[The Episcopal News] For several decades the West Valley Food Pantry has been feeding and aiding the San Fernando Valley’s food insecure from the Prince of Peace Episcopal Church’s parking lot, and now “we are finally going to have our own home,” rejoices executive director Debbie Decker.
Decker hosted Bishop John Harvey Taylor, along with state and local community and civic leaders, for a Feb. 11 groundbreaking ceremony for “the dream that is becoming reality,” or what she hopes will eventually become the 7,500-square-foot West Valley Food Pantry Community Center, a project in two phases.
The $5 million first phase “will house pantry operations, a warehouse, our offices, a distribution room and a small meeting space along with bathrooms” for the center, which feeds an average 700 families and senior citizens weekly.
“We’re still using the parish hall for storage and main parking lot. We have a drive-through operation,” said Decker during a Feb. 14 phone interview from her office. “I’m looking at the security camera on my desk and there’s a line of cars going through right now. It takes about five minutes to check people in, ask them what their preferences are. They get a choice.
“We honor their food selections,” she added. “If they’re diabetic, they tell us. If they have religious preferences and don’t eat pork or beef, we adjust to what we’re putting in the trunks of their cars.”
And today, Decker is exuberant because, she said, “Miraculously, we have eggs! Trader Joe’s gave us a whole ton of eggs today!”
She is also still rejoicing from a surprise gift at the groundbreaking ceremony from California District 46 Assemblyman Jesse Gabriel (D-Woodland Hills). In 2021 Gabriel helped secure $3.5 million in state funding for the project. On Saturday he presented Decker with another grant for $1.5 million.
“He has been absolutely key to making this a reality,” she said. “Without the $5 million in funds he’s secured for this project, it wouldn’t happen. He so believes in what we’re doing for the community.” Overall, the project is estimated to cost about $7.5 million.
The West Valley Food Pantry is a true blessing for our community,” said Gabriel when presenting the initial grant. “The pantry has done incredible work supporting vulnerable kids, families, and seniors during the COVID-19 pandemic, and I am thrilled to have secured $3.5 million to help them establish a new facility and grow their efforts to combat hunger and homelessness in the San Fernando Valley.”
Taylor, who welcomed about 150 people to the groundbreaking ceremony, said in his Bishop’s Blog that Gabriel “quickly discerned that Debbie had a world-changing vision and heart.”
The $1.5 million grant will be used for phase two, an instructional kitchen, “where we’ll be able to have cooking classes to teach people how to use the food that we give them in the most nutritious manner,” said Decker. It will also include meeting spaces, a drop-in center for additional services for seniors, and unhoused people. An additional $1 million is needed to fund the second phase.
Responding to a knock on the door
Taylor recalled the pantry’s beginnings: “One day in 1975, a hungry family knocked on the door of the office of Prince of Peace Church, and asked church administrator Margaret Shively if they had any groceries to share. They didn’t. Margaret told the then rector, the Rev. Jess Taylor, ‘We need to keep a little food around here for people.’ Fr. Jess asked parishioners to bring canned goods.
“For the first few years, it was Margaret and her volunteers, caring for half a dozen families. In the mid-80s, the ministry, now called the West Valley Food Pantry, recruited interfaith and ecumenical partners. The National Charity League, Inc., got on board. Soon the church was feeding thousands a month and delivering food to clients who couldn’t come to the food bank.”
During the Covid-19 pandemic, food distribution swelled. “We went from serving 3,000 people per month to 14,000 per month overnight,” Decker recalled. “The pantry exploded; because of the extreme need, we were named, in 2020, nonprofit of the year for the state of California.”
The center relies on the aid of about 200 volunteers who help sort and assemble bags of fresh food, which are placed into auto trunks in the drive-through. “We hand out fresh produce, meat, dairy. We pick up every single morning thousands of pounds of food from 10 to 11 grocery stores in the area,” said Decker. “We take in anywhere from 3,000 to 5,000 pounds of food every single morning, and it’s gone by the end of the day.”
The pantry also offers diapers, feminine products, and even flowers at times: “Trader Joe’s gives us flowers on Thursdays,” said Decker. “One man cried when he received them; he was a senior citizen and had never been given flowers before.”
During the holiday season, clients receive a 15-lb. turkey to prepare with all the trimmings.
More than half the pantry’s clients are seniors, Decker said. “We deliver food to about 600 seniors once a month – groceries, not cooked food. We are finding that inflation is hitting seniors incredibly hard and that we’re seeing an influx of them.
“They may be house-rich and cash poor or living on the edge because of Social Security and the money just isn’t there to cover costs.”
The center also holds an annual school supplies and backpacks giveaway. “This year, we had sporting equipment to start school with,” Decker said. There’s also a yearly toy event, providing holiday gifts to about 700 children of pantry clients.
“Last year, we gave away 120 bicycles. The parents come and shop for their children without paying a dime. We know how old the kids are and they come and pick out what their kids would like. It is all done with grace and kindness and dignity and thoughtfulness; we try to give kids things they would really like.”
Volunteers begin arriving as early as 7 a.m. Monday through Friday; the pantry is open from 9:30 a.m. until 2 p.m.
“This ministry has been vital to the growth and health of this church,” said Decker, a member of Prince of Peace since the 1990s. “We have been very focused on being part of the local community as well as being part of the world and living the Gospel, rather than just talking about it. We consider ourselves part of the community – not everyone may worship with us but everybody in this community knows who we are and what we do.”
The pantry’s annual budget is between $500,000 and $750,000 and the ministry is funded largely by grants and donations, Decker said.
Additionally, the pantry connects unhoused persons with local social service agencies “to try to get them into housing. We see about 150 homeless individuals a month.”
As the dream grows, Decker said she hopes to raise the additional money to complete both phases together.
“Depending on the grace of God, I need another million dollars and we can go for phase two in conjunction with phase one, which means the grand opening could be 18 months away instead of 14, if they build concurrently.”
Donations to the WVFP building fund may be made here.
Also in attendance at the groundbreaking were pantry founder Margaret Shively, Los Angeles Councilmember Bob Blumenfield, newly elected county supervisor Lindsey Horvath, the Rev. Steve Dean, the Rev. George Packer, and the Rev. Brian Tucker.
“During the height of the pandemic, as we faced an unprecedented call for help, Debbie Decker and the West Valley Food Pantry were there for our community in more ways than one,” Blumenfield told The Episcopal News. “I’ve been an admirer and partner of Debbie for many years, and it will be truly incredible to see what they can do with this new facility.”