Written by Wanling Huang, Tom Chen, Harley Lee
Translated by Diana Chang
Edited by Ida Eva Zielinska
In June 2017, Tzu Chi USA launched a food distribution program in the City of Huntington Park, California. Many families would come to Miles Ave Elementary School to pick up fresh produce and dry goods every month. And yet, everything changed in March 2020, when as COVID-19 spread nationwide, the school closed, and distributions were temporarily suspended.
Several weeks later, after communications between Tzu Chi volunteers, the City, and the school, Tzu Chi USA resumed its grocery giveaway program in June, with the distributions extending to 1,000 households. However, more change was about to follow.
A Change of Venue
As soon as the program resumed, Tzu Chi faced the challenge of finding a future distribution location. Cora Watkins, the principal of Miles Ave Elementary School, who has known Tzu Chi volunteers for many years, had confirmed in March that she would soon be transferred to a new position.
Tzu Chi volunteers and the elementary school’s teachers and students attended a farewell party for Cora. However, the pandemic led to a postponement of the job transfer, so Tzu Chi could still hold its food distribution in June at Miles Ave Elementary School. But without a doubt, a change of venue loomed ahead. Tzu Chi volunteers worried about where they could go to continue the food distribution program.
Fortunately, David Manzo, the principal of Henry T. Gage Middle School next to Miles Ave Elementary School, learned what Tzu Chi does for the community after participating in the food distribution event held in June. Having affirmed how Tzu Chi USA benefits Huntington Park residents, he expressed his willingness to take on the program and collaborate on future food distribution events.
After obtaining permission to conduct food giveaways at Gage Middle School, volunteers set out to confirm that if the location could accommodate Tzu Chi’s drive-through distribution method and had sufficient space for all the volunteers to maintain social distancing.
Tzu Chi volunteers conducted an on-site assessment on July 8, and thankfully, found the location was perfect as the school already had a drive-through distribution system in place. With the green light to go, they set a date for the next distribution; to be held on July 25, at the entrance of the vast parking lot area of Gage Middle School.
Food Distribution for a Community in Need
Yes, COVID-19 is still here, and Los Angeles County is one of the most severely affected areas. When most people think of Los Angeles, world-famous Hollywood and luxurious Beverly Hills may be first to come to mind. However, the county is also home to several cities – including Huntington Park near downtown L.A. – rated as food deserts by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health and Department of Mental Health, and have been gravely impacted by the pandemic.
While adapting to a new location, volunteers set out to serve 530 households at the first distribution at Gage Middle School. A total of 53 volunteers participated in the event: Including school and community volunteers, the previous and newly assigned principal of Miles Ave Elementary School, and the principal of Gage Middle School.
Early in the morning, following directions from police officers, long lines of cars formed on the street beside the school. When the distribution began, the vehicles entered the school parking lot in an orderly fashion. Each household received three boxes of food; containing fresh fruits and vegetables, plus rice, noodles, and canned food.
Tzu Chi volunteers’ effective drive-through method of food distribution had allowed them to successfully distribute more than a thousand sets of foods last month in less than two hours. And so, on this day, Maria Chedeuda, who was in great need of food assistance and afraid the supplies would run out, had been in line since 4:15 in the morning to ensure she could get something. After receiving the food, she searched through the three boxes, happily counting all the items in front of the volunteers.
Glad for the Chance to Volunteer
The first food distribution at Gage Middle School was a success thanks to many experienced volunteers’ combined efforts and harmonious teamwork, as one staff member volunteering from the school, expressed:
Leticia Mendoza, another volunteer from the school, was very grateful for Tzu Chi’s food distribution because the pandemic has severely affected everyone’s lives. She was equally delighted to be a part of the team, volunteering her time and effort.
Rosa Reyes, who also participated as a local volunteer, had already assisted at many food giveaways and was familiar with Tzu Chi’s distribution method. She, too, was appreciative of Tzu Chi continuing to provide food here when the community is suffering due to the pandemic’s impact.
Karina Macias, a City of Huntington Park Council Member who supported Tzu Chi USA in organizing the distribution here, was also on hand, offering her help as a volunteer. She saw the community’s need, saying that due to the pandemic’s impact, many Huntington Park residents have lost their jobs, plus the schools are now closed. Every day students staying at home need food, and many families are facing food shortages. She was thankful that Tzu Chi had insisted on resuming food distributions during this challenging period.
Even David Manzo, Principal of Gage Middle School, joined the volunteer effort, sharing how essential it is for Tzu Chi to continue distributing food to people in need during the pandemic and its ensuing high unemployment rate. His goal is to help Tzu Chi USA expand its services and provide more resources to the community.
The efforts of those who contributed to the success of the event extended to the day before. To carry out the distribution in an orderly fashion, Alvaro Encarnacion, a City of Huntington Park maintenance worker, explained that the City had set up traffic cones and road signs a day earlier. He expressed how glad he was to work with the Tzu Chi team to ensure that this community distribution proceeds smoothly.
Another Opportunity to Promote a Vegetarian Diet
Tzu Chi USA volunteers are actively promoting vegetarianism nationwide, with initiatives such as the Very Veggie Movement, Ethical Eating Day, and others. The food distribution in Huntington Park provided an opportunity to engage with the public on this mission of care for our health, animal rights, and the environment.
Volunteers Jingyi Lee, Shiuyun Tsai, and Sharon Chu formed a task team and positioned themselves along the long stretch of cars waiting to enter the distribution area. Sharon explained, “Master Cheng Yen reminds us all that we must be vegetarians, we must influence everyone we encounter and take action! So, we all did our best to encourage vegetarianism.”
Many people were motivated to join Tzu Chi USA’s Very Veggie Movement, thanks to the team’s dedicated – and heartfelt – efforts in advocating a meat-free diet. Within just a few hours, a total of 457 people had pledged to join the movement and give vegetarianism a try. The local volunteers who came to help with the distribution were the first to pledge, City Council Member Karina Macia and City maintenance worker Alvaro Encarnacion among them.
Some care recipients receiving food were already vegetarian, which they shared with volunteers. Rafael Covarrubias, the only person in a household of five who still has an income, was grateful not only because the food received was free, but also that it included fresh fruits and vegetables.
He explained that since transitioning from being a meat-eater to a vegetarian, his weight had dropped from 310 to 244 pounds. His blood pressure and cholesterol were also improved, and he felt much better. The healthy food that Tzu Chi provides will support his newly improved diet.
We invite you to join hands with Tzu Chi USA on its Together While Apart missions of care. As the challenges resulting from the pandemic continue to affect us, all the neighborly spirit and love we can muster will surely make a difference, helping those who are currently struggling to navigate the tricky waters ahead.