Frontline Heroes: Staff and volunteers of North Valley Caring Services

Laura Rathbone and Manny Flores from North Valley Cares Services at the United Methodist Church in North Hills, Calif. on Friday, April 2, 2021.

Trevor Morgan, Assistant News Editor

Every Friday morning, more than 200 cars line up outside the North Hills United Methodist Church for a food pantry organized by the nonprofit organization North Valley Caring Services.

The program has become a massive undertaking during the pandemic. Laura Rathbone, the director of the Safe Parking Program at NVCS, said that they serve up to 2,000 families per week with fresh, nutritious food.

“Unlike other pantries, where it’s sometimes just a box of produce, here you get your proteins, your meats, your dairies, your vegetables, your dry goods. Here, today, we probably have six paid staff members and everyone else is a volunteer that continues to show up every Friday to support people,” Rathbone said. Dozens of volunteers come to help with the food pantry each week.

The former gymnasium houses the main supply of food for the North Valley Cares Services at the United Methodist Church in North Hills, Calif. According to NVCS, over 40,000 pounds of food are distributed from this location. (Trevor Morgan)

The need for the pantry has exploded during the pandemic. More than 60 volunteers now serve between 40,000 and 50,000 pounds of food each week — more than double the amount served last year.

Manny Flores, executive director for NVCS, said he’s noticed more people need the services of the food pantry and are living paycheck to paycheck.

“2020 was like driving your car in first gear the whole time, it got to a point where we were grinding,” Flores said. “If you see most of the [people in line are] middle [class.] Our pantry before … served more of the lower-income population of the neighborhood, but now it’s literally us, I’m serving myself.”

The cars in the food pantry line reflected this, as many Mercedes, BMWs and other higher brand cars were waiting in the line.

Hundreds of cars line up every week on Sepulveda Boulevard in North Hills, Calif. to receive food from North Valley Cares Services. (Trevor Morgan)

Rathbone explained that many people who use NVCS’s services are in economic limbo: they don’t make enough money to fully support themselves, but they make too much to qualify for social services like CalFresh.

“In safe parking we see it all the time, people that just slip through the cracks,” Rathbone said. “That’s why in June, they have all this rent relief coming out, but you know who’s going to slip through the cracks? People who can’t read, people that can’t go online, people that don’t know the language, people that have no idea what Wi-Fi is, and the people who’s applications get lost or not submitted because that’s how technology is working these days. It gets so overused that [the] websites crash.”

Several programs related to unemployment, rent relief and nutritional assistance have shown vulnerabilities during the pandemic. The Employment Development Department’s aging infrastructure struggled as millions of claims were filed in California last year. Phone lines and websites for renters assistance programs frequently crashed, preventing many people from gaining access.

NVCS continues to support the community by providing hot meals to families living in hotels, providing a distance learning resource center for students and a place for Angelenos who sleep in their cars to park overnight.

Volunteers spoke excitedly about the organization and their desire to be of service during the pandemic. J.R., an engineering student at CSUN, said that volunteer work helped lift his spirits. He began volunteering when the pandemic led him to reflect on his lifestyle.

“I guess that’s one of the good things about the coronavirus. It forces people to refocus where they put their priorities, and I discovered that I want to help people,” J.R. said.

The organization has received all kinds of donations, such as trucks that are used to transport food.

“We do big things at this agency, but we’re really grassroots. We rely on community assistance to support the community,” Rathbone said.

“Frontline Heroes” is a Daily Sundial weekly series that honors those who are fighting COVID-19 on the front lines — doctors, food bank volunteers, retail workers, testing site volunteers and the other countless Angelenos who are keeping everyone safe during the pandemic.

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