Maira Quintanilla, the manager of CSU’s Village Market Place is receiving a delivery from Finca Bonita Farm on Wednesday May 13, 2020. (Deepa Fernandes/KQED)
Prior to the stay-at-home order, Diosmery Durán said she and her family were doing fine, supported by her husband's handyman business. But when the pandemic hit, he lost nearly all his work overnight, and the family income disappeared. After paying the rent, utilities, cable and phone bills, there was little left.
The only thing Durán could skimp on was food.
She and her husband began getting up early to wait in the ever-increasing lines at local food pantries and schools for groceries.
“I just went, sometimes at six in the morning,” Durán said. Standing in lines for food has become a daily full-time job for many families in South Los Angeles.
“If I don't eat sometimes, it doesn’t matter because when you have kids you always think about them,” Durán said.
Across California, 43% of all Latinx parents said they were forgoing some part of the family meal, according to new data from the Education Trust-West. Diosmery Durán is one of them.
She's not alone: The Education Trust-West's statewide survey reached 600 families with children under 5 years old, painting a dire picture.
The pandemic has laid bare contradictions in the country’s food system. As farmers report rotting crops and dumping milk, hunger is growing. A Brookings Institution analysis found nationwide nearly one in five families with children under 12 are experiencing food insecurity. California parents are also struggling to feed their families, and food banks are seeing demand dramatically increase.
“Parents are struggling with basic needs,” said Elisha Smith Arrillaga, executive director of the Education Trust-West.
Each day, Durán or her husband wait in the various lines where food is distributed. She communicates constantly with other mothers to find out which location is giving out milk, diapers or other goods. And she often shares whatever the family gets.
“We all just try to help each other,” Durán said.
Durán realized she needed help applying for government food assistance through CalFresh. While waiting in a food pantry line she heard that a local organization, Community Services Unlimited (CSU), was providing assistance with applications, so she called. CSU has seen a nine-fold increase in calls for CalFresh application assistance since the COVID-19 pandemic struck.
While food pantries, nonprofit groups, churches and schools have become hubs for hungry families to receive food, Community Services Unlimited believes there is a better way to solve hunger issues. Heather Fenney, co-executive director of the organization said they are working to create more empowered food communities.
“At a time like this, the need for our communities to have greater self-sufficiency around food is really critical,” Fenney said.
The organization was originally founded as part of the Southern California Chapter of the Black Panther Party in 1977. They work to upend the injustices of a food system steeped in charity with poor quality and unhealthy foods. The organization works to incorporate the local community in food production and distribution. They imagine a world where locally grown organic produce is affordable and plentiful enough to feed the community.
The local food system begins with a miniature urban farm on a corner block, close to the skyscrapers of downtown L.A. — on the edge of a community home to many low-income families of color.
Fenney is on her knees pulling out weeds that have sprung up after the April rains. “We've got carrots growing,” she said pointing to a vibrant patch of green springy leaves. “We planted these just before the stay-at-home orders went in place and we're starting to harvest them now.”
In this green oasis in the middle of the city, a plethora of fruits and veggies are sprouting. “Right now what we're focusing on is growing food that we can get out into the community,” Fenney said.
“We're growing collard greens, Swiss chard, lettuce, mustard greens, beets, carrots, a couple of different kinds of kale, lettuce mixes,” she said. There are tomatoes, cucumbers, leaks, eggplants, onions and fennel. The farm also portends a tropical island, ringed with banana trees and fruits such as loquats.
The range of produce is hard to find in South L.A., even when there’s not a pandemic. The area has been labeled a food desert, and community activism efforts over the years have brought small victories, like the opening of a Trader Joe’s, which sells organic produce, near the University of Southern California campus.
During the winter, Community Services Unlimited's mini-farm buzzed with preschoolers, parents and teens, all contributing and learning how to grow food. But since the pandemic, the organization has moved quickly to help families grow food at home.
“What we focus on is showing very simple, affordable methods for growing food in whatever kind of space,” Fenney said, “a patio, a stairwell, a little plot of dirt, anything you have.”
Neelam Sharma, co-executive director of Community Services Unlimited, said the Black Panther Party’s ideas still guide what they do today. Unlike food pantries and churches, Sharma said it is not a social service organization.
“Service programs build no resiliency, they build no sustainability in communities,” Sharma said. “They build no skills. They build no jobs. They don't create anything permanent that serves that community.”
When the Black Panthers served free breakfast to children, there was a larger justice-seeking goal, Sharma said. “The survival programs were a way of organizing people, they were a way of really engaging with people and pointing out all the failures in a system that had so much money, but where that money was really failing [to reach] ordinary people in the country.”
Lining up for food handouts day after day and going from a church to a school just to get enough food can be exhausting and humiliating, Sharma said. “There's a deeply problematic power structure in that relationship."
However, hunger is spreading quickly in the South L.A. community and across the state. “Compared with the same period last year, we've seen a nine-times increase in the numbers of people coming to us for assistance with purchasing food,” Sharma said.
Yet here, for a donated bag of food, there’s no lining up — the organization delivers directly to homes in need.
The organization also has an organic market and cafe called the Village Market Place, where they sell their own produce. It’s like a mini-Whole Foods, only the walls are adorned with Black Panther and Brown Beret posters. The store and cafe had to close when the stay-at-home orders were issued, but they now take orders over the phone and make same-day deliveries with groceries and produce.
To help meet the growing demand, they purchase organic produce from small farms across Southern California.
The Village Market Place gives families on CalFresh half off the sticker price as part of the philosophy of allowing low-cost options for all families who want organic produce. Those who can afford it help subsidize those who can’t.
It’s another small way of bringing dignity to the hungry and equity to the food system.