Tzu Chi’s Free Grocery Distributions: Answering the Call for Assistance as the Pandemic Persists

National Headquarters  |  August 7, 2020
On July 13, Tzu Chi USA held its monthly food distribution at Villacorta Elementary School in the Rowland Unified School District. Photo by Jennifer Chien.

Written by Jennifer Chien
Translated by Diana Chang
Edited by Adriana DiBenedetto

In the state of California alone, confirmed cases of COVID-19 have reached 533,132 as of August 6th, 2020, having seen thousands of new cases per day. The state began the careful process of reopening in May, with many hopeful at the prospect of returning to a sense of normalcy. However, with the recent surge in cases, the plan has been forced to roll back, again announcing the temporary closure of several types of indoor businesses and activities. With this, people who had been eager to return to work once more had to grapple with food insecurity. 

Volunteers arrived at Villacorta Elementary School early, busily setting up tents for the distribution. Photo by Charlotte Wang.
Vehicles lined up at the distribution site early in the morning. Photo by Charlotte Wang.

Giving With Joy

Beginning in June, Tzu Chi USA resumed its food distribution program in the Rowland Unified School District of San Gabriel Valley, California. Tzu Chi volunteers went to Villacorta Elementary School for its monthly food distribution on the second Monday of each month.

Volunteers had prepared rice, beans, biscuits, and other essential supplies for the event. One volunteer, Ms. Wang, told us about how they had mindfully carried out the packaging in advance, placing a Tzu Chi Journal and vegetarian pledge card within each box in support of vegetarian lifestyle choices.

Volunteer Wang describes the items in each box for the monthly distribution. Photo by Tom Chen.
Angel Chen, a San Gabriel Valley local, came to Tzu Chi USA’s National Headquarters on July 9th to help with the packing. Photo by Tom Chen.

Angel Chen, a San Gabriel Valley local who has been a vegetarian for 30 years, shared her reasoning for participating in the packaging efforts: “No matter where we are or what our religious beliefs are, when the COVID-19 outbreak occurred, it became important for everyone to work together, and share resources with empathy. As Master Cheng Yen always said, helping others with compassion will bring joy and happiness as you give.”

Can’t Afford to Eat

On July 13th, families lined up outside the school as of 6 AM to patiently await the beginning of the distribution. A local named Nelly Perate told volunteers that she has a family of six. She and her husband have been unemployed for almost three months. She’d just found a part-time job one week prior, but it’s not enough to provide for two children and two seniors, so it’s crucial that she receives food from events like these to reduce expenses.

Nelly Perate, a local, waits in line to pick up food from the distribution for her family of six. Photo by Jennifer Chien.
Yohana Shatin, a local, wears a protective mask and face shield as a precaution when coming to the food distribution. Photo by Jennifer Chien.

Mario Arias, a member of the custodial staff from Rowland Unified School District, has come to help volunteers nearly every time Tzu Chi USA holds such distributions. He said that in the past five years he’s been working with the School District, he’s learned that this community truly does need food distributions like ours, and is grateful to be able to help. The families who came for the grocery giveaway are deeply grateful for Tzu Chi’s monthly assistance.

Mario Arias, a member of the custodial staff from Rowland Unified School District, has often come to help volunteers with distributions. Photo by Jennifer Chien.

Responding to the Needs of the Asian Community

As Tzu Chi volunteers continued to hold food distributions using the drive-thru method, volunteers noticed the number of Asian residents in need of food had increased compared to the previous month. More than half of the population within the Rowland Unified School District are of Asian descent and are mostly Chinese-speaking. In the past, Tzu Chi’s food distributions predominantly served beneficiaries from the local Hispanic community. 

Ingrid Chen, the volunteer in charge at the distribution site, explained that as the pandemic worsened, more residents were left with fewer choices. The Rowland Unified School District is home to a large number of low-income families. As the pandemic worsened and continues to put a strain on those who struggle, more and more families require assistance. Many families who lived comfortably in the past have also begun to seek help due to the economic downturn. 

Volunteer Ingrid Chen told us that the number of Asian residents seeking assistance at Tzu Chi’s food distributions has increased significantly. Photo by Jennifer Chien.

Xiuping Yang also participated in Tzu Chi’s food distribution at the Tzu Chi Walnut Campus in May. She said that her son is currently unemployed and facing financial uncertainty. They were grateful to Tzu Chi for the free food to help them overcome these challenges.

Qian Dong is responsible for raising her two children and parents at home. She saw a notice from the school district regarding this food distribution, and attended the distribution to help save on some family expenses for other bills. She said that after the state issued the stay-at-home order, her whole family had mindfully followed the order, but the cost of living had made it quite difficult to make ends meet.

Ling Li, a local with three school-age children at home, also received a notice from the school regarding the food distribution. She said her family likes to eat lots of vegetables, so Tzu Chi’s distribution of healthy foods was especially appreciated. She’s considered gradually increasing the amount of vegetarian dishes she makes for her family to maintain a healthy, vegetarian diet.

Xiuping Yang, a local, thanks Tzu Chi for holding their food distributions. Photo by Jennifer Chien.
Ling Li and her family came to receive free groceries. Photo by Jennifer Chien.

We’re deeply grateful to the twelve volunteers from the Rowland Unified School District’s parent-teacher association. With everyone working together, a total of 289 packages of food were distributed within two hours.

Unite for good causes, work together harmoniously, love and support each other, and cooperate to move forward.

Jing Si Aphorism by Dharma Master Cheng Yen

As we look toward the future, and toward seeing an end to this pandemic, Tzu Chi volunteers hope that these food distributions can encourage residents in the community to persevere.

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