UCLA Dining and Venice Family Clinic Address Food Insecurity
UCLA Luskin Conference Center
Area of sustainability (i.e. food waste, single use plastics)
A new partnership initiated out of the need to support low-income community members during the pandemic and to keep UCLA dining employees busy and engaged at a time when the hospitality industry was waning led to a creative solution involving the catering production team that services the Luskin Conference Center and a nearby medical clinic.
Detail of project
The idea for the UCLA–Venice Family Clinic Emergency Food Partnership began when Administrative Vice Chancellor Michael Beck reached out to Dr. Wendelin Slusser, the associate vice provost for the Semel Healthy Campus Initiative Center at UCLA. He told her that there would be fewer students coming back to campus in the fall and asked if there were ways the UCLA Dining staff could apply their skills to help both UCLA and the Los Angeles community it has called home for the past 101 years. Slusser immediately thought about the Clinic, where she worked for almost 20 years and helped start its pediatric training program.
“UCLA’s partnership with Venice Family Clinic really demonstrates how much UCLA can do for the broader community in ways that are so material and so immediate,” Slusser says. “Part of UCLA’s mission is service, and even though UCLA is also under great stress during the pandemic, we’re not forgetting other people.”
It turns out the stars were aligned: the Clinic’s CEO and executive director had just spoken with an anonymous donor who was interested in helping to address food insecurity through the creation of an emergency food program.
After a few trial runs at the end of September, UCLA Dining started distributing 500 meals a day to the Clinic’s patients. The following week, it was 1,000. Then 2,000. By November, UCLA Dining was preparing between 2,000 and 3,000 meals a day — about 13,000 meals a week — for people in need, using no tuition funds, thanks to the donation to the Clinic that paid for the food.
Before the pandemic, UCLA Dining prepared about 32,000 meals a day. But following the transition to remote learning, the residence halls only had 5% occupancy, and the dining staff was preparing just 1,200 meals for students every day.
“It was one of those shocks to the system,” says Jeff Viviano, an executive chef at Bruin Plate, one of UCLA’s four residential dining halls. “You’re always, go, go go. And then it was … stop.”
Although most of the eateries on the Hill had been closed since March 2020, UCLA made a commitment to not have any pandemic-related layoffs through June 2021. Therefore, campus leaders began to think about how the talented chefs and dining staff could help the broader Los Angeles community, keeping the university’s mission of service top of mind.
“UCLA is not only a great institution for learning, but it cares about the community,” says Joey Martin, senior executive chef of UCLA Housing and Hospitality. “The UCLA Dining staff put a lot of heart and soul into the Venice Family Clinic program to make sure that we’re not only providing meals to people who need nourishment, but they’re also really good.”
By 6 a.m. workers have already started their shifts, packaging the meals that will be distributed at the Clinic, as well as preparing the food for the following day’s delivery.
“We’re making everything in house,” says Viviano. “There’s 5 ounces of protein, 5 ounces of vegetables and 5 ounces of starch per meal, so the patients are getting almost a pound of food per meal. We’re making sure everything looks presentable, wiping the sides of the plastic containers. We don’t want any detail missed. It’s a big symphony.”
That attention to detail is important to Viviano. “I want these people to open up their containers and be like, ‘Wow. Look at what we’re getting.’ It’s UCLA’s recipes, and we have a standard to uphold. I want it to be the best.”
This partnership with the Clinic is one of the many ways in which UCLA Dining helps address food insecurity. For example, a new program, supported by UCLA Veteran Affairs Relations and community partner Village for Vets, provides hundreds of meals per week to veterans. Dining also works with UCLA’s Economic Crisis Response Team to address food insecurity on campus with solutions such as meal vouchers. It’s all part of UCLA Dining’s mission to partner with on- and off-campus organizations to alleviate food insecurity among students, veterans and the community at large.
“When I found out that I was going to be part of this program, it was great because I feel like I’m giving back,” says Guadalupe Morales, general manager of Bruin Plate former Clinic patient who received prenatal care decades ago when she a single, pregnant teenager without health insurance. “With this program, I get a chance to give it back and pay it forward.”
Today, Morales keeps the emergency food program running smoothly, from ordering the necessary produce and packaging to coordinating the transportation to the Clinic’s locations.
“I go to all the deliveries,” she says enthusiastically. “I haven’t missed any of them.” She enjoys seeing the smiles on people’s faces when they receive the meals, which are all well-balanced and nutritious.
When she first went back to the Clinic for a food delivery, she remembers feeling the chills. “It brought back so many memories,” Morales says. “I got a little teary-eyed, because they did so much for me back then. And to be able to pay it forward now is really priceless to me.”