Food Aid in Southern California During the Pandemic’s First Winter

National Headquarters  | June 14, 2021
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Tzu Chi USA distributes food to families in need from the Elizabeth Learning Center in Cudahy, California on January 28, 2021. Photo/Jaime Urbina

Written by Jennifer Chien
Translated by Hong (Ariel) Chan
Edited by Diana Chang, Ida Eva Zielinska

The COVID-19 pandemic situation became more severe again in November 2020, as temperatures dropped. With the spread of new strains of the virus, states re-issued stay-at-home orders in partially open cities across the U.S. in early 2021. To comply with government regulations and ensure the safety of residents and volunteers, Tzu Chi USA suspended large-scale community food distributions in January. 

However, to assist low-income families struggling due to the pandemic’s impact on their livelihoods, Tzu Chi volunteers joined forces with the San Dimas city government and some schools in Southern California. They collaborated in organizing small-scale distributions or in sending supplies directly to community residents’ homes so they would be cared for during the cold winter months. 

Helping Seniors Stay Home With Peace of Mind

Distribution from Tzu Chi USA’s mobile food pantry truck continues despite the pandemic. Photo/Jennifer Chien
Tzu Chi USA CEO Jackson Chen (left) personally visits San Dimas with City staff member Nadia Lopez (right), to learn about the status of food distributions. Photo/Jennifer Chien

Since April 2020, Tzu Chi USA has cooperated with the city of San Dimas, California, to provide fruit and vegetables to seniors in need in the community. As Southern California became the U.S. region most severely affected by COVID-19, providing food supplies to prevent the elderly from going outside to shop became a vital measure in helping protect them and avert community spread.

The Chief Executive Officer of Tzu Chi USA, Jackson Chen, personally visited the City of San Dimas government offices on January 21. He was on hand as City staff members prepared to distribute the essential food supplies provided by Tzu Chi directly into the hands of seniors. 

Early that morning, when Tzu Chi USA’s Mobile Food Pantry had arrived at the San Dimas Senior Citizen/Community Center with more than 100 portions of groceries, there were three trucks already waiting in the parking lot. Four City staff members helped Tzu Chi volunteers unload the food from the mobile pantry, then moved the majority of the supplies onto their trucks.

The City of San Dimas staff prepares to deliver the food supplies donated by Tzu Chi USA to senior residents in need by truck. Photo/Jennifer Chien

Three on the City team were then responsible for a route to deliver the food to the homes of seniors who could not go out, while one staff member stayed behind to wait for residents that could drive by to collect the free groceries. As Chen watched everyone prepare most of the supplies for delivery, he shared how Tzu Chi adapted to pandemic conditions in Los Angeles and could continue its aid through partnerships such as this:

Because of the intense pandemic in Los Angeles, Tzu Chi has had to suspend the distribution of food for the community, but Tzu Chi’s services to the community have not been suspended. During the period when the pandemic continued to rise, Tzu Chi and community partners like the city government, official offices, schools, and other units cooperated to distribute essential supplies to these units and let people collect them in batches. This traffic control helps to reduce the spread of the pandemic.

Jackson Chen, Tzu Chi USA CEO

Concurrently, San Dimas City staff member Nadia Lopez explained the small-scale community safety measures the city had set in motion during the pandemic. It turns out that the city government accepts donations of canned or dry food items from citizens and businesses every Tuesday. The staff clean and disinfect the packaging of the food received, then sort and pack it. 

After Tzu Chi donates boxes of food every Thursday morning, City staff combine all the supplies. They then deliver food to senior citizens’ homes in the community in the most streamlined fashion and also have some food waiting at the San Dimas Senior Citizen/Community Center for seniors to collect from there as well. Tzu Chi’s contribution to this venture are most appreciated:

I am really grateful that Tzu Chi continues to help the seniors in our community. These foods have really helped during such tough times.

Nadia Lopez, City of San Dimas Staff

Relieving Food Insecurity

On January 28, Tzu Chi volunteers went to Elizabeth Learning Center, Gage Middle School, and San Antonio Elementary School to distribute 297 food servings to students and their families. The three Los Angeles Unified School District educational institutions are in impoverished areas of southeastern Los Angeles, and such charity food aid is critical. 

The Elizabeth Learning Center distributes food provided by Tzu Chi USA on the sidewalk in front of the school. Photo/Emerald Hsu
Tzu Chi USA collaborates with Gage Middle School to distribute take-out brunch and boxes of food supplies to families in need. Photo/Tsaichiung Tsai

The Elizabeth Learning Center allowed volunteers to distribute the food on the sidewalk in front of the school. Most families in this area are recent immigrants and subsist on a low-income. Many parents had no other option but to walk to the school with their children to collect the nearly 30 pounds of food supplies given per household.   

Gage Middle School and adjacent San Antonio Elementary School allowed Tzu Chi volunteers to join their drive-through program in their parking lot, through which the schools provide brunch for students each day. The families of the school children could then collect the boxes of free food from Tzu Chi at the same time.

Every family receives an adequate supply of food as well as face masks. Photo/Emerald Hsu

Jaime Urbina, the person in charge of food distribution at Gage Middle School, mentioned that many families whose children attend the school had lost relatives due to the pandemic. One student’s father had just passed away, and many parents were currently unemployed. 

Moreover, since many residents in the area had lost their source of income and were food insecure, the school cooperated with local government to notify families in the neighborhood who require emergency assistance to come and benefit from Tzu Chi’s distribution.

I’m very grateful to Tzu Chi, who has been caring for the residents of our community; this is really a blessing.

Jaime Urbina, Gage Middle School Staff

Volunteer Tsaichiung Tsai, who coordinated the food distribution, explained that after Tzu Chi notified its partners that it would suspend food giveaways due to the pandemic, many residents and officials or supervisors at partner organizations expressed a lot of concern. After all, Tzu Chi volunteers had been taking care of this community for a long time. 

With so many families facing the double blow of COVID-19 infection and unemployment, leaving them gravely food-insecure, while certain regular distribution programs were interrupted, Tzu Chi volunteers undertook efforts such as these to replace them.

Delivering Food Directly to Those Most in Need

The same situation also occurred in San Bernardino, in the Inland Empire region of Southern California. A decade ago, the U.S. Census Bureau assessed San Bernardino as the second most impoverished city in the country. The COVID-19 pandemic has heaped additional economic hardship on this underprivileged region.

On January 31, volunteers brought 50 household food supply portions to a distribution organized by Juanita Blakely Jones Elementary School on its premises. Half would be distributed at the school to families most severely impacted by the pandemic. Three teams of Tzu Chi volunteers divided the other 25 sets of supplies among themselves. The teams were then to deliver the food to locations that the school had designated to shelter families with no permanent residence at this time, as well as to other care recipients’ homes.

Volunteer Kari Lin Liu visits families to provide food assistance. Photo/Kevin Liu
Volunteer Jenny Hsiao brings food to families in need in San Bernardino. Photo/Ruoci Wu

The three teams consisted of Tzu Chi volunteers and their children, with the parents bringing along their sons or daughters so they could offer love and care to those in need together. For example, Aipeng Lee and her son Hsichih Huang, a Tzu Chi Youth Association member, formed one team that would deliver food to eight households.

Just as Master Cheng Yen said: ‘When the unfortunate cannot find help, those who are blessed must go to them.’ The unsettled families in this area really needed this warmth to combat the pandemic.

Aipeng Lee, Tzu Chi Volunteer

The teams were to leave the food boxes within the shortest amount of time to limit contact with care recipients in this pandemic situation. However, upon seeing a feeble elderly lady walking to pick up food at the drop-off location for the shelter community, Lee helped carry the food box inside her home.

Tzu Chi volunteer Aipeng Lee and her son Hsichih Huang personally deliver food to families in need. Photo/Jennifer Chien

Kari Lin Liu, the volunteer in charge of Tzu Chi’s charity activities in the Inland Empire metropolitan region, stood in front of a small motel where a family had temporarily settled and reflected on the situations a hand:

Due to government regulations, Tzu Chi has suspended community food distribution, but many families still have urgent needs. These residents not only have accommodation issues, but also an urgent need for food as well for pandemic prevention supplies. So this time the volunteers delivered love from door to door, not only providing food, but also thoughtfully preparing masks for them.

Kari Lin Liu, Tzu Chi Volunteer

With every burst of extra effort, we can help ensure that the most vulnerable people during the pandemic get the assistance they need. Your care can support such endeavors, bringing love directly from your heart into their hands.

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