They Have No Beef : Homeless, Hungry Are Glad to Get Vegetarian Meals

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For many of the homeless and hungry people at the Hollywood Mental Health Center food line, it didn't seem to matter what they were about to eat. They were getting free food and much-needed nourishment, pure and simple.

Others, like Randy Johnson, 35, are regulars at the meal program because of its novel fare: strictly vegetarian, and organically grown to boot.

"I'm not a vegetarian. But I'll tell you, I enjoy what I eat here. It energizes me," said Johnson, holding a paper plate piled high with beans with protein powder, brown rice, salad and a soy cheese sandwich.

"I love the food," he said. "I wouldn't keep coming back if I didn't."

Darryl Napier agreed, noting that most other food giveaways "are peanut butter-and-cheesing people to death."

In a nation where hundreds of thousands of homeless line up daily at soup kitchens, it may seem natural that Los Angeles' Westside has become a place where a wholly organic, vegetarian food line could take root and even flourish. And take root it has, although some privately question its effectiveness.

For the last seven weeks, 100 or more people have queued up Friday afternoons in a parking lot behind the Mental Health Center on Hollywood Boulevard, waiting to savor vegetables, nuts, grains and fruits.

The food is donated by Randy Ellis, proprietor of Kingsley Garden, a vegetarian restaurant, in association with the East Hollywood Hunger Coalition, which also offers other food programs at the center.

Ellis, 51, who says that turning vegetarian changed his life by infusing him with energy, said he is trying to help the homeless reap the benefits of a meatless diet.

"It is bitterly ironic," Ellis said in a statement issued by his publicist, "that those in greatest need of nutritionally charged sustenance are unable to get it."

Indeed, in a county with 160,000 homeless people and innumerable others who are hungry and poor, there are as many as 1,000 free food programs. But Ellis said this is "the first attempt of its kind to raise the dietary consciousness of the homeless" by serving them vegetarian foods.

City and county homeless program coordinators said they knew of no other strictly vegetarian food program and certainly none that served pesticide-free, organic meals.

But the question of whether a lean, meat-free diet can provide enough nutrition for the special needs of street people remains unanswered, experts said.

"There is an immense amount of nutrition in a non-meat diet," said Robert Vilmur, Los Angeles homeless services coordinator. "But I certainly don't feel confident or comfortable choosing one diet over another."

Dr. James Lockyer, medical director for the Weingart Center clinic on Skid Row downtown, said he has found that the homeless need high-calorie diets because of the exceptional amount of stress and physical and emotional hardship they endure.

"Realistically, a high-fat diet provides the calories they need to expend just to survive," Lockyer said. "With the levels of stress they are subject to, I question whether a vegetarian diet can provide what they need."

Ellis disagrees, and points to those who keep coming back as proof.

One of the program's biggest boosters is Johnson, a toothpick of a man with a lively gait. "When you live on the street, people keep telling you to get lost," he said. "When people serve you nutritious food, it gives you the energy to get away when people say go."

Others, though, expressed ambivalence. "It's food for your stomach," said Norm Parrish, 34. "When you're down and out, you take what's there."

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