Karsh Center volunteers

Karsh Center volunteers load grocery bags filled with produce and nonperishables into autonomous Waymo cars headed to the Heart of Los Angeles building for distribution to families. 

Two local nonprofits distributing food to families in need partnered with autonomous technology driving company Waymo for a pilot program that helps make distribution easier. It also lessens interactions for COVID-19 safety and allows staff members to focus on serving the residents of their communities.

The nonprofits, Karsh Family Social Service Center and Heart of Los Angeles,  are neighboring organizations located in the MacArthur Park/Westlake and Koreatown areas. They’re focused on community support by providing underserved residents and families with programs and resources.

The temporary six-week collaboration with Waymo, though short, exemplified for both nonprofits the utility and potential that autonomous vehicles could provide for an organization’s outreach work. Formerly a Google self-driving car project, Waymo strives to create a safer and easier means of transportation for people and goods.

Waymo launched its autonomous cars to the public as a ride-hailing service in Phoenix and San Francisco; however, partnering with the Karsh Center and HOLA is a part of the company’s first collaborations in Los Angeles.

Lila Guirguis, executive director of the Karsh Center, said the partnership with with HOLA regarding the Karsh Center’s existing “mobile food pantry program” began during the height of the pandemic in May 2020. Waymo joined in September 2021. 

The Karsh Center works with 13 other local nonprofits, along with HOLA, and buys produce, meat and canned food items to pack into grocery bags for the collaborative partner organizations to pick up and distribute to families.

Prior to Waymo’s involvement, the Karsh Center and HOLA’s delivery output varied but averaged close to 30 grocery bags distributed weekly. 

The grocery bags given to families associated with HOLA are filled with produce and nonperishables that can feed a family of four or five for a few days.

Though the amount of food being distributed by the two organizations alone is substantial and impactful, there was an obvious and heightened advantage in partnering with Waymo, especially during the pandemic, Guirguis said.

“The advantage of partnering with an organization like Waymo is that it expands the staff capacity at other organizations. As other organizations are opening back up to in-person services, they’re reallocating their staff to (deliver groceries). That takes time and staff members away from an organization whose previous role may have been running a workshop or class,” she said.

After a collaboration with Waymo, even if only for six weeks, the organizations accounted for the distribution of 60 grocery bags a week to families in the MacArthur Park/Westlake and Koreatown areas, with Waymo’s autonomous vehicles helping the process.

The partnership allowed the nonprofits to limit interactions for safer, socially distant delivery and helped lessen the burden of being short-staffed during delivery times, especially in the case of being available to help individuals with in-person supportive services.

HOLA primarily provides underserved youth with free programs in academics, art, athletics and mental and physical wellness; however, providing the families of HOLA youth was critical during the pandemic, according to Michelle Sandoval, director of family services with HOLA.

“As (HOLA) has gone through the pandemic, we have been adapting and trying to increase opportunities to our students, because we really understand that they are impacted when their families are struggling to access, in this case, healthy and affordable meals,” Sandoval said.

Sandoval elaborated on Waymo’s involvement with food distribution and said, “It’s a creative solution to the modern-day problem that we are experiencing. Getting healthy food in the hands of the people that need it plus getting it to them at places where they trust is critical.”

Amanda Ventura Zink, public affairs manager with Waymo, said, “Supporting our local communities is core to our mission at Waymo. 

“We’ve donated delivery services to dozens of nonprofits in metro Phoenix, San Francisco and Dallas since the start of the pandemic, so we were eager to do the same when we came to Los Angeles.”

Zink said that partnering with the Karsh Center and HOLA made sense for Waymo due to the various programs and accessibility that the nonprofits have to the community and for their proximity to areas where Waymo cars have been tested.

“The Karsh Center operates a mobile food pantry in an area of Los Angeles where we were conducting mapping missions (for our autonomous cars), so we asked if they could use any help. 

“It’s important to Waymo that we were able to partner with a locally beloved organization that has worked tirelessly through the increased needs brought on by the pandemic,” Zink said.

Zink is thrilled with the nonprofits that Waymo met and worked with while testing their vehicle’s capability in Los Angeles and for “the opportunity to be part of what you’re doing to make life easier for our neighbors,” she said.

Though food distribution to families will continue without Waymo for the Karsh Center, HOLA and other nonprofits the Karsh Center works, Guirguis said she isn’t sure about future plans with the autonomous tech company; however, she thinks there could be a future in meshing autonomous vehicles and the work of nonprofits.

“I hope that (Waymo) sees that their time in LA was worthwhile and we could have a longer partnership, because I think this (concept) would be a huge asset to expand to other nonprofit organizations, especially ones we work with,” she said.

Next up for the Karsh Center is expanding the organization’s services, like being able to eventually provide case management, Guirguis said. 

“We’re opening up to in-person services, and we’re hoping to fundraise successfully for a technology center, which would be our biggest planned project.

“It is a wonder to me how technology can support the human services side of the needs of Angelenos. 

“There are other organizations like Waymo and the Karsh Center that can come together and serve a greater population and expand their reach and think out of the box for future possibilities.”

For HOLA, Sandoval said, “We know how critical it is for us to support households when they are facing food insecurity, so we are definitely looking to continue the program of the food distribution to serve the needs of the community.”

On top of continuing to uplift families and provide holistic support to the community, Sandoval mentioned that Waymo was one of the biggest sponsors for the nonprofits’ toy giveaway for HOLA students.

“Their sponsorship of 129 total gifts, amounting to almost $5,000, helps us ensure every single one of our HOLA students gets at least one of their wish list toys as a gift this year. 

“Those toy distributions are happening all this week at HOLA and were truly made possible by Waymo’s generosity,” Sandoval said.

About HOLA’s partnerships with the Karsh Center and Waymo, Sandoval said, “We’re extremely thankful for the partnership with Karsh Center, and with Waymo being new to LA but giving us the opportunity to collaborate in a creative way was an incredible feeling.

“Bringing in this technology with Waymo was an adaptation that really worked out for us, so we’re excited for what that looks like in the future,” she said.