The latest figure for unemployment in California stands at 12.3 percent, the fourth highest in the nation. Many families who have one or more breadwinners out of work and are becoming less able to live in the manner that they were accustomed to are now turning to food banks, which have seen a rise in demand for food across Los Angeles County.

Social service providers say they have seen the number of clients that they serve fluctuate depending on the state of the economy, but recent events in the global financial markets have driven the demand for services higher while donations to food pantries have severely declined.

“The economic meltdown has left many families struggling to stay afloat,” Michael Flood, executive director of the Los Angeles County Regional Food Bank, said in a September 16th telephone conference.

Flood’s agency distributes food to approximately 500 food banks throughout the county, including to the St. Joseph Center’s food pantry.

Representatives of the Venice social service agency have seen a steady increase in clients requesting food over the last two years. But recently they have noticed that much of their new clientele are comprised of middle-class families.

Rebecca Amado-Sprigg, program manager for the family center at St. Joseph, has witnessed the rise in the number of families who come to the center up close and personal.

“We have client orientations on a monthly basis, and we’ve been seeing between 25 to 30 clients each a month,” Amado-Sprigg said. “Along with a lot of first-timers, we’re also seeing people who were once clients who became self-sufficient and didn’t need us anymore. But many of them have been laid off from their jobs and now they’re back again.”

Genevieve Riutort, development director of the Westside Food Bank in Santa Monica, says that her agency has also seen an upswing in new clients, and many are middle-class people who are also first-time visitors.

“Many of them are also former volunteers and donors,” Riutort noted.

Flood says this is a pattern that is being repeated throughout the county.

“Many (people) are reporting that they are standing in line for the first time,” he stated.

A recent policy brief from the Regional Food Bank shows that local food pantries are experiencing a 34-percent increase in demand compared to this time a year ago. In addition, the volume at the county food bank has increased by 41 percent, the equivalent of five million meals. According to representatives of the agency, there still remains a gap between the overall demand for food assistance and the supply of food.

From May to August this year, an average of 251,298 people received assistance from food pantries each month, an 8.6-percent increase from the previous period of January through April.

A bill that is currently in the California Senate that some believe could alleviate some of the concern over the decrease in donations to food banks is Senate Bill (SB) 35, sponsored by Jenny Oropeza, who represents Venice, Marina del Rey, Playa del Rey and Mar Vista. SB 35 would allow caterers and restaurants to donate leftover food directly to food pantries. Restaurant associations initially expressed concern over liability, but that has now been resolved, says Tomasa Due“as, Oropeza’s legislative analyst.

“Costs are now the primary problem,” Due“as said.

The bill is currently in the Senate suspense file, where pending legislation that could exceed $150,000 or more is held. Due“as said that SB 35 could cost “several hundred thousand dollars.”

Food bank clients like LeAndre Miles are grateful for organizations like the food pantry at St. Joseph, where she can obtain supplies to feed her two sons, 13 and nine. Miles initially came to the center to access other social programs but soon learned that she could also utilize the food pantry.

“I started coming here because they have programs that are helpful for my son Joseph, who has special needs,” said Miles, who is unemployed and has been a client at St. Joseph for over a year. “The pantry helps us considerably. They often have things like fresh vegetables, which is very important to me.”

One of the goals of SB 35 is to help residents like Miles who are among the ranks of the unemployed due to the economic downturn, and others who are struggling during a time of uncertainty, says Oropeza.

“I really think that SB 35 can be a part of a solution to hunger,” the senator said. “The situation is much worse today than it was a few years ago.”

According to Flood, one in eight people in the United States are experiencing what he calls “food insecurity,” which the Hunger Task Force describes as “a condition in which people lack basic food intake to provide them with the energy and nutrients for fully productive lives.”

Riutort says that having first-time clients at the Westside Food Bank who do not fit the profile of its regular clients is slowly changing the way that some people view those who are using social service agencies for assistance during difficult financial times.

“They are putting a new face on need,” she said.

Amado-Sprigg added, “It’s really hard for many of the first-timers, because they never thought that they would have to access services like ours.”

Miles says that she has considered how she would make ends meet without the food pantry at St. Joseph.

“I’d have to pick and choose what was more important,” she said. “Feeding my kids is a priority, so sometimes bills might not get paid, or there would be other adjustments that you would have to make.”

Riutort said that there has been a silver lining of sorts for her agency.

“Although donations are down and demand is up, we have been able to expand our service by 12 percent,” the development director said. “Community awareness has never been higher.”

Oropeza and her staff are hopeful that SB 35, which Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger did not sign when it arrived at his desk last year, will become law sometime next year.

“Hunger has no political boundaries,” Due“as said.