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KAI RYSSDAL: The through line of this recession so far has been unemployment. The millions of people who’ve lost their jobs or had their hours cut back. But a down economy doesn’t care why somebody’s not working. So those who can’t work because of age or illness are getting hit too. And the charities that a lot of them depend on for things like food or shelter are being squeezed, which in turn leaves big holes in some already fragile safety nets.
Daryl Twerdahl: Well, welcome to Saint Vincent Meals on Wheels.
At nine in the morning on a Wednesday, Daryl Twerdahl’s standing at the back a nondescript building in downtown Los Angeles.
TWERDAHL: This is our loading dock, where you can see we have 34 vans that go out throughout the city everyday delivering about 4,300 meals a day.
Twerdahl’s the executive director of the St. Vincent’s Meals on Wheels Foundation. As we go inside through a pair of swinging doors there’s a huge industrial kitchen swarming with both volunteers and paid contractors.
TWERDAHL: This is our hot tray side. Over on the other side is where we prepare cold suppers.
Workers plop vegetables, meat and milk cartons down onto plastic trays and push them down the assembly line. Each one has a special tag that lists dietary restrictions — no juices or low sodium. Unlike a lot of programs, this one offers diet-specific meals for clients who are mostly ill or elderly.
TWERDAHL: This gentleman on Route 16 is not to get the ends of the bread. He has no teeth. So, you know, we really try. We really try to pay attention.
It is a pretty impressive operation. And growing. St. Vincent’s has taken on more clients as other Meals on Wheels programs in Southern California have cut back. But budgets are tight. The federal government and private donors have less to give. And still, in this economy the need is only increasing. St. Vincent’s recently picked up a route in South L.A. where clients had been waiting more than a year for assistance. All of those clients are over 80 years old.
TWERDAHL: The waiting lists are growing and 11.4 percent of all seniors are at risk for hunger in this country. That’s 5 million people at risk for hunger. So we’re only serving 4,300 of those people.
Out back, some of the vans that’ll serve some of those 4,300 people are packed up and ready to go. Assistant Director Frank Kolbash invites us into his. He’s got a light load today, mostly because we’re there. Five stops distributed over central Los Angeles.
Frank Kolbash: We’re going to Fedora.
Ryssdal: 8, uh, 833 South Fedora.
Timothy Alario prefers to come out and get his meals, which explains the honking. Alario is 51 years old. He looks 65, though. He’s got cancer, and that makes him visibly weak on his feet. Vertigo makes walking to the grocery store difficult. Frank Kolbash hands over two trays, lunch and dinner. Today they come with a treat — a slice of angel food cake since it’s Alario’s birthday.
Timothy Alario: I can’t emphasize how important this particular program is for someone like myself. OK? I live on a very fixed income. I don’t even make a thousand bucks a month, you know. My rent’s 600.
Ryssdal: So what would happen if you didn’t get this program?
Alario: I’d be hunting for food two weeks of the month.
The meals cost St. Vincent’s about $6 apiece. Recipients pay what they can. The program covers the rest with donations and grants. But Frank Kolbash says the real reason St. Vincent’s has stayed open is the program’s founder, Sister Alice Marie Quinn.
KOLBASH: You know, there’s never any doubt in her mind that the program will be taken care of.
I find Sister Alice Marie keeping an eye on things from her office back behind the kitchen. It’s decorated floor to ceiling with angels. Which explains why, perhaps, every time the phone rings with a new client request, she always says yes.
QUINN: You know, you can’t say no to somebody who’s hungry. And our founder was St. Vincent de Paul and, you know, he was the saint that never said no. And so I told God, I said, “You take care of the money, I’ll take care of the work.”
Ryssdal: I got to tell you, it’s a crazy way to run a business, right?
QUINN: It is crazy, but that’s God’s way. A lot of people think he’s crazy.
No matter who’s keeping the books, St. Vincent’s and programs like it are going to need more than just faith to carry them through.