How UPAS families led the Pandemic fight against food insecurity

On March 13, 2020, United Parents and Students officials left their offices in Downtown Los Angeles due to the lockdown forced on the city because of the COVID-19 pandemic, expecting to return in two or three weeks to carry out the agenda defined in their most recent assembly just a few months before.

As the closures and uncertainty surrounding the pandemic continued indefinitely, UPAS executive director Larry Fondation and his staff realized that the work that they had planned out for the year at their recent assembly would not be achieved and instead, focused on what Green Dot Public Schools’ communities needed to overcome the pandemic. Years of organizing communities would pay off in ways they hadn’t expected.

“The agenda we announced in November 2019 covered a number of policy issues and our core issues. We realized that we weren’t going to see people for quite some time, and it became clear that the virus is worse than the initial pundits had said, number one, and number two that our folks were disproportionally hurt by that,” Fondation remembered. “They were getting sicker, they were doing front line jobs, they were getting laid off. Lots of people worked in hotels and restaurants, changing sheets, scrubbing floors. All those jobs were lost.”

It was then that the organization knew that they would have to switch from being a citizens’ advocacy group seeking better conditions for the communities to be an integral part in looking for help so families could be fed. Many of these communities lie in what is called a food desert, where grocery stores are not found within walking distance to many residents.

“There was no sense lobbying about raising the minimum wage which would have helped people. But during the pandemic, how are we going to do that? Raise the minimum wage for someone who has lost their job? They have no wage,” said Fondation.

Initially, the organization worked with One Family LA, a private initiative, and distributed Target cards to 475 families. At the same time, they worked with the city to distribute 3,000 food vouchers from the Angeleno Fund.

That was not enough in the eyes of the community-based organization.

Enter Veronica Toledo, associate director of UPAS. She had been lobbying the food industry to serve the food deserts in areas like East LA, West Athens, and Watts Boulevard.

“The parents and students we work with are incredibly resilient and incredible and I think they really rose to the challenge of needing to organize virtually for the first time,” said Toledo.

By doing research, parents found out that the city of Seattle had put in place a program that would distribute $5 million worth of food vouchers that helped 6,250 families in the area. Armed with the training and support they received on Zoom and before the pandemic, families started pressuring the City Council into adopting a similar program for Los Angeles.

“So, families began really starting to meet with the county, meeting with different supervisor offices and said ‘here’s what other cities ares doing, could we do this in Los Angeles as well?’” added Toledo. “And then they started an organizing campaign, so they got a bunch of allies together, so different organizations came together with us and signed a letter of support.”

The families flooded the Board of Supervisors with over 500 emails, attending every virtual meeting the Board held. Also, they created a video reinforcing the need for a voucher program and emailed personal statement videos to the supervisors about how food security affected their lives during the pandemic.

The result was that the Board of Supervisors approved $35 million from the American Recovery Act to help thousands of families during their time of need. Allies in this initiative included the American Heart Association as well as the LAa City Food Policy Council, among others.

But the best news in terms of how critical UPAS involvement was came from the office of County  Supervisor Hilda Solis. According to Fondation, “We were on a call with supervisor Solis’ Deputy Chief of Staff and he said: ‘UPAS is entirely responsible for the fact that the county put $35 million dollars on food aid and family stamps.’

 “We decided we really had to be there for people in ways that wasn’t typically within the mission of United Parents and Students.”