St. Margaret Mary Church's food pantry builds community

--The Tidings / February 2007

Story & Photos by Bill Stephens

A young Hispanic “client” edges her shopping cart through the parish food pantry line. Her son sits in the cart. She pauses at the pastry table. 

Volunteer Jill Lotta smiles. “You can choose three items.”


“Yes. Tres.”

The woman’s eyes grow moist and she smiles. “God bless you!”

Lotta tells me she’s been volunteering at the Wednesday food pantry 12 years. “I’ve learned some Spanish. But the volunteers and clients here speak the language of love.”

*   *   *


Earlier, driving through Lomita to St. Margaret Mary church I passed tidy homes. I’d heard this middle class parish aggressively serves the poor and I wanted to find out why.

In a church hall, poor and some homeless clients sit at round tables. They sip coffee, munch pastries, and talk as they wait for the grocery line to open. Nearby, silver-haired parish volunteers stock tables with grocery bags.

Chatting with the clients is parish Christian Service Director Laura Nieto. She says between 9 and 11 a.m. 250 families will receive a week’s groceries. The Wednesday food pantry, she says, is the culmination of a week’s work by  parish volunteers who pick up, purchase, sort, prepare, and serve groceries. Nobody is turned away, but most clients come from Lomita, Harbor City, and parts of Torrance—where the mostly retired volunteers also live. The food mostly comes from local grocer donations.

These groceries, Nieto says, help low-income clients get by and stay housed. About 75 percent are Hispanic , 10 percent African American, 10 percent Anglo, and five percent Asian. 

“We set up this social area with round tables for clients to linger, talk with clients and volunteers, and briefly escape their difficult lives. We’re building a feeling of we rather than them and us. We get to know our clients and their situation, and help them feel like they belong. We encourage clients to become volunteers.”

Nieto introduces me to 32-year-old Lomita resident Sylvia whose recent operation limits her work.

“How do you like this place?”

“They serve you with a smile. It feels like a family. “

African-American senior Doris sipped coffee and said rising food prices and rent would make it hard without these groceries.  “I live for Wednesdays. I’ve made friends here.  These volunteers are so generous.”

At 9 a.m., volunteers and clients join hands and pray. Then clients begin moving from table-to-table with shopping carts. The sign-in table is staffed by volunteering  sisters Carmen and Delores.

“We get to know our clients and what’s happening in their lives,” Carmen tells me.  “We’ve gone to their children’s weddings.”

Homeless client Richard, I’m told, was befriended and encouraged by volunteers, who even took him shopping for school supplies. He’s now in college.

Once a mother of three arrived crying because she’d lost her job, and had never asked for help. The volunteers hugged her. The woman’s back on her feet, but still receives Wednesday hugs.

When clients also volunteer, friendships strengthen. At the entrance first-time clients are welcomed by volunteer-client Raquel, who arrived nine months ago. “This food helps me, so I contribute. It’s like a family community here. And I now realize people are worse off then  me.” 

Volunteer-client Darla of Lomita told me when she came here three years ago she was ashamed. “But they don’t make you feel ashamed.” She hopes to start a job. 

At the first grocery table, where clients receive a large bag of rice, beans, and canned vegetables, I met volunteer Rosie Ortiz. The retired nurse also sorts groceries on Mondays and Tuesdays.

“Why do you volunteer?”

“I always felt called to missionary work. This fulfills that need. It fills my heart to see these appreciative families.”

At the pastry table, volunteer  Jill Lotta told me she enjoys Wednesdays so much she plans her week and vacations around it. “When you get older, it’s easy to get in a rut and feel sorry for yourself.”

I questioned clients leaving. Tracy grew up in Palos Verdes, but lives in a field with her son. The groceries are helping her regroup. “I feel like I’ve friends here.” 

John pushed his cart towards his car, where he lives. Without these groceries, he said, he’d be digging dumpsters for food. This program helps him survive.

Veronica of Harbor City said without these groceries she couldn’t feed her kids. “I feel comfortable here, they treat you good. I’ve joined the church.”

I button-holed more volunteers. Retired engineer Tom Reis volunteers three days a week. He’d envisioned pursuing the good life in retirement, but finds volunteering more satisfying. “Meeting these people and learning their stories builds respect. Seeing how many people live has broadened me.”

Retired businessman Bob Gierat of Torrance agrees. “You feel like you’re helping your fellow man. You realize poverty could happen to anyone, that L.A. is tough if you’re poor.”

Josie D’Ambrosi, 88, has been with the program since the start. “Volunteering’s  made me more compassionate, thankful. I’m  doing this for my Lord.” 

*   *   *

In her office, Laura Nieto says when she became  Christian Service Director 18 months ago she reminded volunteers if their importance. “I told them when I was young we searched for food behind Albertsons and survived with church help. Our Lomita parish outreach isn’t far removed from what I grew up with.

“I tell people not to judge the poor until you’ve lived in their shoes.” She tells of a client who kept driving to the Wednesday food pantry in a nice car. When asked about it, he wept and said: ‘I live in my car.’

“Our parishioners are realizing that with rising housing, utility, food, and gas prices, and poor public transit, many struggle. Our program makes lives better by giving people basic help and a boost.“ A UCLA study claims 957,000 L.A. County adults experience food insecurity.

In addition to the “crown jewel” Wednesday food pantry, there’s a job referral program, psychological counseling, Sunday community homeless feeding led by Deacon Rick Soria, and ESL/citizenship classes. Nieto envisions a center with beds, showers, clothes, kitchen. She wants to help clients access services, develop skills, and reach goals.

“Our volunteers are comfortable, not wealthy. But they help—and find it meaningful. They enjoy the camaraderie. After the Wednesday food pantry our kitchen volunteers enjoy a potluck social lunch.”

In his nearby office Father Patrick Thompson shows me the parish boundaries, which encompass Lomita, Harbor City and parts of Torrance. He says there’s a tradition of parish outreach, partly due to leadership.

He says this is a quiet middle class parish. But it has diverse ethnic groups, economic levels, and education levels. Most parishioners have been close enough to episodes of poverty or tragedy that they accept outreach.

“Our Wednesday food pantry isn’t just about giving food. We also give our presence. I want clients to feel like: ‘Somebody looked at me and cared about me, and it was a good experience.’

“I’d like every parishioner to volunteer, so more will discover there’s a problem and that we can help.”

Helping  touches a part of our volunteers’ lives they’d forgotten about, neglected, or never discovered, he says, noting you won’t find that inside your accustomed comfort zone. “You’ll find it in somebody different. You’ll find it in the poor.”



©2013   ·  by