Comunity Fridge at Milpa Grille Restaurant in Boyle Heights. Photo by Jennifer López

By Nataly Joseph

Special to Boyle Heights Beat

The pandemic didn’t just snatch lives away, but altered them drastically. One example: the number of food-insecure Angelenos receiving aid from the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank since the onset of the pandemic has tripled – from 300,000 people to over 900,000.

Even as more and more residents get vaccinated, and establishments begin to open again, the problem of food insecurity continues to plague many families in East Los Angeles. Experts say those who sought aid from food distribution nonprofits during the pandemic due to job loss remain in need of the services, as they try to pay off the accrued car, water, and rent payments. With Eastside residents under multiple financial pressures as the pandemic stretches on, a number of food distribution operations in Boyle Heights stepped up to keep area families from going hungry.

“[We ask], are you current on your rent, is your car payment in good standing?” said Othón Nolasco, co-founder of the food distribution nonprofit No Us Without You. “And a lot of those answers are no. You know, the families are in a deep, deep financial hole.”

Nolasco, and his co-founder Damián Diaz, both “born and bred in Boyle Heights,” founded the nonprofit targeting food insecurity at the start of the pandemic, after both were let go from their restaurant jobs. Nolasco said while they were both fine financially, they noticed the back-of-house staff suffered from suddenly losing their means of income. 

Nolasco said that on a whim, he and Diaz began purchasing food from restaurant distributors, and found that they could feed a family of four for just $33 a week.

“These are our friends and coworkers, so we had to have a hard conversation with them, like, ‘how are you doing financially?’” Nolasco said. “And many of them work two or three jobs just to survive, and whatever money was leftover will get sent back home to Central America, to the Caribbean, to Mexico.”

As more people discovered No Us Without You, the demand for their services skyrocketed. What started as feeding 30 families a week kept growing until they began feeding 1700 families, moving thousands of pounds of food a week. At first, Nolasco and Diaz paid out of their own pockets to purchase the food in bulk through restaurant suppliers, but as they became more popular through exposure in publications and on social media, donations began to flood in.

Nolasco said that they help families for as long as they can, even as they pick up jobs as the city begins to reopen.

Many indicators point to the fact that not everyone has benefited from the reopening. In January, the Bay Area Equity Atlas and Housing NOW! California estimated that 814,200 households remained behind on rent, accruing a total of $2.4 billion in debt. 

The Biden administration, in partnership with the Center for Disease Control, extended the rent moratorium through this month, and California Governor Gavin Newsom and other legislative leaders agreed to pay 100% of most Californians’ unpaid back rent and extend eviction protections through September 30. 

That explains why so many Los Angeles communities continue to depend on the help provided by nonprofits like No Us Without You. In spite of that, the East LA Community Corporation has seen fewer people coming to use their services in recent months.

ELACC distributed food boxes to the community before the pandemic, with turnout remaining relatively consistent. Sometimes families would stand in line as early as five in the morning for a food box, but this changed drastically only recently. 

“There’s a lot of food insecurity. I’m not sure why, but people just don’t go to the food banks or they don’t have access to it, like they might not have a car to go or stuff like that,” said Resident Services Coordinator Patty Gutierrez. “For other people, it’s tough for people who are working. It’s tougher to get those resources.”

The demand has fallen so much that Guitierrez said somefamilies walk out with more food boxes than they can carry, having to make multiple trips home. Some boxes have been found sitting outside. Gutierrez said other food distribution centers shared a similar decrease in demand. 

Gutierrez wasn’t sure what was keeping people from getting the necessary resources but suspected they might be ashamed or afraid of doing so.

“That’s my biggest fear, that if there is a lot of food insecurity, then people are not able to get food, because that’s needed. It is very much needed,” Gutierrez said. “That fear also of the COVID and people being exposed, that really is something that, you know, I don’t think it’s gone away.”

Gutierrez dedicates herself in part to reduce the stigma around using food distribution centers, hoping that it brings more people to use the resources offered by the ELACC and other food distribution sources. 

While organizations like ELACC served residents throughout the pandemic, members of the community stepped up to do their part as well. Food fridges, monitored by individual citizens or businesses, sustained many who suffered from food insecurity during the pandemic.

Deysi Serrano, owner of Milpa Grille in Boyle Heights, opened a food fridge outside of her restaurant to help feed the community at the start of the pandemic. It remained on the sidewalk on César Chávez Avenue until a local health inspector voiced their concerns about the fridge maintaining the appropriate temperature.

“I get why they were doing it, but I also waited until the third time for them to come out and tell me to put it inside because I was trying to delay as much as possible,” Serrano said.

Luckily, she was able to switch to a larger fridge that could hold even more food, but Serrano also said that she worried those who used the fridge at night after the restaurant closes wouldn’t be able to get the food they needed. She mentioned the homeless population specifically, saying they often felt uncomfortable entering the restaurant during the day to use the fridge.

Prepackaged food available inside the community fridge at Milpa Grille. Photo by Jennifer López

If the fridge were to close, Serrano said she feels like she would let the community down, as she felt a sense of duty to give back to Boyle Heights. 

“It would be traumatic. There’s just a lot of people that are depending on the prepackaged food to be able to feed their families because they live in a house or apartment,” Serrano said. “It’s just, most families are living in the same place. It’s a lot of pressure for us, I think, but also commitment.”

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Boyle Heights Beat

Boyle Heights Beat is a bilingual community newspaper produced by its youth "por y para la comunidad". The newspaper and its sister website serve an immigrant neighborhood in East Los Angeles of just under...

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