LAUSD aims to give out 1.5 million meals, food to last through Thanksgiving weekend

People stand in line with carts full of food at a school parking lot
People pick up free meals at South Gate High School on Wednesday. L.A. Unified, the nation’s second-largest school district, had a goal to distribute 1.5 million meals the day before Thanksgiving.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

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.

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Sunlight illuminates the face of a woman holding bags of food in each hand to load into a waiting car
A woman loads meals into her car at South Gate High School.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

“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.”

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.

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Superintendent Austin Beutner in a mask holds bags of food in each hand to load into a car
Los Angeles schools Supt. Austin Beutner helps distribute free meals to people who waited in a long line of cars at South Gate High.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

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.”

A woman bends over to get a handle on her push cart loaded with meals
Monica Marquez of South Gate struggles to wheel home a load of free meals for her family of five for the holiday weekend.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

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.

Two young girls in masks pick up a red tote bag filled with food and hygiene products
Dalilah Arevalo, 8, left, and Dalia Arevalo, 7, pick up food and hygiene products at Manchester Avenue Elementary in Los Angeles.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
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“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.”

Two women push a cart filled with boxes and carry plastic bags full of food
Two women take home free meals for the weekend after waiting in a long line at South Gate High School.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)