in a 400- to 500-square-foot room, serving on our first day maybe one or two clients. Now we're up to 3,427 active-service clients. Of those, 1,700 are children. We really feel strong about our mission, and that is that no child in the Santa Clarita Valley will go hungry.

Signal: Do 3,427 people come to the Food Pantry every day for food?

Crawford: They are actually "active" clients. We qualify our active clients (as) anyone who has been to the Food Pantry in the past six months. We have anywhere from 28 to 40 families a day. We're open four days a week, Monday through Thursday from 9 a.m. till noon. In those families, of course, there are children, and families range from anywhere to one to 11 (persons), I believe, at this time.

Luppens: Belinda and her staff her volunteer staff — they have over 60 volunteers who are available through the Food Pantry who help out in delivering those services. It's not a situation where people receive a handout; it's really a supplement to their income.
    We serve a lot of working poor. We serve a lot of single mothers, people who are employed but need that extra little bit of help with food to make their incomes go a little bit farther.

Signal: How do people qualify?

Crawford: Anyone can come in to qualify to be a regular client. In order to qualify, they must first be a resident of the Santa Clarita Valley. They prove residency either with a driver's license, an invoice or a utility bill that shows their name and their current address. They also must qualify on income guidelines.
    We basically use the same income guidelines that the Los Angeles Regional Food bank uses. They are a member of Second Harvest Food Bank (Network). It's 150 percent of poverty level. A family of four could make no more than about $24,000 a year, slightly over $24,000 a year. A family — mother and father, or a two- parent family, if they both worked 40 hours a week at a minimum-wage job, they would meet that requirement.

Signal: Can the same individual come in day after day and get food? Is there a limited time period that someone can receive service?

Luppens: Yes, there is a time period. A client can come in twice a month ... and receive an amount of food that is measured. A certain amount of things go into each bag, and (we) make sure the bags are nutritious and healthy when they go out the door. We also serve a senior population at the Food Pantry.

Crawford: The third Friday of the month. We have one Friday a month for seniors.

Dennis Luppens
Dennis Luppens
Luppens: Those supplement bags are a little bit different than the bags for families. The size of the bags that go out the door to supplement those incomes for those families that are coming in and we're serving depend on the size of the family.

Signal: Where does the food come from?

Crawford: We can only distribute the food that is donated to us. But we know that the nutrition is so important for our families, especially for children; (they are) really our focus. That is our passion. That is all of our volunteers' passion. So we try to make each bag as nutritionally rounded as possible.
    We make sure that in each bag there is a protein item; there is fruit — it might be in canned form, canned fruit, canned beans, canned soups, canned vegetables. We also supplement with bread; we pick up day-old bread at some of the grocery stores. They will also give us sometimes desserts, things like that. We have odd things that are donated to us — pastas, all types of things. We try to make sure that the bags are as nutritionally sound as possible. But in the minimum, smallest bag, under any circumstance, there is always going to be protein, vegetables, fruit, some kind of pasta product.

Signal: Do you work with doctors or nutrition experts to figure that out?

Crawford: We actually spoke with a nutritionist several years ago, and that's how we designed what would be put in each bag. We have several different types of bags. We have what we call a one-person bag; each bag is specifically designed to have a minimum of three meals per family member that could be made from that bag. So we by no means are supplying a total amount of food a family would need for that two-week period; this is to supplement. It's to help them get through.

Signal: Are most of these people on food stamps?

Crawford: Not most. There are some who are on food stamps, but there are quite a few who aren't. I don't have the totals.

Signal: Why aren't food stamps enough?

Luppens: A way we could respond to that question is that we make sure they qualify on income. They may have food stamps. But often — getting food stamps is a process, and working with the state or federal government to get into those kind of processes — we're in the immediate line of help to those people who come into the Food Pantry. We can offer services to them quickly and directly, and they can take it home and supplement their food source that night.
    Food stamps, in their process of dealing with a life change that they might go through, losing income, might take a while. So we're that first measure of defense in something happening to their lifestyle that would require them to come into the Food Pantry and ask for help.

Signal: Let's say I am hungry and poor. How do I find help?

Luppens: People would probably refer you to the Food Pantry. If you went to your church, the church would probably give you some type of supplemental food, but ultimately they'd probably send you to the Food Pantry.

Signal: Which is where?

Crawford: We're between 4th and 5th streets on Railroad Avenue.
    A lot of the churches do have little pantries for emergency food, but they will call us, too, if there is a family that needs emergency food. We do distribute emergency food. You don't have to be a client, necessarily, of the Food Pantry in order to receive food. There are many times that we will get calls from ministers or from the school where there is a situation. Sometimes we're just that little bridge between when someone has lost their job; they've used up their savings; they're looking for a job but they haven't received it yet, or they have gone on an interview and they are going to start in a couple weeks and they don't have anything in the house — so we're just that little bridge. We can supply them with a little bit of food to get them by until they get that first paycheck.

Signal: You mentioned volunteers; the Food Pantry is not a government agency. What is it?

Crawford: It's a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.

Signal: It's run by a volunteer board—

Luppens: Absolutely. It's a volunteer board with one paid employee, and that's the executive director.

Signal: So you, Belinda, are the full-time employee—

Crawford: Part time.

Luppens: One of the things I think that makes the Food Pantry attractive to many of our board members is that it is so volunteer-oriented — from the volunteers who work there, to getting things done — it's really all done by volunteers who come in and help out, and they get a sense of giving back to the community.
    It's an awfully good feeling to feed hungry little faces and watch them go out the door with smiles. That's a wonderful reward for those volunteers who come and help us out. You mentioned where we're located; we're also expanding, as far as reaching out to different communities who may have trouble getting to Newhall. We (reached) out to the Aqua Dulce area and a church that's out there—

Signal: Is that the Acton Presbyterian Church?

Crawford: Right.

Luppens: We're very proud to be a part of that. We have a great board; we have about 13 members on our board right now, all local community people representing different occupations and coming from different backgrounds. In fact, we have a member of The Mighty Signal on our board, (Signal General Manager) Tim Whyte.
    Some of our goals coming up in the next five years — we serve about 15,000 people; we want to take that and double it. We believe that based on 2000 (U.S. Census) information, there's about 8 percent of the population in Santa Clarita that is about at the poverty level ... and we want to be more effective at reaching out and see if we can be of help to those 8 percent. We're serving about (15,000), and we want to get to about 30,000.

Signal: A lot of people think of Santa Clarita as a fairly upscale place with safe streets, good schools and relatively high incomes compared to Los Angeles County averages. Are you seeing an increase in the poverty rate in recent years?

Luppens: I think it's pretty steady with the growth of the community. So the percentage would stay about the same as the community grows, but the number of people will increase. Raw numbers will increase as the community grows.
    Santa Clarita is a prosperous place to be and a good place to raise your family. What we find is that the people come here for the good schools and the safe environment, and when something happens in their life, they don't want to leave this community. They would rather sacrifice, pay the extra rents to stay here, the extra mortgage to stay here, so (that) the kids will stay in good schools and they will be living in the safe environment rather than perhaps moving out to another community that is less expensive to live in.
    We can help out by preserving our community and help people who live in our community and care about our community. We like doing that.

Signal: As the raw numbers increase, how well equipped is the Food Pantry to deal with the increasing demand?

Luppens: We have just completed our five-year plan, and we believe that we are pretty well equipped to face the future. We have a good board; our budget is going up, based on good grant writing and based on the generosity of the community. We talked about that food that we give out; most of that food comes from our community.
    You walk through the Food Pantry and you see the shelves filled with cans of goods and dry goods and Pampers and toiletries and things like that; those are most often donations from our community, based on drives.
    One of the bigger drives for the year for us is the Post Office drive that happens in July. ... You might receive a tag on your door to put out a few canned goods — the Post Office union actually is the sponsor of this — and the postal carriers pick up the cans, drop them off, and we collect them. It's a nationwide event. We really get a lot of food from that.
    A lot of the food that we distribute — and we estimate that distribution to (have) a value of about $300,000 a year — comes from the local community. We used to have to buy a lot of food. Because of Belinda's efforts, the executive director, getting out there, becoming more prominent in the community, people hearing about us, being on shows like this, people are aware and they donate to us in cash (and) in kind. So we're pretty well prepared for the future.

Signal: So you collect not just food, but also cash, and you go out and buy food.

Luppens: We do.

Crawford: Especially when we run out of particular items, like peanut butter. Peanut butter for a Food Pantry is like gold. That's one of the things we run out of first. Canned beans, canned tomatoes for cooking, canned fruits — those are items that we always run out of.
    Food pantries normally function in a "feast and famine" mode. During the holidays we're in a feast mode, but then, middle to the end of February, we're running out of particular items. So the cash donations that we receive throughout the year are used to buy those particular items that we need to make sure that those bags, again, are nutritionally sound.
    The summertime is a major drain for the Food Pantry. Children are out of school, they are at home eating lunch, they are not getting the free lunches at school. Los Angeles County is the hunger capital of the nation, with over 8 percent living "food insecure." There are two types of food insecure — there's regular food insecure, which means that you're not necessarily sure where the next meal is coming from, or if you are going to have a complete meal. And then there is "food insecure with hunger," where a mother is going without food so that she can feed her children.
    So, Los Angeles County is 8 percent food insecure. The Santa Clarita Valley reflects that same figure. As the valley grows, that 8 percent means more. It can stay constant at 8 percent, but it's more actual people. We figure that at this point, we are serving only 14 percent of the population in Santa Clarita that could actually qualify for our services. When I first came three years ago, we were at 7 percent. So we have made that increase, and within the next five years, we want to move up to 30 percent of the population that could qualify for our services.
    We realize that we're going to have to go out, like with Acton-Aqua Dulce, Castaic, Val Verde — there are different poverty pockets throughout the Santa Clarita Valley, and we're going to have to go out into those areas and help the individuals; partner with other organizations to have distribution areas.
    Forty-four percent of our population right now lives in the Newhall area. The next largest group is 30 percent, and that is in Canyon Country. Then we have something like 6.2 percent in Saugus; 7.4 percent say they live in "Santa Clarita." There are different pockets of poverty all throughout the Santa Clarita Valley, and we want to serve the entire valley.

Luppens: One of the major items we do purchase is milk. It may be the No. 1 expense that we use our dollars to supply. It's tough to donate milk, so we have to go out and buy it. Not many people like powdered milk — at least I don't, anyway.
    Togo back to your question about being prepared for the future, we also see our in-kind donations and our cash donations increasing over the previous year. About 40 percent of our budget does come from those kind of donations, and the rest comes from grants. We have a very good board member who is very active in writing grants, and we hope he stays around for a while. ... He has really increased the income of the Food Pantry with his grant-writing ability.

Signal: Does the board get involved in putting on fund-raisers?

Luppens: Absolutely. Our marquee or signature event each year is our Run For Hunger event in October, and we're exploring other ideas to put on events.
    The holiday season is also a time to bring in additional food and toys, and this year we did things a little bit differently. We joined up with other organizations in town and had kind of our own little Santa Clarita version of Toys for Tots. The Sheriffs Department put it on, and we participated, along with other nonprofits in the area.
    What we found out of that experience in joining with other nonprofits is that we got to learn about each other a little bit more, to collaborate, work together in providing human services to this community. So that was a great experience.

Signal: What other groups are there in the SCV that do something similar to what you do? What kind of groups do you work with?

Crawford: Actually there are a couple of small pantries in Santa Clarita Valley. None of them has been here for 20 years; none of them serves the (number) of clients we serve.

Signal: Doesn't Single Mothers Outreach operate some sort of pantry?

Crawford: They do, but they also refer single mothers to our pantry. They have an emergency-type pantry there, or for mothers who are working in the evenings, they have some food items there, a very small pantry. They do come and get food from us from time to time.
    Through the Nonprofit Leaders Council, through the SCV Resource Center, I have been able to meet other leaders throughout the Santa Clarita Valley, and we have built partnerships.
    When I first came to the Food Pantry, we did several different things: We provided some clothing, we provided some food; we really kind of tried to be a little bit of everything for our clients. But there are so many good organizations out in Santa Clarita; basically through the Resource Center and a summit that Adele Macpherson had put on through the city several years ago, we realized that there are different organizations providing different types of services.
    There is only one organization providing totally food pantry service, and we decided that we wanted to do what we are named for, and do it to the very best ability that could we could possibly do.

Signal: Focus on your core service.

Crawford: Focus on food. The volunteers did talk me into one other thing, which is very important: We do ask Girl Scouts to donate gently loved books. Children's books. We kind of figured, we're nourishing the bodies and the minds as well, in the hopes to help break this cycle of illiteracy. Maybe some of these children who receive our books perhaps will do a little bit better in school, and then maybe they can get jobs where they can better support their families in the future.

Signal: Do you work together with the winter homeless shelter?

Crawford: We help them by providing some items that they need. We do not work directly with them, but actually our past president's husband is on the board of the homeless shelter. And then through other churches — some of our volunteers do volunteer at the shelter.

Signal: How long as the Food Pantry been able to have paid staff?

Luppens: Well I think paid staff probably started 10 years ago, something like that.

Signal: So quite a while now.

Luppens: It's quite a while. But I have to say that the position has changed over the years from more of a manager position in coordinating volunteers, to really a executive director position that Belinda has fulfilled and expanded upon — getting out into the community, bringing more awareness to the pantry, working on bringing the volunteers in, and working on those people who might want to provide some money to the Food Pantry, to help those people and keep those children fed.

Signal: You, Dennis, serve on the Food Pantry board as a volunteer; by day, you're an employee of the city of Santa Clarita. You're in charge of what for the city?

Luppens: Special districts. Landscape maintenance districts, drainage benefit assessment districts and lighting districts.

Signal: How long have you been involved with the Food Pantry?

Luppens: I came on the board about six years ago.

Signal: So you were involved with hiring Belinda?

Luppens: Well, I absolutely got to vote for that. I can take credit for that, but I think (outgoing board president) Laura Morefield — (she) has been a great president, and we have had some great presidents through the years, as well — she has done a good job, and I think she found (Belinda) and brought (her) in, and we're certainly happy that happened.

Signal: What attracted you, Dennis, to the Food Pantry? Is it something you decided to do as a individual, or do you do it as part of the city?

Luppens: A little bit of everything. I do it as part of the city, and the city's ability to go out there and communicate with the community. I am a resident here, and I have been a resident here since 1989. My children grew up here; they are 16 and 15 now. So it's really good and heartwarming for me to go out there and be a part of something as good as the Food Pantry, and providing as something as basic and direct as food.

Signal: What stands out over your past six years on the board?

Luppens: What's really great is when people come back when they are self-sufficient and say thank you. We have had people come back and actually write us checks, saying, "You helped me when I was in need."
    I have known people in the community who are my friends who, earlier in their lives, had needed help, and they went to the Food Pantry, and the Food Pantry was there to help them. They are now doing fine. To be a part of an organization like that is really a wonderful feeling.

Crawford: I run into people at the grocery store, I run into people at local churches when I am speaking there, who will say, "I don't know if you remember me or not," but they had come into the Food Pantry during a crisis in their life — either a medical crisis, or one thing or another — and now they either help collect food for us, or — we've got a couple (who) are regular donors, and they send us a check every month. This is something they want to do; they want to give back.
    I have people who come into my office — I have goose bumps now, thinking about it — who will say, "Thank you so much, I am so glad you guys are here, and when I get back on my feet, I am going to help support you." And I am sure that they will, in some way or another.

Signal: Considering how the Santa Clarita Valley's population is changing, what do you see as the biggest challenges to serving impoverished people?

Luppens: Probably access to those impoverished people, and making sure they are aware of what is out there, and that they can connect to that service.
    A lot of times, people are out there — and in our community, where we find someone kind of falls through the gaps somehow; they lose their job, something happens, divorce — they don't realize that there are a lot of people in this community who are willing to help them. Outside of government agencies, as well as government agencies, as well as nonprofit organizations that are willing support them.
    As you know, this is really a giving community. When people ask for help, people show up and give help. Letting people know that help is available to them is probably one of the important trends that we want to continue doing with the Food Pantry, letting them know about the services available out there.

Signal: Belinda, what do you need from our readers?

Crawford: Continued support, so that we can grow.

Signal: And more peanut butter.

Luppens: And tuna, too.

Crawford: We need continued support throughout the year. During the holidays is always a time we realize how thankful we are for everything we have, and we want to help other people. But one thing, like Dennis said, when the Food Pantry has put a need out to the public, it has always been met. We live in such a wonderfully giving and caring society here in Santa Clarita.

Signal: What's the phone number?

Crawford: 255-9078.

    See this interview in its entirety today at 8:30 a.m., and watch for another "Newsmaker of the Week" on Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, available to Comcast and Time Warner Cable subscribers throughout the Santa Clarita Valley.

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