The COVID-19 pandemic brought a new problem to Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo neighborhood.
“Until then, we never dealt much with food insecurity,” said Erich Nakano, executive director of Little Tokyo Service Center (LTSC), which received thousands of calls in the early days of the pandemic. Many were from seniors, uncomfortable visiting supermarkets full of frantic shoppers or being out alone with a rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans.
LTSC (Neighborworks network organization) began delivering hot meals to seniors three times a week, staffing the effort with COVID-19 relief grants from private foundations, some of them first-time supporters. The program also brought in contributions from 600 first-time donors to help deliver thousands of hot meals through June 2021.
The seniors appreciated that someone was bringing food to their door, but for isolated seniors, “even that brief social interaction of opening the door and thanking people for bringing them a meal, was just as important,” Nakano said.
“I look forward to every meal,” one resident said. “I am so extremely grateful.”
Seniors paid $3 for each hot meal. Partner organization Keiro subsidized the full menu price of the meals from 15 longtime neighborhood restaurants, which were themselves struggling to stay open. Fortunately, all 15 restaurants made it through the pandemic.
“The seniors are very important to me because of the family business that they have supported throughout the years,” said Glen Ishii, the owner and chef of JiST Café. “Hopefully I can bring back some good memories with the food I make throughout these hard times.”
LTSC also expanded its ongoing food pantry efforts to seniors and residents in affordable housing, some of whom had never needed to rely on outside support for weekly groceries or holiday meal staples. LTSC partnered with a community-based agriculture nonprofit to add fresh produce and eggs to its nonperishable offerings.
“What a lot of people appreciated, especially at the height of the pandemic, was that there are people out there who care,” Nakano said. “That was heartening, and a lot of seniors expressed that.”