On the Frontline of Food Insecurity
Twelve months of this unprecedented pandemic has caused hunger to permeate throughout Los Angeles County. Twenty-five percent of Angelenos now report experiencing food insecurity – some for the very first time.
CCF had a conversation about the food crisis with Stephen Gutwillig, Executive Director of the Sustainable Economic Enterprises of Los Angeles (SEE-LA). For 25 years, SEE-LA has worked with a network of local family farmers to provide fresh produce to under-served neighborhoods such as South Los Angeles.
What is the focus of SEE-LA?
We think of ourselves as being in the intersection of food access, nutrition, education and economic development. Our food access work, prior to the pandemic, was focused on stretching public nutrition benefit dollars, such as having Cal Fresh EBT food stamps accepted at the network of farmers’ markets we operate. We operate six markets, most in under-served areas of Los Angeles where we partner with over 100 independent regional family farms to ensure that low-income families can access fresh fruit and vegetables with their limited shopping resources.
How did SEE-LA shift gears when the pandemic happened?
We immediately realized the pandemic was deepening already out of control food insecurity while at the same time threatening the economic stability of the farmers in our network as they lost orders from restaurant closures. We quickly started to raise money to purchase bulk produce directly from the family farms to turn into fresh farm boxes for distribution in communities facing significant hunger.
Were you able to scale-up your services as food insecurity accelerated across LA?
One of our farms in Ventura told us that they had decided to compost 60,000 pounds of oranges that they couldn’t sell, but we were able to provide those oranges and other produce at a food distribution drive-thru at Exposition Park for recently unemployed hospitality workers. We served over 1,100 families for nine weeks through that event in collaboration with then-County Supervisor Ridley-Thomas, Cedars-Sinai and UNITE Here Local 11.
“The work we have done to address immediate hunger helps the families in the communities that we serve; it benefits the family farms in our network, and it adds value to food pantries by allowing them to offer fresh produce.”
— Stephen Gutwillig, Executive Director of the Sustainable Economic Enterprises of Los Angeles (SEE-LA)
What allowed you to continue and expand your efforts?
The event at Exposition Park really taught us quickly how to distribute food on a mass scale. But we relied on our partners on the ground and local elected officials to determine the location of the food distribution events and on what scale. A $1 million grant from the Oprah Winfrey Charitable Foundation provided a big chunk to allow us to extend our food distribution. Also, the California Community Foundation was able to provide us an additional $1 million in CARES Act Relief Funding from the County of Los Angeles.
We have been able to distribute over 80,000 farm boxes of different shapes and sizes across the County from Ramona Gardens in the east, to as far north as Sylmar and as far west as Venice Beach.
Has the pandemic changed the way you think about providing service in the future?
The work we have done in the past year addressing immediate hunger benefits the families in the communities that we serve; it benefits the family farms in our network, and it also adds value to food pantries by allowing them to offer high-quality fresh produce.
We want to continue this work, but also look forward to getting back to a space that promotes more sustainable economic opportunities for local farmers and food vendors through our farmers markets and to help lower-income families shop with dignity and agency in providing their family with healthy and nutritious meals.