Ensuring Homeless Americans Get Enough Food Has Never Been Easy. Now, It's Next to Impossible. | Civil Eats

Ensuring Homeless Americans Get Enough Food Has Never Been Easy. Now, It’s Next to Impossible.

The charitable food system wasn’t designed to handle the pandemic—and with the number of homeless and hungry people soaring, the crisis has just begun.

Ventura County Rescue Mission workers hand out food packages to the homeless on March 31, 2020 in Ventura, California.

Even before the pandemic hit, many food-insecure Americans were forced to make difficult decisions. Some gave up some meals so their children did not, as they waited for a new month’s SNAP benefits to kick in. Others opted to pay their rent, a doctor’s bill, or bus fare to work instead of buying a full load of groceries. Many also visited food pantries and soup kitchens to see them through hungry days—a need that has exploded since March.

Things are even more radically precarious for those who are unhoused. Before the pandemic, between 3.5 and 5 million people in the U.S. experienced homelessness over the course of a year. Now, despite a temporary—and hardly encompassing—federal eviction ban, enacted in early September, many landlords have nevertheless turned out tenants unable to pay rent. Some economists project the nation’s homeless rates will surge by as much as 45 percent by the end of 2020.

What, how—or even if—unhoused people eat is often largely out of their hands. They might couch surf with friends, beholden to the whims of someone else’s household. Food pantry staples won’t help much if they’re living out of their cars, in a motel, or other “no-cook facility.” If they’re spending nights in a shelter, they probably receive a prepared meal there.

But if they’re living on the streets in, say, Los Angeles, leaving an encampment to visit a soup kitchen is a risky prospect; the city has been conducting sweeps, despite legislation banning them in March, that involve trashing unoccupied tents, sleeping bags, barbecues, and the other worldly possessions that allow homeless neighbors to survive.

Instead, unhoused people might rely on the outreach of individuals like Melissa Acedera. In 2017, when she was still working full-time as a compliance manager for a food and beverage company, she began handing out 100 breakfast burritos each Saturday to men and women on L.A.’s Skid Row. Several months later she started a mobile food pantry, Polo’s Pantry.

Polo’s Pantry has since become one cog in a community-based mutual aid coalition that includes an expanding network of lawyers, farmers, grocers, university researchers, activists, longstanding homeless organizations, and other nonprofits. A similar coalition has also developed in New York, seeking to bring together previously disconnected—or actively competitive—players in the emergency food aid system. Together, the rise of these cooperative groups show how, with COVID, the needs of our nation’s hungry have ballooned precipitously beyond what the established emergency food system can handle.

Even before the pandemic, more than 11 percent of Americans endured food insecurity. California and New York accounted for the greatest number of homeless individuals in the country, at 22 percent and 16 percent respectively. In New York City, 40 percent of residents there—or 2.5 million people—lacked “self-sufficiency,” or the ability to cover basic necessities including food, housing, healthcare, and childcare.

In July, The New York Times reported that illegal evictions were underway in New York, and 14,000 more (legal) evictions were anticipated in that city alone before housing court reopened earlier this month—this in spite of a moratorium that’s meant to see tenants through December 31. There’s a similar situation brewing in L.A.

Polo's Pantry, the Instituto Educación Popular, and Everytable partner to hand out food in Los Angeles. (Photo courtesy of Polo's Pantry)

Polo’s Pantry, the Instituto Educación Popular, and Everytable partner to hand out food in Los Angeles. (Photo courtesy of Polo’s Pantry)

No one is sure just how large the eviction crisis will become, but the National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates that 40 million Americans risk eviction by the end of 2020, and the repercussions of this could be felt for as long as a decade, according to executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, Donald H. Whitehead, Jr. “Frontline jobs occupied by people of color? They may never come back, and we’re going to see homelessness reach more deeply into the middle class,” he says.

This need has left Acedera and other services providers in L.A., NYC, and other cities scrambling for new ways to think about the structure of emergency feeding. “The charitable food system [wasn’t] equipped to handle the pandemic,” Acedera says. She and others are trying to re-scaffold that system on the fly, even as they attempt to meet the surge of hunger that has already arrived at their feet.

A Band-Aid on Hunger

Andrew Fisher, anti-hunger activist and author of Big Hunger: The Unholy Alliance between Corporate America and Anti-Hunger Groups, has argued that emergency feeding through large-scale food banks and other nonprofits is a lucrative enterprise—a “hunger industrial complex” that allows for tax write-offs for corporate donors and a shrug from legislators who justify inaction by pointing to the charities filling the void.

Even with this problematic system in place, though, the number of hungry people is not significantly diminishing, and the number of homeless people, especially those living outdoors, has been on the rise in the last few years, says Whitehead. With each national crisis—from the 2008 economic crash, to 2012’s Superstorm Sandy on the East Coast, to today’s pandemic—those numbers have surged.

One emergency is enough to plunge a family that’s struggling to find resources into homelessness, says senior attorney Shayla Myers of the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles (LAFLA). And the pandemic, with its swift eradication of over 22 million jobs in March and April, has provided more than its fair share of hits on the stability of America’s working- and middle-class residents.

Volunteer chefs with Polo's Pantry cook a community breakfast for all in Van Nuys. (Photo courtesy of Polo's Pantry)

Volunteer chefs with Polo’s Pantry cook a community breakfast for all at an encampment in Van Nuys. (Photo courtesy of Polo’s Pantry)

Before the pandemic, Acedera had already begun coordinating with homeless advocacy groups Ktown for All and the SELAH Neighborhood Homeless Coalition to provide 450 weekly meals to L.A.’s homeless and other marginalized populations. Even then, she says, “We were a Band-Aid.”

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Since March, confronted with toddlers shacked up in RVs with their parents and freshly unemployed day laborers living in places like “a weird corner of a gas station,” she says, she and her partners—which now include the meal subscription company Everytable—distribute an average of 4,500 meals a week. And other mutual aid feeding coalitions have risen up alongside them. “It feels like we’re going to war every day,” she says.

On the other side of the country, NYC’s largest soup kitchen, Holy Apostles, served 30,000 meals in July of 2019. A year later, that number had climbed to 123,000, including over 20,000 meals for unhoused New Yorkers.

“We’re here to pick up the pieces [when crises happen] but is it sustainable?” asks Holy Apostles’ Chief Operating Officer Michael Ottley, in a voice flecked with weariness. The group was founded in 1982 with the notion that feeding hungry people was “a temporary problem,” he says. “We [planned to] work our way out of a job because we’d solved this issue. It’s 38 years later and we’re no closer to solving the issue.”

Ananya Roy, the director of the UCLA Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy, partners with advocacy organizations like Ktown for All and the Los Angeles Community Action Network (LACAN), which use her research on poverty to lobby legislators. Like all the experts interviewed for this piece, she anticipates the housing and related hunger fallout from COVID-19 with dread, and she’s frustrated that policymakers have failed to act in ways that will stanch the worst of what’s to come.

“We’re starting to see an urban majority facing many kinds of insecurity, but the policies and programs people deserve are not going to arrive in time, and I have no idea how people are going to survive,” she says. “At all levels of government, inertia is very much driven by the fact that those who are going to get evicted and those who are already unhoused are politically unimportant.”

Assembling a Broader Coalition

On behalf of Polo’s Pantry and her first partners, Acedera was already piecing together food resources to make the nurturing, culturally relevant meals they deliver to Korean, Filipino, Oaxacan, and Caribbean populations, among others, and assembling a Rolodex of suppliers, including farmers at the Hollywood famers’ market, a local Ralphs, the World Harvest Food Bank, and craft services for film shoots.

When the pandemic hit, Acedera realized her efforts paralleled and sometimes intersected with those of the Hollywood Food Coalition, Hunger Action L.A., and Daniel Park’s Skid Row People’s Market, which trains and employs unhoused men and women. They recognized they had greater power if they banded together. Some started to schedule regular working groups to discuss potential for collaboration, says Acedera. “[We asked]: ‘How do we share resources, create better flow, create our own distribution system, have bigger asks of our partners, and figure out what we want out of this?’”

From left: Danny Park of Skid Row Coffee and Skid Row People’s Market, Goose Dolce of God's Pantry, and Alex Yoon and Ray Ricafort of Eayikes, loading up food deliveries. (Photo courtesy of Polo's Pantry)

From left: Danny Park of Skid Row Coffee and Skid Row People’s Market, Goose Dolce of God’s Pantry, and Alex Yoon and Ray Ricafort of Eayikes, loading up food deliveries. (Photo courtesy of Polo’s Pantry)

One of their biggest priorities was building a vendor system that everyone involved could access. They started looking for a warehouse space where they could store an onslaught of welcome but sometimes flummoxing donations—two pallets of cheese one week, two pallets of frozen meat another, dozens of sheet cakes left over from a cooking show—while they figured out how to make meals out of them; and they started fundraising to hire out-of-work chefs to cook those meals.

In New York City, established feeding centers like Holy Apostles already has a strong network of suppliers, and it certainly relies on some facets of the “hunger industrial complex” for influxes of cash and food. “We’d love to live in a society where food assistance programs aren’t needed, but that’s easier said than done,” Ottley says. But the soup kitchens that are still open for business have also had to recalibrate and forge new alliances.

The city’s largest emergency feeding operations compete for the same funding and, as a result, they used to regard one another as enemies rather than allies. Now, Ottley takes monthly calls with managers at sister organizations to figure out how to turn uneaten food destined to be dumped (remember March’s plowed-under potatoes, lettuces, and onions?) into reliable supplies for the network instead. They’re also working on how to eliminate waste in the system, and how best to advocate for healthier donations and for social services.

Preparing the lunch line outside Holy Apostles. (Photo by Ada Cowan)

Preparing the lunch line outside Holy Apostles. (Photo by Ada Cowan)

Still, like Acedera’s network in L.A., Holy Apostles suffers from the whims of food rescue organizations—“A pallet of low-sodium vegetable stock and another pallet of walnuts? What kind of meal is that?” fumes Ottley. Unanticipated donations also make it difficult for chefs to plan menus, or to cook the food before it spoils. Case in point: Ottley recently used grant money to purchase milk from an upstate dairy, only to get a milk donation soon after. “We’ll use it,” he says, “but we could have used our purchasing power on something else.”

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Ottley can get slammed in other ways when he purchases food. Without a corporate discount from distributors like Sysco and Driscoll’s Foods, he navigates fluctuating and frequently steep prices that cut into his limited financial resources. In an attempt to counter this, he’s talking with other emergency food providers about making their purchases collectively. “It’s what we should have always been doing,” he says.

An Urgent Need for a Federal Response

What would help mitigate these intensifying crises? Long-term and enforceable eviction bans would help until the economy stabilizes, advocates for the homeless agree; so would cancelling back rent. For people who’ve already lost housing, one approach would include converting hotel rooms used as emergency shelter into functional living spaces with kitchens so that “people have control over cooking for themselves,” says Roy; decriminalizing various aspects of homelessness is another much-needed solution.

For years, LAFLA has been suing the City of Los Angeles on behalf of advocates for the homeless, for seizing and destroying their belongings, including nonperishable food and cooking supplies. Those cases, says Myers, are ongoing. Social justice workers talk a lot about peoples’ rights to housing and shelter, but in the U.S., “We have a system of negative rights,” Myers says. “With food, it’s the right not to be arrested for consuming food in public when you have no other place to do it.”

Preparing meal deliveries inside Holy Apostles. (Photo by Ada Cowan)

Preparing meal deliveries inside Holy Apostles. (Photo by Ada Cowan)

Litigation, though, is only a small (and slow) piece of a much larger fight. The real work, Myers says, has come from mutual aid coalitions that “can get people to think differently about what food looks like, what compassion looks like, and what society we actively want to build.” And although the idea and practice of mutual aid are nothing new, the pandemic has “opened up new avenues of collaboration and partnership, and ways people leverage support”—in California, New York, and elsewhere.

Despite much optimism around the achievements and creative thinking of community-based mutual aid and coalitions such as the one Holy Apostles has forged, NCH’s Whitehead sees little hope for meaningful relief for the secondary pandemic of homelessness intertwined with hunger without strong federal action. “We have to let Congress know that they need to get money on the ground right now,” he says. “A slow response will be devastating.”

While Americans wait and wait, “The work has been pushed on us, and it’s time for the most radical ideas to come forward,” Acedera says. “Things are completely broken. We need to plan for [emergency feeding] being a more permanent thing.”

Ottley agrees. “There’s no end in sight—for any of us,” he says.

Lela Nargi is a veteran journalist covering food policy and agriculture, sustainability, and science for outlets such as The Guardian, The Counter, City Monitor, JSTOR Daily, Sierra, and Ensia in addition to Civil Eats. She’s also the author of science books for kids. Find her at lelanargi.com and @LelaNargi. Read more >

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