How Two Bar Pros Are Feeding Undocumented Families During the Pandemic
No Us Without You is distributing food to the industry's most vulnerableRebecca Treon
September 02, 2021
The COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating for the restaurant industry, permanently shuttering 17 percent of restaurants nationwide, and revealing inequities and vulnerabilities baked into the foundations of these businesses. But there is hope on the horizon, as vaccines roll out and more food professionals are immunized. At the James Beard Foundation, we’re looking forward with optimism, while also striving to provide resources and tools to help the industry recover and rebuild with equity and sustainability at its heart.
Below, Rebecca Treon follows the story of No Us Without You and how they are supporting undocumented workers in the restaurant industry.
It’s 5:30 A.M. on distribution day, and Damián Diaz and Othón Nolasco are blocking off a street in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles to secure a no-contact, drive-through food dispensary. Every week, No Us Without You (NUWY LA) shows up on a predetermined street Diaz has scouted to issue 170,000 pounds of food to undocumented families. Their project began when the COVID-19 pandemic closed restaurants and left the backbone of the industry—undocumented restaurant workers—without a safety net.
“Our friends in the back of the house pay taxes every week on their paycheck, but [they] were going to be fucked because they aren’t eligible for unemployment,” says Nolasco, co-founder of NUWY LA. “When the shutdown started, we saw a lot of bars and restaurants starting these crowdfunding pages to help support their staff and people going on unemployment, but at the same time, no one was talking about their undocumented employees.”
Diaz and Nolasco are partners at Va’La Hospitality, a consulting agency known for opening some of L.A.’s trendiest bars. Like many people, they found themselves without a job for the first time in their adult lives due to the pandemic. They reached out to 10 people they knew personally and had frank conversations with them: “How are you doing? Do you have savings? Can you pay your bills if the shutdown lasts longer than two weeks?” Diaz’s and Nolasco’s worst fears were confirmed—once these individuals paid rent, there would be no money for food and other bills.
“They’re not going to have any way to feed their family, and it wasn’t just, like [friends] that we knew, it’s their kids and their family back in Honduras,” says Nolasco. “We had to do something.”
The pair took their own money, went to a restaurant supply company, and bought 50-pound bags of rice, cases of carrots, bags of potatoes, gallons of milk, tortillas, and other necessities. They then sat down at their conference table to portion out what a family of four would need. By costing out the food just as they would in a restaurant, Diaz and Nolasco figured out they could feed a family for $33 a week. When the families came to get groceries, the duo realized it couldn’t just be a one-time thing. Soon, using Instagram and word of mouth, the weekly distribution group grew from 10 families to hundreds. By July, they’d filed for 501(c)(3) status and were receiving substantial donations and participating in relief programs.
The nonprofit has rapidly picked up speed, garnering the attention of the media and support from individuals, charities, chefs, local restaurants, and grants, giving them the capacity to help more families. In June 2020, United Way of Los Angeles donated $50,000 of rent relief money to the organization, and Diaz and Nolasco hand-delivered 50 checks to the families in their program with the most need. Tecate donated the lease of a refrigerated truck, and Sysco donated reach-in refrigerators which allowed NUWY LA to start delivering groceries to people who were in quarantine or had transportation issues. In July of 2020, they started a neighborhood grocery pick-up program and started stocking and maintaining a community fridge. The duo don’t plan to slow down anytime soon. In fact, they’ve put consulting on the back burner indefinitely and plan to shift their careers toward ending food insecurity.
But the main focus of NUWY LA continues to be the weekly drop offs. The weekly dispensary locations are unpermitted and undisclosed except to volunteers and recipients. Changing the location each week protects undocumented people from ICE raids, while the drive-through model reduces the risk of COVID exposure. “They’re greeted, get water, get a snack, the kids get these beautiful sandwiches a restaurant friend delivers to us, [and] they get information on where distribution is going to be the following week,” says Nolasco. “The volunteers load up their car with food and they go on their way. We try to do everything quickly and efficiently so people aren’t waiting around—for everyone’s safety.”
Diaz and Nolasco have relied on their years of relationships in the industry to buy groceries in bulk, purchasing directly from suppliers and snagging deals. Volunteers—many of whom are bartenders and colleagues Diaz and Nolasco know personally—parcel out the basic components of each week’s boxes. But one of the most important aspects to Nolasco is to always give families fresh ingredients—not ones that are just about to expire. After all, these are restaurant professionals.
“There were, initially, a lot of offers to give us reclaimed produce, that is still edible, but [that] someone doesn’t want to waste,” says Nolasco. “It was important for us to say no to that and focus on buying fresh stuff for two reasons: one is that the families we serve work in the back of the house; they’re the prep cooks and the line cooks. They’re the ones that would tell the chef, ‘This case of Swiss chard that you have is starting to turn and it needs to go.’ The other is that 98-percent of the families that we serve had never taken any type of aid, ever. We never want them to feel degraded or like they’re getting a handout.”
Moving forward, the nonprofit is continuing to expand its programming, offering drop-off service, products like diapers and formula, tutoring services for school-aged children, and servicing other undocumented workers outside of the industry, including musicians and day laborers.
While the nation faces a labor shortage, especially in the restaurant industry, undocumented workers are back in service jobs, filling gaps as never before. As recipients of NUWY LA are returning to work, they will often ask to be removed from the list to make room for another family, but Nolasco refuses.
"We have families say, ‘OK, we don’t need food anymore, give my food to someone else’,” says Nolasco. “We had to tell them, ‘You’re not taking food from anyone—don’t spend $120 on groceries a week, take that money and pay off your debts first.’ We’re not going to quit doing a food security program because it’s really important—we’re literally feeding mothers and small children. That’s it.”
Rebecca Treon is a Denver-based freelance food and travel writer whose work has taken her around the globe. Her work has appeared in publications like BBC Travel, Hemispheres, Huff Post, and Tasting Table. Follow her on Instagram at @RebeccaTreon.