Around 8:30 Wednesday morning, Manuel Padilla and his two sons, 3-year-old Levi and 1-year-old Toto, joined the line at South Gate High School. With a five-day holiday weekend ahead, Padilla has a family to feed — and although his children are not yet in school, he turned to the Los Angeles school district for help.
As Levi pushed his red scooter, Toto buried himself deeper into his stroller to hide from the L.A. Unified food services mascot Café LA Ray, a superhero with a beaming sun for a head.
For the record:
1:53 PM, Nov. 27, 2020An earlier version of this article misspelled site coordinator Victor Ahumada’s last name as Ahumeda.
The Padillas were one of thousands of families that picked up free grab-and-go meals the day before Thanksgiving from 63 sites across the Los Angeles Unified School District. From mid-March, when schools first shut down amid the coronavirus crisis, to Wednesday morning, the district has given out 82 million free meals to children and adults.
No one is turned away as the nation’s second-largest school district runs what Supt. Austin Beutner describes as the largest such effort in the nation during the pandemic.
“To my knowledge, it’s the largest food relief effort in our nation’s history, far and away the largest school-based relief effort ever in our nation’s history,” Beutner said at South Gate High.
Padilla gave thanks for the meals. Before the pandemic, the 46-year-old worked in the hospitality industry staffing events such as weddings. He hasn’t been back to work since March. Throughout these months, the district has helped to feed his family.
“I’m very appreciative. It doesn’t have to be a New York steak,” Padilla said. “I was raised that way, that [you] just be appreciative for what you have.”
Coronavirus: While food banks struggle, L.A.'s schools are feeding the hungry
More than 1.5 million meals were prepared for distribution Wednesday. The grab-and-go centers usually hand out two meals per person a day, but the program gave 15 meals per person Wednesday, enough to last through Sunday. The meal packages included a Thanksgiving dinner of turkey, mashed potatoes, green beans, gravy and cranberry sauce.
At South Gate High School, staffers were prepared to hand out at least 11,000 to 12,000 meals, said Victor Ahumada, the site coordinator. On a typical weekday, the school gives out about 7,000 to 8,000 meals.
Ahumada said demand has dropped as businesses began to reopen, but he expects to see more people now that coronavirus cases are increasing and new restrictions are being put in place.
“I watch the news; it’s getting worse, so definitely we’ll be out here serving the community,” Ahumada said. “We do send emails, electronic phone calls, that we’re open, but I’m expecting a lot more cars, a lot more people from the community coming.”
Meals provided to children when school is in session are partially reimbursed by the government, but meals provided to adults are not. Also, meals provided when schools are on break — as they are this week — have historically not been reimbursed, Beutner said. So far the district has spent $75 million on the program, he said.
“We believe we should be joined in this effort by the city, by the county, by the state, each of which have received considerable dollars through the CARES Act and other federal relief programs to support providing meals to hungry adults, but we have yet to be joined in this effort,” Beutner said.
Over the last several months, news has spread that the school district gives meals to adults regardless of whether they have an L.A. Unified student. Maria Ramirez, 66, of South Gate said she has been coming to the school two times a week since April to get meals for her grandchildren.
Virginia Cordova, a 43-year-old cosmetologist from Lynwood, said she found out about the grab-and-go program from her sister-in-law. On Wednesday, she and her husband visited for the first time to pick up meals for themselves and their 12- and 13-year-old daughters. Both she and her husband have been unable to work since March.
“It’s a relief for every family because it’s some things that you need at home,” she said.
Marcia Moguel, a 30-year-old South Gate resident who works with adults with learning disabilities, said she receives free meals nearly every day. Moguel, along with her mother, Marcia Rodriguez, and her brother, Angel Rodriguez, an 11th-grade student at South Gate High, took part in a socially distanced turkey meal with Beutner.
“It is such a trying time for people who are losing their jobs or going through unemployment, are going through their own medical issues and financial issues,” Moguel said. “This is just one less burden, one less thing that they have to think about.”
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