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Angels from the aisles

Posted: January 7, 2011 9:43 p.m.
Updated: January 8, 2011 4:30 a.m.

Billie Schlau, left, collects food during Valencia United Methodist Church Church’s Angel Food Ministries distribution effort back in September. Georgia-based Angel Food Ministries is a national organization that helps those in need purchase affordable food items and packages like the ones.

Willie Arste couldn’t have found Angel Food Ministries at a better time.

Arste’s husband is unemployed, leaving her as the one “to pick up the tab of the family,” she said.

Arste, 60, of Castaic, runs a small gardening business that has slowed down not only with the economy, but also with the winter season.

“Sometimes I’m working;  sometimes I’m not,” Arste said. “Our finances have been restrained.”

She soon found a source of relief: Angel Food Ministries, which provides low-cost meals to people across the country.

“One of my customers who knew that I wasn’t doing well told me about the program,” she said.

For $31, Arste purchases the ministries’ Signature Box, which has enough food to feed a family of four for a week.

“If I had bought all of that food at the store, I would have paid $75, $80,” she said. “It was so much help.”

How it works
Angel Food Ministries is a nationwide nonprofit organization that allows anybody in the United States to purchase boxes of food for at least half of its market value. The organization has two local partners.

People and families sign up for one of several food options and pick up their meals from a distribution site in their hometown.

Started in 1994 by a family of pastors, the Georgia-based program provides food relief and financial support to communities in 45 states via receiving sites.

The receiving sites are usually churches and local nonprofit organizations.

Program for the smart
Locally, two churches have partnered with Angel Food Ministries: Valencia United Methodist Church, the original location for the Santa Clarita Valley, and St. Clare of Assisi Roman `Catholic Church in Canyon Country, a recently opened site that began within the last year.

“There is a common misconception of who can use the program,” said Stuart Thompson, Valencia United’s director of the Angel Food Ministries. “It’s not limited to disadvantaged families. Anybody can use it. Anyone who needs to buy groceries.”

Scott Norton, one of the volunteers for the program and a member of the Valencia United Methodist Church, purchases food through the program.

“Anybody who is interested in low-cost, high quality groceries can participate,” Norton said.

“It’s a program for smart families,” he said.

Feed those in need
Valencia United has been part of the program for two and a half years.

Church leaders say they always purchase a few extra boxes to the Santa Clarita Valley Food Pantry and other local nonprofit organizations like Help the Children and Single Mothers Outreach.

“People donate money toward the boxes,” Thompson said. “A number of people who started buying boxes for themselves are now buying them to help their neighbors and needy families they know.”

Ray Lerma, 71, is one of those volunteers.

“My wife and I have always been looking out for people in need,” he said.

Lerma purchases five or six boxes every month and then delivers them to families he knows would be helped by stretching their food dollar.

Among others, he helps a single mother and a family in which both the husband and the wife lost their jobs.

“Our country, as rich as it is, has hungry people,” Lerma said. “We will be helping out as long as we can.”

‘Can’t beat the program’
Angel Food Ministries offers a range of boxes with different sets of foods.
The most popular selection is the Signature Box, which for $31 includes almost 10 pounds of various meats, a soup, frozen vegetables, fries, beans, pasta, pasta sauce, oatmeal, eggs, milk and a dessert.

Other sizes of boxes with different selections of foods are available from $16 to $41, including an after-school box, a veggie box and steak and chicken specials.

Thompson said that throughout the years, they’ve had more than 400 customers.

Every month, the average number of participants at Valencia United varies from 100 to 120.

Another 50 to 75 people make orders through St. Clare Catholic Church.

“I can’t believe there are only 500 people in this valley that could benefit from the program,” Norton said.

Some people order at other sites, but there are still very few people who take advantage of the Angel Food Ministries.

“I just don’t understand why the program doesn’t get more exposure,” Lerma said. “The food is fresh and nutritious. You can’t beat the program.”


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