In the face of a pandemic, USC and partners provide food for those in need

More than 1,000 bags’ worth of fresh fruit, vegetables and bread are now flowing through nearby communities, thanks to a growing, university-led effort.

March 26, 2020 Ron Mackovich-Rodriguez

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Work starts early at the Weingart East Los Angeles YMCA. Volunteers from USC, the local neighborhood and partner organizations are there by 6 a.m. sharp. As the COVID-19 pandemic impacts L.A. communities, USC and its partners have organized a food drive for those in need.

Step 1 is to stop at the front door for a temperature check, followed by extensive hand-washing and a dollop of hand sanitizer. After that, volunteers don face masks and put on sanitary gloves and disposable aprons. Camaraderie is kept at a distance; everyone stays at least 6 feet apart.

The work begins in a spacious room. Even under fluorescent lights, it’s a colorful operation. Black tote bags marked “USC Civic Engagement” brim with a fresh, healthful bouquet of green cucumbers, red and yellow peppers, eggplant and squash, much of it donated by USC Hospitality. There are also drinks, bread and durable foodstuffs.

“It started when I was watching the news and seeing stories about people buying everything at supermarkets,” said Dulce Acosta, program manager of community partnerships for the USC Health Sciences Campus. “It was taking away options from those that can’t get to stores, the people who are the most vulnerable: our elderly neighbors and the many high-risk individuals in our community. We are trying to rise to the occasion and help them.”

USC food drive is a true team effort

More than 1,000 bags of food have been distributed, just over a week after Acosta got together with longtime colleagues from the YMCA and Adventist Health White Memorial Hospital.

“We locked ourselves in a room, eight hours a day, figuring out how to overcome every obstacle,” said YMCA Director Mario Valenzuela. “We’ve been blessed by so many partners joining us. White Memorial and Keck Medicine of USC gave us incredibly generous funding, and that got us going.”

This goes to seniors and single moms who can’t get fresh produce right now.

Mireya Medina

Those resources include fresh produce from USC Hospitality, which has donated thousands of pounds of high-quality produce and other foods. Spinach, baby kale, broccoli, green beans, kiwi, cucumber, zucchini and beets — originally meant for the Moreton Fig restaurant on the University Park Campus — are now being served on family tables.

“This goes to seniors and single moms who can’t get fresh produce right now,” said Moreton Fig chef Mireya Medina as she helped load fruits and vegetables for distribution. “Some of this comes from our teaching gardens. It’s all going to the right place, right now.”

Food donation efforts expand by the day

The list of contributors grows daily, as does the food drive’s reach. There are door-to-door deliveries for seniors in the East L.A., Boyle Heights, Lincoln Heights and El Sereno neighborhoods, along with drive-up collections at the YMCA. South L.A. nonprofits are also receiving contributions from USC, and more is delivered to Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles communities.

The drive will soon start contributing resources to a grab-and-go program that provides breakfast and lunch for kids who normally get those meals at their schools.

“The generosity is overwhelming,” Acosta said. “Vision To Learn and the L.A. Clippers Foundation provided three vans with drivers and insurance. A lot of our elders don’t have transportation, so that’s vital.”

Also critical are volunteers from the USC community like Benjamin Valdez. He lives only a block from the YMCA and calls it his second home. The Boyle Heights native and USC Master of Social Work student has been on the front lines of the food drive since day one.

“We don’t just deliver food,” he said. “We provide positivity and enthusiasm. We want them to know we’ll follow up with health checks, and we ask them to let us know when they need more food.”

“I don’t normally get up this early,” said Derek Duong, who works in the Department of Preventive Medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. “Putting these care packages together feels good. I’d rather be doing something than nothing, and I’ve been locked up working from home so it’s good to see other people, even at a distance.”

Deysi Serrano is a graduate of USC Civic Engagement’s Bridges to Business program, the owner of Milpa Grille in Boyle Heights and a frequent community volunteer.

“I run a restaurant, so that’s a resource,” Serrano said. “We might start doing some prepackaged meals in our kitchen. As long as there’s a need, we’ll keep going.”