Benita Pérez was the first in line. The rain was pouring down, but she wanted to get enough food for her grandchildren during the Los Angeles Unified School District’s three-day strike.
Fearing a long line, Perez and a friend had arrived at 6:30 a.m., an hour before the food distribution site at Lincoln Park Recreation Center opened.
They watched from inside an SUV as volunteers under neon green tents filled bags with pears, oranges, apples, celery and carrots. Another bag contained 2-ounce cups of Cinnamon Chex cereal, whole-grain crackers, heat-and-serve pizza, cheese and cracker packets, and juice boxes—six breakfast and lunch meals for each student.
Perez, who lives in Lincoln Heights and works as a cleaner, said the family’s income for the past month went toward their $2,700 rent. They are more than $1,000 behind on their electric bill.
And with the three-day strike, she said, she is worried about feeding her four grandchildren.
“We need more food in the house,” the 56-year-old said. “We are preparing for these three days so that the children can open the fridge and eat something.”
Most of LAUSD’s 420,000 students come from low-income families, many of whom face food insecurity even without the interruption of a strike. Every day, the nation’s second-largest school district provides hundreds of thousands of meals to these families.
But with support staff who normally pack and serve meals on strike in the midst of long-running contract talks, and with teachers joining them in solidarity, the district had to find other ways to provide food for the families under its care. careful.
“It’s just being consistent. We have students who need to eat,” said José Huerta, LAUSD’s eastern regional superintendent, as he handed out a half-gallon of milk at a food distribution site in El Sereno. “It is important that children have something available in our community.”
The strikers are protesting for better wages and working conditions for some of the district’s lowest-paid employees: bus drivers, custodians, special education aides, cafeteria workers and others. Striking school employees, united in solidarity by the teachers’ union, shut down the vast school system after last-minute efforts to avert the strike failed, disrupting classes, vital food services and daily routines.
By 7:12 am, even before the official opening, workers outside the Lincoln Park recreation center had distributed nearly 100 meals. The operation played out like a pit stop at a racetrack, with some workers loading milk jugs onto the passenger seat, while others placed bags in the trunk. Families were often in and out in 15 seconds.
Ana Villasano, 33, was among those collecting food for her 9 and 11-year-old children.
Villasano has had to take three days off work at a chocolate and nut company in Ontario because she has no one to care for her children. Her husband has to leave for her delivery job around 3 am
“Not having this money will really affect me and it will really affect what we have to eat,” said Villasano, who lives in City Terrace. He told his children that they would have to eat “whatever they can give us” at the Lincoln Park distribution center.
Villasano said he supports the striking workers, despite the hardship the three-day labor action has caused his family.
“I would like them to get better wages,” he said. “I hope they reach an agreement, because they deserve it.”
At the El Sereno Recreation Center, Irania Barrientos, an LAUSD high school custodian, stopped by with her 5-year-old son to buy food. Barrientos, who was wearing a purple union shirt, said they are paid just a few dollars more than the minimum wage, “and it’s still not enough to make ends meet.”
Barrientos is a single mother. She said that she has to work overtime to get by. She pays $1,400 a month for a one-bedroom apartment in El Sereno. That morning, her son, who attends the district school, told her that she was hungry. So before joining the picket line at LAUSD headquarters, they headed to the nearest food distribution center.
“This is going to help during the day that we are out and some days as well,” he said.
Some of the workers who normally feed students every day were also present, joining the picket lines instead of handing out breakfast in a school cafeteria.
Margarita Gasca, 48, works in food service at Parmelee Avenue Elementary School in South Los Angeles. On Tuesday morning she was wearing thick black boots, a thick coat and a hat. She has worked at Parmelee for a year, but has been with the school district for 16. She earns $16.91 an hour and said she feels she “basically works for profit.”
She said food service workers at her school prepare about 700 breakfasts, which are put into bags that students take to class, about 800 lunches and more than 100 dinners each day. They cook, fill the dishes, wash the dishes, clean the kitchen, take the children’s names, enter them into the computer system, and serve the meals.
“We get paid very little for the work we do,” Gasca said.
Volunteers at the food distribution sites were testing the needs of the families throughout the morning.
In front of the Glassell Park Recreation Center, the line was 20 cars deep along rain-soaked Verdugo Road. The operation was supposed to end at 10:30 am, but distribution continued for another half hour to accommodate everyone.
“We are shocked, because we didn’t expect so many people to come,” said Carla Rosales, a food service employee who has worked for the district for 10 years and declined to discuss the strike or her own circumstances. “They haven’t stopped, and the rain hasn’t stopped.”
The atmosphere was joyous at the food distribution center in Pan Pacific Park. After a brief morning rush, with more than 50 cars cruising the block, the site saw a steady stream of minivans, SUVs and sporty compacts drive by for takeout meals.
In the auditorium, LAUSD staff not part of the two striking unions gathered bags of fresh fruit, single-serving bowls of cereal and quarts of 1% milk to hand out to families.
Baasansuren Altanchimeg, a nail technician, brought her two young children with her from Koreatown to pick up food around 10 am. Bujin, 5, is in transitional kindergarten at Third Street Elementary School, while Brian, 3, attends an LAUSD preschool in Chinatown.
“I had to call work saying school is closed, I can’t work,” the 27-year-old lamented. Not only would she lose her salary for the duration of the strike, but she also worried that she would be able to continue her own education with her little ones in her home.
“For three days it is very difficult, because I also go to school,” said Altanchimeg, who is training to be a dental assistant. “Tomorrow I have to ask my friend to take care of my children, because I can’t miss school.”
Ernesto Martinez drove to the food distribution center directly from his night shift at a warehouse in Santa Monica. He started his day at 10 p.m. and managed to sneak into the distribution line in the parking lot of Pan Pacific Park in Fairfax at 10:15 a.m., just before closing time.
“Times are hard, you have to come and do it. My wife said, don’t forget to buy food for the kids,” said Martinez, who lives in the Dockweiler neighborhood near Mid-City. “It’s tough, because if they don’t go to school for three days, it adds up.”
Times staff writer Andrew Campa contributed to this report.