As a little girl, I grew up watching old black & white movies on TV. I wanted to dance like Ginger Rogers (well, actually, I wanted to dance with Fred Astaire). I wanted to be strong like Bette Davis and witty like Kathryn Hepburn. But two movies that take place in the Depression era shook my comfortable middle-class world: “The Grapes of Wrath” and “Sullivan Travels.” They unnerved me and scared me with their stark look at displaced, hungry Americans in search of jobs and food.
But I said to my young self, these were just movies. This can’t really happen in America. (Well, I did say I was young.) I believed if we played by the rules, did well in school and worked hard, we wouldn’t go hungry. We wouldn’t be homeless.
I’m not such a believer anymore. The landscape in America is changing every day, even right here in Studio City. Almost everyone knows someone who’s lost a job. More and more people in our once Ozzie & Harriet world are losing their homes. More and more people are going hungry. There are more than 90,000 homeless in LA County alone. The chasm between the very rich and the rest of us is widening as the middle-class slips further and further away.
Henry Fonda’s voice delivering his heartbreaking plea for compassion as Tom Joad in “The Grapes of Wrath” echoes in my head… “Wherever there’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there...”
One amazing grass roots group of volunteers is, indeed, being there fighting to feed LA’s hungry.
I first heard about The Greater West Hollywood Food Coalition from a friend who has been volunteering in its soup kitchen once a week for the past six or so years, preparing fresh, healthful hot meals for more than 200 hungry people every day, seven days a week since 1987.
They accomplish this by recycling food from every available source. Volunteers pick up food from hotels (such as The Renaissance), restaurants (such as Chipotle, California Chicken, Peet’s Coffee Shop, Starbucks and Pizza Hut), bakeries (such as La Brea, Chrome, Suzanne’s and Magnolia Bakeries) - grocery stores/produce markets (such as Fresh & Easy, Whole Foods and San Vicente Market), caterers (such as Wolfgang Puck Catering), film studios (20th Century-Fox Commissary)… wherever food can be found, then they bring it back to the kitchen where more volunteers turn this donated food into nutritious meals.
When I visited the kitchen, I was surprised that it was just two small rooms crammed with a large industrial stove, overflowing shelves, tables, a large double door freezer and refrigerator and very little counter space. This was not the large “soup kitchens” we see in the movies. I wondered how they made food for 200 people in such a small space. But my friend and the other volunteers use the space efficiently chopping up fresh veggies for huge rice casserole-type dishes and the big vat of soup simmering on the stove. They mix and match donated food to make salads and casseroles, and set up a half-dozen dessert trays with delicious-looking arrays of cakes, cookies and pastries.
Once the meals are made they’re put in containers and loaded into the Coalition’s truck which drives to Sycamore and Romaine, the border of West Hollywood and Hollywood. There it’s met by another group of volunteers who set up and arrange the food on a long table on the sidewalk then serve the men, women and children who come to them from all over the city and valley (even Studio City) each night from 6:15pm to 7:30pm.
But The Greater West Hollywood Food Coalition doesn’t just feed the body. It also helps the men and women in many more ways. On Wednesdays, the UCLA Clinic Van joins the food truck, sets up chairs and administers medical assistance to anyone who has a health concern. Coalition volunteers help its clients find clean and decent apartments. They help them find jobs and drive them to job interviews, doctor’s appointments, or wherever they need to go. Getting the homeless off the street and helping them become self-sufficient is their greatest triumph.
In America today, we cannot forget that tomorrow it may be “me” or a relative, friend or neighbor who needs a helping hand. As the holidays approach I hope we remember The Greater West Hollywood Food Coalition.
The Coalition will be serving Thanksgiving dinner at the House of Blues on Sunset Boulevard. To find out more about the GWHFC, including ways you can help, check out its website:
“If you want to lift yourself up, lift up someone else.”—A Booker T. Washington