Nutritious Food Maintains Good Health at Tzu Chi’s San Gabriel Back-to-School Distribution

National Headquarters  | December 23, 2020
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Tzu Chi volunteers load a box of food and a backpack full of school supplies into a vehicle for the distribution event. Photo by James Huang.

Written by Kuangyu Huang & Taiwei Chen 
Translated by Diana Chang
Edited by Adriana DiBenedetto

The COVID-19 pandemic has produced widespread upheavals, with cities and states across the nation successively issuing stay-at-home orders. While at home doing their best for the wellbeing of communities, however, concerns about providing for one’s family never leaves the forefront of one’s mind. For middle-class families and those who already struggled to make ends meet before the pandemic hit, day-to-day life has become a tangled web of endless uncertainties.

It has been more than six months since the outbreak began, and as businesses remain closed, more people continue to become unemployed and are in need of financial assistance. Many middle-class families who have been unemployed have gradually become low-income households due to the exhaustion of their savings. This also means more people in their households are not eating sufficiently due to a lack of funds.

The First Distribution in San Gabriel

Tzu Chi's mobile food pantry visits Gabrielino High School in San Gabriel. Photo by Mandy Lo.

For many years, Tzu Chi USA has regularly visited Alhambra High School in California for regular food distribution events. Unfortunately, however, a fire ignited in the school last December, making it no longer possible to hold food distribution events there. Although volunteers have worked hard to negotiate availability for such events, it’s proven difficult to find a suitable distribution location in the same area. Schools are now additionally closed due to the pandemic, making it even harder to find a new location to continue food distribution events.

The pandemic has severely affected residents of the San Gabriel Valley area in ​​Southern California. In the middle-class community, more residents now face difficulties affording the rent, and families grapple with food insecurity. The City of Alhambra, the Unified School District, and the police department, are mindful of the situation, and invited local organizations and charity organizations to participate in essential supply distributions for families in need.

Tzu Chi USA responded immediately. After consulting with the neighboring cities in the valley and the police department, the Alhambra Unified School District quickly approved Tzu Chi’s distribution project and allowed Tzu Chi volunteers to hold the distribution at Gabrielino High School in San Gabriel on September 19th. The event included the distribution of fresh fruits and vegetables, and back-to-school supplies in a backpack. A total of 400 sets of food and school supplies were distributed that day.

Middle-Class Communities in Need

A long line of vehicles wait outside the high school at 8 AM. Photo by James Huang.
Volunteer James Chen, head of Tzu Chi’s San Gabriel Valley Service Center, holds a safety briefing before the event for the volunteers. Photo by Mandy Lo.

The scheduled distribution time was for 9 AM on the 19th. However, residents in urgent need of food came as early as 6 in the morning. As volunteers worked to prepare for the distribution, they witnessed that the number of families in need had far exceeded expectations.

Volunteer James Chen, the head of Tzu Chi’s San Gabriel Valley Service Center who’s in charge of the distribution, said, “Many people assumed San Gabriel Valley is less likely to be affected by the pandemic. This distribution proves that during the pandemic of more than six months, more middle-class were in desperation.”

A resident drove through in a brand new Mercedes to pick up food. There is a sign in the back of the car showing pick up from the airport. The driver explained that he received barely any income in the past six months, and the new Mercedes was rented for pick-up service. Does he need food? I think he really needs the food.

James Che, Tzu Chi Volunteer

Nutritious Food Maintains Good Health

After receiving two backpacks full of school supplies and a box full of food, a resident named Baixiang Zhen shared that the pandemic has caused a drastic reduction in his wife’s working hours in the food industry. Their two children stay at home and also need to be taken care of by adults. Currently, he’s the only person with an income to support the family. The extra food and school supplies truly makes a difference.

Denyse King, a local at the relief event. Photo by Mandy Lo.
Cindy Salazar, a local at the relief event. Photo by Mandy Lo.

“I have two people in my family,” said Denyse King. “One with stage 4 cancer — so we are trying to keep above water and stay afloat. This is why we’re here. Our situation can be really difficult.”

A senior resident named Cindy Salazar explained that she’s out of work due to the spread of COVID-19, and it was difficult to keep produce in the house. But she’s older and needs nutritious food to maintain her health. This distribution today is a great help to Cindy, who often wonders how she’s going to make it through the week.

The Necessity for Food

Volunteer Flora Yeh (first left), and Valarie Gomez, the CEO of West San Gabriel Valley YMCA (first right), collaborate to make the distribution a success. Photo by Mandy Lo.
Volunteers help register the residents as they near the pick-up station. Photo by Mandy Lo.

“If people have the opportunity, they should come to learn about these families,” said Flora Yeh, who was integral to the success of this distribution. “The backpacks we distributed provide the children with necessary school supplies. Even though students are studying online now, they still need to use supplies. Including pencils, books, and notebooks; low-income families also need fresh fruits and vegetables. At this food distribution, we also provide a box of canned food and dried food products that can be stored for a longer time.” Valarie R. Gomez, the CEO of the YMCA of West San Gabriel Valley, mentioned that even though there was an earthquake the night before, these families woke up early because they know they must obtain the food their family needs.

Valarie pointed to the long line of vehicles and said, “All these families are here this morning, even after being wrestled out of bed by the earthquake last night. They know that their goal is to be here to serve their family food. They didn’t know what was in the boxes. They didn’t know what they were receiving; all they knew was that it is food. I want to thank the Tzu Chi Foundation for giving to all these families that are in the most need of food. They are hungry, they have no jobs, and yet they come because you’re giving. Thank you from the bottom of our hearts.”

Welcome Back Anytime

Volunteer James Chen, the head of Tzu Chi’s San Gabriel Valley Service Center (right), describes the distribution process to Mayor Denise Menchaca and San Gabriel Police Chief Gene Harris. Photo by Mandy Lo.
Mayor Denise Menchaca (left) and San Gabriel Police Chief Gene Harris assist in the distribution. Photo by Mandy Lo.

The City of San Gabriel also saw the impact of Tzu Chi’s first distribution in the city, as Mayor Denise Menchaca, Police Chief Gene Harris, and more officials, came to the school early in the morning. They prepared for the distribution together with Tzu Chi volunteers and learned the distribution process; after the distribution started, they also helped serve as volunteers and assisted in carefully loading boxes of food into the vehicles for the residents.

Denise expressed her gratitude to the Tzu Chi volunteers for coming to the City of San Gabriel. This moment of support and unity is of great significance to the residents of the city, because in such a distressing time, residents are in need of hope. They are indeed struggling under the prolonged burden of the pandemic.

This is a wonderful event that the foundation is doing for our community. You’re welcome back [to hold distribution events] any time. Please come back. We have many organizations doing something similar, but we still need you here.

Denise Menchaca, Mayor of San Gabriel, California

The officers from the San Gabriel Police Department were led by Police Chief Gene Harris to assist in the distribution, arriving early in the morning to ensure the safety of the event. Gene shared that when he arrived in the morning, he saw everyone getting ready for the distribution with mutual support. The long line of vehicles filled the whole block, and he was happy to be here with his department to support the community. Gene thanked Tzu Chi for organizing the distribution event, and hopes that we may regain a sense of normalcy if everyone continues working together for the wellbeing of their neighbors.

Carry love in the heart and express it through actions.

Jing Si Aphorism by Dharma Master Cheng Yen
With the help of Tzu Chi volunteers, residents stop at the distribution station to pick up supplies in an orderly fashion. Photo by Mandy Lo.

U.S. coronavirus cases are still multiplying at high rates throughout much of the country. Following the foehn winds, fire-stricken California has also faced further devastation. The dual risks of natural disasters and COVID-19 have heightened the socio-economic vulnerabilities in California. Your love means the world these times of great difficulty.

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