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Citizen Grassroots Organizations Ramp Up As COVID and Heat Wave Rage On

An uptick in food and water distribution efforts has plugged some of the holes in the city government’s failure to provide.

Three people stand in the back of a large truck filled with water and supplies
Aria Catano, Kate Montanez and Catie Cummings prepare for an early Water Drop LA afternoon. (via Water Drop LA Instagram, @waterdropLA)

The pandemic has made the disconnect between city government and the vulnerable citizens of LA clearer than ever before — over two thirds of shelters for unhoused Angelenos opened following March’s shelter in place order have now closed, early citywide promises to extend services have fizzled out, and the hottest summer on record has mobilized first-time and seasoned organizers alike to step up their efforts in the mutual aid space. In a time where a need for direct community engagement is at an all-time high, everyday citizens are taking advantage of the change in their day-to-day to provide food and water to others.

“We were never planning on starting a nonprofit,” says Aria Catano, recent USC grad and co-founder of Water Drop LA. She and Catie Cummings, co-founder and USC senior, had no intention to pivot their lives into full-time organizing over the summer, but discovering an increased need in their community combined with sustained energy from the Black Lives Matter protests changed the course of their year.

Water Drop LA was founded in mid-July by Catano and Cummings and has already raised over $150,000 and distributed over 5,000 gallons of water to people experiencing homelessness on Skid Row. Less than six weeks after their first weekly “water drop,” the pair now works with a coalition of around 50 weekly volunteers. They’re awaiting nonprofit status and seriously contemplating putting their academic careers on hold to work on Water Drop full time.

“It actually all started with two extra bags of fresh produce from a Black Lives Matter meeting,” Catano continues. “[Co-founder] Kate Montanez, Catie, and I decided to turn this produce into 50 burritos to pass out to the people experiencing homelessness in front of City Hall, and… everyone was asking them for one thing: water.”

Catano and Cummings are far from alone in finding their footing in much-needed organizing — local, citizen-driven efforts have been on the uptick in Los Angeles since the pandemic lockdown first began in the spring of 2020. Alex Yoon took advantage of a new work from home schedule to co-found Home-y Made meals, a south LA program that has served thousands of meals to members of the community in collaboration with organizer Melissa Acedera’s Polo’s Pantry.

“Initially, it was really small, thinking of how some of us could make some meals, because a lot of churches and other nonprofits were stopping service to shelter in place,” the teacher explains. Like many projects only intended to serve as a band-aid to get food-insecure community members through a brief lockdown, Home-y Made Meals quickly snowballed into something larger.

Several white paper bags with jokes written on them. The bags are filled with supplies for Los Angeles unhoused residents.
Water Drop LA supply bags ready for distribution. (PHOTO: Water Drop LA)

Yoon had already co-founded and remained closely involved with longtime community-empowerment program Eayikes, and he and Acedera came up with the concept for Home-y Made Meals during a pre-lockdown hang.

“I was literally just hanging out with Alex and the Eayikes crew, and he said, ‘Mel, how do we help? How can our community be of service during this time?’” Acedera says. She researched other mutual aid efforts developing across the country, including LA-based upstarts like Mutual Aid LA, and built on her experience with Polo’s Pantry to create the infrastructure for Home-y Made Meals.

The program has now enlisted several hundred volunteers who prepare full meals in their homes that are delivered by drivers (also volunteers) to students, families, and unhoused people around the city. As of this writing, Home-y Made is approaching its 20,000th meal delivered, working with community-based partners like KTown for All, God’s Pantry Food Bank, Covenant House California, and LA CAN.

Acedera pulled double duty through the pandemic, working on both Home-y Made Meals and Polo’s Pantry, facing unprecedented demand from food-insecure community members and advising first-time organizers on how to sustain their own projects.

“A lot of restaurants that our neighbors relied on getting supplies from were closed, and their food access was completely cut off. I started getting scared,” Acedera explains. “I called my food bank friends… to ask, how do we do this? I saw immediately that there was going to be a need,” she says.

Now, as a now remote school year begins, need for programs like Home-y Made Meals are increasing even more — low-income families in Los Angeles have historically relied on school meals to alleviate food insecurity. Prior to the pandemic, the LA Unified School District estimated they served 680,000 meals to children each day.

After the lockdown, Kiran Wali saw an increased need for services from LifeKit LA, a nonprofit she co-founded in 2015 that has distributed hygiene and food kits to people experiencing homelessness. In the last six months, they’ve expanded their efforts into new permanent physical spaces.

“Our solution was two-fold — our bodega, a community grocery where people can get their essentials with no questions asked. They can come in, grab a bag, and shop for whatever they need, whether it’s household supplies, toilet paper, canned goods… and we do that every week now,” Wali says. “And then there’s laundry, another thing that tends to be expensive… when 90 percent of your income goes to rent.”

The LifeKit LA bodega started by servicing around 50 people and families during their weekly program, then saw a need for a long-term solution as the pandemic extended into an exceptionally hot summer. As of this week, they have signed a lease to house the bodega project for the next calendar year.

“I don’t see us stopping, unless COVID and the housing crisis magically go away,” Wali says.

A woman grabs a can of food from a shelf full of canned and other dried foods.
A community member shopping for supplies (via Water Drop LA)

While established nonprofits like LifeKit LA are expanding physically, organizational approaches range from the traditional 501c3 nonprofit route to completely decentralized efforts with no formal leadership or government recognition. The latter is the tack the LA Community Fridges project has taken — participants have taken organized initiative and established over 10 community-stocked and maintained refrigerators that members of the neighborhood are encouraged to take from as needed.

The Fridges, established back in July, are serviced and monitored almost completely online on a volunteer basis with donated power sources and no cash changing hands. Local restaurants like Cafecito Organico, Mohawk Bend, and County Line Harvest have contributed consistently while local neighborhood artists have painted them.

“I started working with them exactly a month ago,” says Katellan Cunningham, one of many community members helping with LA Community Fridges whose “home fridge” is in East Hollywood.

After learning of the effort through street quesadilla stand owner Heleo of Quesadilla Tepexco, who has been distributing fresh quesadillas to the food-insecure and unhoused throughout the pandemic, Cunningham got started. Along with the extensive LA Community Fridges volunteer network operating mainly over Slack, she assisted in scouting an accessible location and consistent power supply for a fridge in her neighborhood with the Santa Monica Grocery near the Santa Monica and Vermont train stop. Once secured, Cunningham helped recruit local artist Elleven Vargas to paint the fridge and has assisted in refilling and cleaning the fridge as needed.

Volunteers fill out a form each time they visit, restock or service a location, and the East Hollywood fridge is currently refilled around three times a day as community engagement continues to rise. Donations are only accepted via food, power, and fridges directly in lieu of cash.

“We try to default to sourcing things from the community,” Cunningham explains. “The other day, we needed paint for a new fridge. Instead of saying, ‘hey, Venmo me money,’ we posted to our Instagram, ‘hey, does anyone have paint?’ and we got some in an hour.”

While some donations have been offered, the project has rerouted monetary offers to other efforts that do accept money. “Especially in COVID times, we’re channeling the idea that we all probably have too much stuff, anyway,” she says. “If you have too much stuff, someone else probably needs it.”

Other new grassroots projects, like Water Drop LA, await 501c3 approvals in order to receive larger contributions and take the pressure off small-dollar donors. A few days after we first spoke, Catie Cummings of Water Drop LA gets back to me about her plans are for what would have been her senior year of college at USC.

“I decided to take a leave of absence this fall to do Water Drop full time,” she said in an email, citing the already 20 hours a week she has been putting into the organization and a desire to do more. Her collaborator Catano is remaining in grad school at USC for the fall, but has no intention of scaling down her involvement.

Alex Yoon is maintaining his job as a teacher at TREE Academy and Fusion Academy LA into the remote new school year while continuing with Home-y Made meals and using his own home as a part-office, part-pantry for volunteers to pick up ingredients. Wali and Acedera continue with their organizations full-time while others, like Cunningham and the LA Community Fridges network, volunteer in their spare time.

Two people stand on each side of a community fridge that is painted blue and decorated with smiling food.
Tony and Shana of Hot and Cool Cafe stand with the Leimert Park community fridge. (Via LA Community Fridges Instagram, @lacommunityfridge)

As the summer wears on, new efforts continue to crop up, and businesses still closed out by the pandemic shifting the use of their space in order to be used for community storage and pantries. Materials and Applications in Echo Park have transformed their storefront, formerly used as an art and architecture gallery, to store water and food in collaboration with Water Drop LA, Street Watch LA and SELAH. Watts Community Core, an organization that began by providing boxing lessons to the Watts community, has pivoted to using their space as a temporary pantry for distribution to food-insecure citizens in their area.

As the need for first-time organizers increases, those already involved in grassroots efforts recommend keeping the community’s often changing needs focused and services provided reliably.

Katellan Cunningham’s month with LA Community Fridges has already brought these lessons into sharp focus. “If the community doesn’t feel ownership over it, then it doesn’t succeed,” she says. “It’s about making sure that you’re servicing the community in every way possible, and making sure the community is leading the conversation.”

With five years of nonprofit work with LifeKit LA under her belt, Kiran Wali reminds those new to the space to check their ego at the door.

“It’s all about being consistent,” Wali says. “That was a hard thing for us to learn — at first a lot of the outreach we were doing was about making us feel good. Showing up on Christmas, showing up on Thanksgiving, doing some kind of act of service — it was more about us. When we started listening to people, [we started] understanding what they needed was very different from what made us feel good.”

If you’d like to get involved with any of the organizations above, they’re all looking for new and sustaining volunteers: Home-y Made Meals, LifeKit LA, LA Community Fridges, Polo’s Pantry, and Water Drop LA.