In April 2020, community members became worried about the health and safety of Little Tokyo seniors after the stay-at-home orders were enacted. To combat the forced isolation of low-income seniors and the negative impact the pandemic had on restaurants, Little Tokyo Service Center (LTSC), Keiro, and Little Tokyo Community Council (LTCC) came together to create a program that would help both populations: Little Tokyo Eats (LT Eats). LT Eats coordinated meal deliveries from family and legacy-owned businesses in Little Tokyo directly to the seniors’ doors.
LT Eats operated on a pre-order system through which seniors were able to order up to 4 meals a day for $3 each. Each pre-order form was available in 5 languages (English, Japanese, Korean, Chinese, and Spanish), to accommodate everyone who lives in the area. The restaurants received $10 per meal, with the remaining $7 being subsidized by Keiro. Contactless deliveries were made every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday to six buildings: Casa Heiwa, San Pedro Firm Building, Daimaru Hotel, Far East Building, Miyako Gardens, and Little Tokyo Towers.
Thanks to the 2,222 hours our volunteers dedicated to the program, typically over 100 meals were delivered per day, totaling 18,930 meals to residents in Little Tokyo. $191,830 in total revenue went to the 15 restaurants that we partnered with for the duration of the 65 weeks: Azay, Kouraku, Oomasa, Far Bar/Sake Dojo, Las Galas, Orochon Ramen, JiST Café, Mitsuru Café, Suehiro Café, Korea BBQ House, Mitsuru Sushi & Grill, Sushi & Teri, Korean Hibachi BBQ, Mr. Ramen, and T.O.T.
Each restaurant was put on a weekly rotation for 6 weeks at a time, with some restaurants repeating their participation. The restaurants actually created a special menu for our program, mainly offering Japanese food to residents. Meals included dishes such as zaru soba, unagi bento, and tai and kinoko meshi with ozooni and yuzu butter mochi for special holidays like Oshogatsu.
We tried to make the deliveries special throughout the year, adding special gifts with the meals. For Christmas and Valentine’s Day, we received a donation of plush toys to distribute with each meal, and for Children’s Day/Kodomo no Hi/Cinco de Mayo, our volunteers wrapped chocolates and added fun stickers (pictured below).
LT Eats received press opportunities and donations from organizations like LA Galaxy and 88rising, but for me, the most impactful and memorable part of the program was working with our volunteers and staff. Our LT Eats volunteers came from all over Southern California, dedicating time and energy to making sure that the seniors got their meals without a hitch. In 2020, our volunteers diligently walked around Little Tokyo in 100+ degree heat, in full COVID-conscious gear. Mid-2021 also saw an influx of volunteer sign-ups in the midst of the wave of anti-Asian violence, showing our community stepping up to make sure that one of the most vulnerable populations was cared for. On June 8, 2021, a commercial building next to Casa Heiwa on the corner of 3rd Street and Los Angeles Street caught on fire. The LTSC office was closed for two days and the streets were blocked off, but LT Eats continued. Our volunteers made deliveries as usual, and were excited to do so.
I asked one of our core volunteers, Matthew Kao, about why he looked forward to LT Eats volunteering every week:
“I started volunteering with LT Eats because I really wanted to build lasting connections with the community members of Little Tokyo. Growing up in San Jose Japantown, my parents always stressed giving back to my community and remembering my roots, however, being in LA in the midst of a global pandemic made giving back to San Jose Japantown a bit challenging. I knew I wanted to find a way to build connections and community and I was lucky enough to get connected to LT Eats... With LT Eats I not only felt like I was making an impact on the community, but also felt like the community was making an even greater impact on me as I really gained perspective on these challenging times and have built relationships that I know will last beyond this pandemic.”
The LT Eats team itself was composed of translators, small business counselors, coordinators, staff volunteers, and drivers just to name a few. With so many moving pieces to the puzzle, I couldn’t help but feel immense gratitude and appreciation for every person involved. I looked forward to meeting new and returning volunteers, and hearing about why they were so interested in volunteering with LT Eats. The connections that we made not only with each other, but with the residents as well, during a time of complete isolation were unforgettable.
After 65 weeks, LT Eats ended on June 30, 2021. The residents enjoyed a special meal of shio salmon, chicken teriyaki, and nishime from Far Bar as a special last meal, along with notes created by two of our LT Eats volunteers.
I was brought on as the LT Eats Coordinator in January 2021 for the last 6 months of the program. As the months went on, we were monitoring the surges in COVID cases and decided that by March, there was still a need for the program. Cases were going up, the vaccine was being distributed slowly, and June seemed like far enough away to hope that things would get better. Luckily, we felt confident by the end of June that many seniors were feeling enthusiastic to get back to their old routines.
What’s next now that’s LT Eats is over? Since February, LTSC has run three COVID vaccination clinics in Little Tokyo. There have also been distributions of safety whistles, and self defense and wellness classes offered to integrate seniors back into normalcy.
I asked my supervisor and LTSC Director of Service Programs, Mike Murase, about what’s to come:
“The ultimate goal is for seniors to regain their independence again, and to be able to enjoy their lives in Little Tokyo safely. At LTSC, we try to address the needs of our clients and residents in the communities we serve. During the pandemic, that meant addressing food insecurity due to seniors not being able to go out freely, and also addressing social isolation.
Now that most seniors are vaccinated and conditions in the community have improved, the needs we want to meet are their needs to socialize, lead an active life, and to provide emotional support and mental health wellness through workshops, and support groups.”
(If you want to see more of Mike, check out this interview that he did with 88rising about the program.)
Currently, there are many exercise, dance and other physical activity classes being offered through Far East Lounge, Little Tokyo Towers, and at Budokan for seniors. As LT Eats Coordinator, this program holds a special place in my heart. LT Eats was one of the most fulfilling projects that I have had the privilege of being a part of. While I’ve tried to stay involved in the Little Tokyo community since high school, LT Eats showed me first-hand what true resiliency and community look like, and that we truly are stronger together. Thinking about the past 6 months, I am reminded of the impact this program had on me, and most importantly the people. While I already miss LT Eats, I am reassured by these comments that were left during the last week of the program:
“Thank you very much for the volunteers for taking care of me. I appreciate it from the bottom of my heart. I don’t know how much I have been helped by the meals after we were told to stay home during the pandemic. The meals were on the spot. I am appreciative of the restaurants and volunteers, who had worked together, during this time. Thank you.”
”Since I’m by myself, the bentos really helped me. It was really delicious.”
“Thank you for a long time. The meals were one of my excitement[s] during the pandemic. I appreciate it from the bottom of my heart.”
“The meals that were delivered for the past year were my excitement. I also made friends from this wonderful program/service. Thank you until now.”
If you would like to volunteer with LTSC, please check out their VolunteerMatch page: https://www.volunteermatch.org/search/org799292.jsp
Donate to LTSC: https://give.ltsc.org/give/206482/#!/donation/checkout
88rising x MAMA Drive-By-Kitchen x LTSC: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1O4lhX8xEL4