As businesses partially reopen and the vaccine rollout mounts under the new presidential administration, community leaders around Los Angeles are reflecting on their efforts to provide pandemic relief and support around the city.
In Little Tokyo, the conclusion of a few landmark projects has shown the power of those efforts to maintain the neighborhood spirit that binds workers, residents, businesses and institutions through these isolating times.
Two Little Tokyo leaders in particular, Nancy Yap and James Choi, spearheaded the successful Community Feeding Community Program, which provides meals to in-need hospitality and service workers.
“When we started our program, we thought we were maybe going to run it for three weeks, raise a few thousand dollars, and call it a day,” said Yap, a community organizer who has worked with the Little Tokyo Community Council (LTCC) and is the executive director at the Center for Asian Americans United for Self Empowerment (CAUSE).
The program started as a simple idea. Yap’s brother, who is also involved in the Little Tokyo community, offered to buy lunch for her team at a previous employer. But instead of just focusing on businesses with falling revenues, she started thinking about the hospitality workers who suddenly had their entire income pulled out from under them.
“When James (Choi) and I started the program, we were just going back and forth. My brother had just called and said, ‘I’m nervous for the businesses.’ He had already bought lunch for other nonprofits in the neighborhood,” said Yap of the start of Community Feeding Community. “(I said,) ‘I’ll figure out who to feed.’”
Struggling workers needed meals. Struggling restaurants needed customers. So, through generous donations and contributions from the community, a team of people like Yap and Choi coordinated with 84 local businesses to buy meals which they then distributed for free among local hospitality and service workers.
“(With) these closures, the hospitality workers in our neighborhood aren’t going to have jobs. There are people in the neighborhood who know how I like my meals done, how I like my favorite drinks,” Yap said. “It helped me see what our neighborhood was really made up of. Generosity really shone through throughout the program. It has a lot to do also with how we treat people.”
Now after nearly $200,000 raised and over 10,000 meals distributed, the program reinvigorated legacy businesses and fed hungry workers. The second holiday wave after its initial efforts in April only hammered home the programs popularity and success. Run throughout November and December, it helped thousands as the second full lockdown put increased financial strain on workers.
“If someone just gives me a check for $1,000, I’m like, ‘This doesn’t feel right.’ But if you buy meals, you’re giving people purpose. What’s amazing to see is how many people are supporting the community. It’s because people understand we’re doing this for Little Tokyo,” said Choi, who runs Cafe Dulce, the successful chain of coffee shops/bakeries that started in Little Tokyo almost 10 years ago. “The pandemic’s been really difficult obviously, but it’s been incredible to see people out there helping.”
Executed through LTCC, Choi lauded the nonprofit’s ability to coordinate these kinds of large-scale charity projects.
“LTCC is like the Batman of Little Tokyo. Basically, what LTCC does is go to bat against developers,” he said. “All the work LTCC does is invisible. Community Feeding Community brought LTCC to the forefront. They’re mobilizing people. They’re marketing for the neighborhood. It’s galvanized their position as community leaders.”
LTCC also worked closely with legacy business owners, who often had difficulty navigating the confusing layers of bureaucracy to access governmental COVID-19 relief. LTCC’s coordination became even more important with the additional language barriers. That multilingual challenge also presented itself intensely during Little Tokyo Eats, a separate initiative in partnership with the Little Tokyo Service Center that provided subsidized meals to seniors in the neighborhood.
“As we talk about equity and inclusivity more, language was a challenge,” Yap said. “We found we needed to translate into Spanish and Chinese. Minimum we needed to send out information in five different languages. It was a lot of excess labor.”
But as the Community Feeding Community sunsets and Yap and Choi look to partially step back from their roles at the forefront of this community work, they look forward to sponsoring other initiatives and plan to share their wealth of knowledge and community connections.
“We have all this data, we know our neighborhood, we know who’s falling through the cracks,” Yap said. “When you think about transfer of advocacy, we’ve built a track record in the community. We cannot keep running this Band-Aid program that isn’t going to solve the bigger issues, like unemployment or hunger. I in no way am saying (the community is) not doing enough; I’m asking what they need.”
Choi and Yap look forward to collaborating on the annual Haunting Little Tokyo festival in October. While the event is usually a celebration meant to draw visitors from around the city during the traditionally slow fall season, it grew into a wonderful moment for the neighborhood to show off its cultural heritage and became a good excuse for a scavenger hunt. They, of course, can’t plan for the unpredictable course of the pandemic, but they hope by Halloween season Haunting Little Tokyo can mark the grand reopening of the neighborhood and financially put businesses back on track to stay successful pillars of the community.
“I knew the two of us had built a trusted network in Little Tokyo. We talk about passing things on. It’s a really great example that relationships don’t have to be transactional, but that you can pivot quickly when something needs to be done,” Yap said. “Because we had all this experience, we were able to get a lot of people into the neighborhood and see it as more than an exotic, kitschy place to get sushi.”
While a particularly incredible example, Yap stressed that she was just one among many community leaders across LA who wanted to do the best for their neighborhoods, citing efforts like the Feed the Frontliners program by Park’s Finest BBQ for helping health care as well as service workers. The pandemic just put stress on existing systems, so when a neighborhood already had such powerful bonds, they tensed up to hold the community together as best they could.
“There are these historic places about the neighborhood that are unique. There’s a history we’ve embedded ourselves in. Some of the restaurants have things that you can’t have anywhere else. I’m hopeful because there’s a large community rallying around those places, but it’s hard to tell what’s going to happen next,” said Yap of Little Tokyo’s future. “The neighborhood does look out for itself. I think it was nice to be reminded that community matters. I forget that it can be like that. And I don’t think every neighborhood is like that.”