Food drive serves communities in South and Southeast Los Angeles

Volunteers fill black tote bags with bread, grains, fruits and vegetables at the YMCA building on Whittier Boulevard, with food donations coming from partners including USC Hospitality and Porto’s Bakery. (Photo courtesy of Dulce Acosta)

Every weekday, volunteers gather in the YMCA building on Whittier Boulevard to fill black tote bags with bread, grains, fruits and vegetables. As part of the USC Food Drive, they provide groceries, sanitary items and wellness checks to South and Southeast Los Angeles community members most affected by the coronavirus pandemic. 

Created through a collaboration between USC Civic Engagement, Adventist Health White Memorial Hospital, located in Boyle Heights, and Weingart East Los Angeles YMCA, the food drive secures funding and donations from several partners to deliver bags of essentials to those in need.

Dulce Acosta, executive director of community partnerships for the USC Health Sciences Campus, said the food drive began after she noticed elderly people in her Boyle Heights neighborhood having to go out for groceries. 

“Our focus is to try to keep at least our most vulnerable families and elders specifically at home, because they’re the ones that are probably not going to survive this if they get the virus,” Acosta said. “For us, it was more like a calling to really just help our brothers and sisters.”

Acosta wanted to create a solution to the rise in panic-buying and limit trips outdoors for necessities. As the coronavirus spread worsened, Acosta collaborated with Weingart East L.A. YMCA executive director Mario Valenzuela to find ways their organizations could help the Boyle Heights community. They presented their ideas to their superiors and began to gather the resources to set up their food drive project.

As Acosta and Valenzuela created a plan to obtain funding and volunteers for the food drive, White Memorial provided $25,000 in funding for the drive and a space to initiate the food distribution process. Since its inception, volunteers have gone from delivering 150 bags of fresh fruits and vegetables a day to delivering more than 2,500 bags of groceries to single mothers and seniors. 

The number of communities served has also expanded. Starting in Boyle Heights, the drive has now spread into other regions including Maywood, Huntington Park, Vernon, El Sereno, Lincoln Heights, Montebello and East L.A. 

Deysi Serrano, who owns Milpa Grille in Boyle Heights, has been helping with the drive since having to close down her restaurant since employees were worried about continuing to work as the coronavirus pandemic developed. Serrano, who previously worked with USC, White Memorial and the YMCA to plan community and charity events, directs the packing of fruits and vegetables at the food drive and ensures volunteers follow social distancing and proper sanitation protocols. 

Volunteering with the drive, Serrano views the pandemic as an opportunity to aid those in dire situations. 

“It’s bigger than us,” Serrano said. “I have support from [my] family when it comes to [finances], but there’s other people that don’t have that privilege.”

Organizations such as Fresh Start and the L.A. Clippers Foundation are providing the food drive with vans. Margarita “Mago” Amador, a food drive volunteer, said the vehicles help the team safely deliver bags to those without forms of transportation, including the senior population.

“It’s our obligation to take care of our elders — they’re the most vulnerable,” Amador said. “They don’t drive, so they don’t have any access to get to the local store, and a lot of them are terrified to even step out of their house. The whole purpose of us doing this is really to make sure that they have the basic food needs.”

According to Acosta, politicians such as California State Assemblymember Miguel Santiago and L.A. City Councilmember Jose Huizar have also offered support and provided tote bags, funds and a construction bin to dispose of the cardboard waste from the packaged food. Grocery stores, including the Chiquita Fresh North America L.L.C. and Porto’s Bakery, have donated food to the drive, and other organizations such as the American Heart Association are also providing supplies. 

In an email to the Daily Trojan, USC Hospitality Assistant Vice President Kris Klinger said USC Hospitality has provided more than 1,800 pounds of food and will continue to donate for as long as the pandemic lasts. 

Acosta said she hopes to expand the food drive to include the homeless population, rendered especially vulnerable to the crisis because they lack shelter to maintain social distancing and avoid close contact. 

“We haven’t been able to really continue to serve our unsheltered and our homeless population because a lot of these initiatives are for families and elders,” Acosta said. “We’re going to add a soup kitchen because if I give a homeless person a bag of groceries, they don’t have a refrigerator, they don’t have a stove, so that’s not really going to work for them.”

For volunteers like Serrano, who has owned a business in Boyle Heights for two years, participating in the food drive has proved to be a positive experience. Even though her business is closed for now, working at the drive allows her to provide aid to her community in a time of crisis while bonding with fellow volunteers.

“You just have this group of people that tend to just now become your family,” Serrano said. “I think it’s the most rewarding: seeing people’s faces with a little bit of hope.”