The Last Drive-Thru Food Distribution Marks a New Chapter for Tzu Chi Cerritos

National Headquarters  |  July 31, 2023
Volunteers uploading foods in the truck
The drive-thru distribution process increases the workload of volunteers. Photo/Feng Yuan Lin

Written by Wan Ling Huang
Translated by H.B. Qin
Edited by Patrick McShane

On June 24, 2023, Tzu Chi USA Cerritos Service Center met up at 6:15 in the morning at Miles Avenue Elementary School in Huntington Park, California excited to spend the day helping families in need. The volunteers collected and prepared packages of fruits and vegetables for anyone in the area who required food assistance. This distribution was special, as it marked the last drive-thru distributions, a solution adopted during the COVID-19 pandemic to keep everyone safe.

Irene Sandoval, a neighborhood resident, was the first in line at the distribution site at 6:15 a.m. She told the volunteers that she is retired and has a family of four. In this difficult time when prices are rising, it costs a lot of money to buy her family all the food they need at the grocery store. She expressed her heartfelt thanks for the help that Tzu Chi gives to her whole family.

Persistence During the Pandemic

Volunteer verify visitors identity for food distribution
A long line of vehicles has already lined up on the street before the distribution, so volunteers start checking identities and other information so the process can go faster. Photo/Feng Yuan Lin
Volunteers put number tags on the vehicles after they complete registration
Volunteers put number tags on the vehicles after they complete registration. Photo/Feng Yuan Lin

In March 2020, as volunteers were preparing supplies for the 26th distribution, the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the U.S., and many cities declared health emergencies. The Tzu Chi USA Cerritos volunteer team thought carefully about whether to adopt a different plan for the distribution for the sake of everyone’s health and safety. Concerned with the constantly evolving situation, the date of the distribution was postponed until a solution could be found. When volunteers learned that the school where the distribution was to be held had suspended all in-person gatherings, they knew a new solution must be found to continue to serve the vulnerable in the community.

Visitors talk to each other while waiting
Many people who have been coming to receive food for a long time are already familiar with each other and talk to each other while waiting. Photo/Feng Yuan Lin
Volunteers helping visitors filing out and confirming their information
Most people need help filing out and confirming their information. Photo/Chun Lan Hsu

The pandemic caused many severe problems in Huntington Park, and coupled with stricter government policies concerning food assistance programs left many with less food on their tables. The pandemic also caused increased unemployment and income cuts, especially among undocumented residents, who have the added difficulty of being ineligible for government relief programs. These neighbors were in dire need of assistance from the community. Tzu Chi USA’s Charity Development Office received numerous calls from residents asking when the distributions could be held. They were looking forward to Tzu Chi returning. 

On June 7 of the same year, the Tzu Chi USA Cerritos volunteer team decided to hold the 1,000-family drive-thru food distribution, so that everyone could maintain a safe social distance of six feet to avoid close contact. The residents did not need to get out of their vehicles during the entire distribution, instead, the volunteers put the supplies in their trunks, which unfortunately increased the volunteers’ workload.

Helping to Ease Finacial Burdens

The Tzu Chi Cerritos volunteer team group photo
The Tzu Chi Cerritos volunteer team takes a group photo for the last drive-thru distribution. Photo/Chun Lan Hsu
Volunteers report to the site one after another and go to the work area to standby according to the team's division of labor.
Volunteers report to the site one after another and go to the work area to standby according to the team's division of labor. Photo/Feng Yuan Lin

More than ninety percent of the residents of the City of Huntington Park in Southern California’s Los Angeles County are immigrants with few resources. Volunteers from the Cerritos Service Center have been conducting monthly fruit and vegetable distributions at the city’s Miles Avenue Elementary School since June 2017. The fresh food is good for the residents’ health and helps ease the burden of buying groceries.

Omar M. Ibarra, who is disabled and on a fixed income, has been coming to receive food for the past two and a half years. He finds the quantity of the food he receives to be sufficient for around two weeks’ worth of meals. He knows that Tzu Chi is a nonprofit organization and is thankful that volunteers come regularly to help the community.

Marino Morenoavucr, a construction worker, lives with his wife and their four small children. They have been coming to receive food for the past three years. Since he can only secure two or three days of work per week, his income has taken a hit, and combined with post-pandemic inflation has resulted in hardship for the family. The fruits and vegetables distributed by Tzu Chi have been a great help, and have allowed their children to receive a nutritious diet.

Bertha Jimenez, who lives nearby, has a family of three and has been coming to receive food for more than a year. She is grateful to Tzu Chi for distributing fruits and vegetables to her family and her neighbors so that they can have enough food and reduce their expenses. 

Visitor receiving foods from the volunteer
Visitors collecting food from volunteers

Some families didn’t have cars to get around, they had to use grocery carts to collect food, and the volunteers provided the same service to them. Photo/Feng Yuan Lin

Now that the drive-thru distributions are over, everyone is happy that the pandemic has subsided and is looking forward to continuing to serve the community, but now with a human touch.

More News Stories