In early 1994 I got a job in Africa. Many hours and two countries later, my flight landed me at the end of a genocidal war in Rwanda. The lush valleys and sweeping mountains belied the pain and misery that occurred where neighbor killed neighbor, husband turned on wife and a million people were killed in the scope of 100 days, over ethnic superiority revenge and the perception that 24,000 square miles was not enough for 7 million people.
My assignment was food distribution to tens of thousands of people who had survived unspeakable atrocities that left an entire population traumatized. The local administrator was asked to create a list of the neediest families in his area. Given the devastation, I am surprised he can limit it to only 10,000, but that was allotment we had for that area. He wrote the names of family beneficiaries on sheaths of paper –tied together, could be a mini novel. It was an act of faith. There was no way to verify the list. If someone ‘not in need’ would make the list, it was just their lucky day.
The day before, the UN World Food Program would deliver food that would be stored in an abandoned classroom that has yet to recover from the war. The following day we would haul the 100-pound sacks of beans, rice, oil and corn kernels that were dyed green. These kernels were intended for planting and not consumption and the St. Patrick’s Day color would hopefully signal that to the Central African families. On the appointed day, the rations are stacked in a pile, ten across. Men in military uniforms wore their AK 47s as a necklace, to keep the peace. The local administrator would have his flurry of papers and call out the names of each family—one-at-a-time. They would line up in groups of 10 families. They would stand patiently, often in the hot sun, until a sudden, loud noise would scatter people in different directions. This would occur a few times throughout the day. A population on edge of their nerves. The collection of families would drag their rations to the side and divide it up between themselves.
After Rwanda, I went on to spend many years in active war zones in Burundi and Darfur. Human misery wears the same cloak, no matter the location. Segments of populations, in a perpetual state of living on the precipice, bracing themselves against the slightest of winds that will send them over the edge. In Africa, those winds are successive and devastating from wars, to drought, floods and epidemics that has negatively branded an entire continent. There are few official safety nets in many African countries. That is the hole that most international and local aid agencies fill, to keep people alive.
Fast forward 20 years and newly arrived in LA, I find myself in yet another type of war zone. This time the enemy does not hold a gun or a target. It is indiscriminate and invisible to its victims. It is a Corona Virus that has had the entire world hostage and bunkered down.
Moving to Los Angeles represents a major life shift and excitement for this native New Yorker. I was introduced to After School Enrichment activities through LA’s BEST under the prolific umbrella of LA Unified School District (LAUSD). Six months into the experience, the second largest school district in the U.S. shuttered its doors for public health concerns. LAUSD pivoted to remote learning and establishing point of distribution centers for a community feeding program. When I arrived at Marina del Rey Middle School, the irony was not lost on me that I had established a career distributing food in Africa and now I continue the practice in the U.S.
The objective is the same, but the modalities are vastly different. At LAUSD’s Grab and Go Program, a breakfast and lunch are offered to families that drive thru or walk – up and take them. There are no lists of names prepared with county officials. Participants just present themselves, declare how many adults and children will be eating the meals. Once again, we take them at their word. The school police provide an accommodating security though I am not sure who would aggress us for a couple of cartons of milk and carrot sticks, however, I am appreciative of their presence.
According to the LAUSD website, during the school year they serve 150 million meals to a district that serves over 700,000 students, 83% of which are low income and are entitled to 3 meals a day for free. Grab and Go is the community feeding program that is an extension of LAUSD school feeding program. L.A. schools Superintendent Austin Beutner said no one would be turned away, whether or not they have a connection to the school system. The meals vary daily with a staple of carrots, fruits, milk and a variable protein of burritos, salads, and sandwiches are collected in a plastic sachet. Supplemental meals are provided to adults to for their nutritional quotient. Food offerings have been accompanied by other generous donations of baby diapers, children’s headphones, protein shake powder and candy. Even beneficiaries have been nice to offer donuts and even a wholistic readings to the volunteers manning the station.
The process starts at 6 am when LAUSD delivers the food in bulk to the distribution sites where they are received by the volunteers who bag the elements and serve an average of 5000 meals in a day at our site. It all feels familiar.
I find myself doing a narrative shift of who goes hungry in this world. After many years working in humanitarian assistance in West Africa, I know first-hand and the rest of the world knows via late night infomercials, that pockets of Africa are starving. There are wars and droughts that pre-empts farmers from accessing their fields, as well as poverty that create nutritional barriers. From West Africa to West Los Angeles highlights how vulnerable, various sectors of a global population, are to sudden shocks that devastate a system.
In late April, the LA Times wrote an article on the Grab and Go process. There was even a teeny, tiny reference of Marina Del Rey Middle School where I work and really have come to love. I should have stopped my reading there and not venture into the comment section. I was surprised and disappointed at the lack of empathy some readers had for recipients. There was a comment that mentioned their dislike of the idea of people who do not pay taxes, benefitting from the food. Can you really look at someone and determine if they are a taxpayer or not? Since when does paying taxes becomes an indicator of your family’s need to eat? Another comment suggested due to the openness of the distribution, most likely people are scamming the system. I thought about that comment against the reality of what I was witnessing.
I see most of the same people every day. We allow adults to order up to 6 meals, but the woman in the battered green Toyota, collects just one meal every day. Most people seem to take what they need, even when they can take more like the guy with the muscle car who orders meals for his wife and two children every day. It is clear, there is no place for judgement at a Grab and Go Center. You do not know what circumstances brought people there that day. I know I am incredibly proud to play my small role in service to them. One day, I was serving a family who came regularly. The trunk automatically opened, I leaned in to place the food inside. I was greeted with a personalized sign thanking us for all we do. So, if I were to guess what the food recipients were doing with the food, we avail to them, I would say, they are eating them.