In March of 2020, as restaurants across Los Angeles began to shut down, Othón Nolasco and Damián Diaz knew they had to act: The industry vets — who started as dishwashers and eventually started a bar consultancy firm together — saw that fundraisers were popping up to support the flailing industry, but most were aimed at supporting front-of-the-house staff.
“Nobody was mentioning the back of the house — dishwashers, prep cooks, porters — who most patrons never see. Having worked in hospitality for years, we knew that the majority of these positions were filled by undocumented staff,” says Nolasco. “They were ineligible for any unemployment insurance even though they pay taxes every paycheck to a system that wouldn’t support them. We knew we had to act to help feed the most vulnerable families.”
They quickly formed a nonprofit, No Us Without You, to provide food for undocumented hospitality workers and their families. What started with 30 families a week has ballooned in the last year to 1,600 families. And landing a 501c3 status as a nonprofit has enabled Nolasco and Diaz to go even further with their services, which now include educating communities on Covid testing and vaccines.
We spoke to Nolasco about how the organization has come to be.
Tasting Table: How has NUWY evolved over the last year? In terms of the needs that have arisen, and what you offer?
Nolasco: Having just celebrated our anniversary, we’ve reflected on how much we’ve grown as human beings. We’ve failed at times and have worked incrementally to not repeat our past mistakes. There’s not very much room for error — this isn’t a martini that can be remade or a steak that gets sent back for being the wrong temperature. If we fuck up, families won’t have enough food for that week.
Initially, we had a goal to feed 30 families a week. We didn’t know if we could sustain this effort. So we practiced what we have always preached when running operations in bars: We asked for help. From initially using our own limited funds to purchase food for families that first week in March, to serving 120 families by our fourth week, we were able to grow by asking friends and family to support our efforts.
It worked! Creating an actual LLC for No Us Without You L.A. and applying for (and receiving) 501c3 status changed everything.
We’re able to feed a family of four for a week for $33. Let that sink in for a moment.
And while continuing to attempt to master our food security program, we’ve listened to the needs of the families we serve. We implemented a tutoring program for children to navigate remote learning. We created a contactless delivery driver system to serve our most at-risk families as well as those recovering from Covid-19 across all of L.A. County. We launched a neighborhood fridge program, which has been instrumental in our biweekly food distributions for our neighbors in Boyle Heights.
We’ve expanded to provide food security for other undocumented workers and their families. Every week we’re serving street food vendors, mariachis, and day laborers who have suffered financially during the pandemic. Everything we do is free of charge and no cost to the 1,600 families we serve weekly.
Now that food and agriculture workers are eligible for vaccinations in L.A., have you been helping with that? Have there been any issues with vaccine hesitancy, and how do you address them if so?
Through our medical partners, we’ve provided weekly Covid-19 testing to every family in our food security program. We provide all of the tools and information made available to us directly from local L.A. City, L.A. County, and CA state officials in regards to vaccines. Some of these providers offer rideshare credits or free rides to vaccination sites. We share information about vaccine sites that are closest to their homes, which are often in lower-income neighborhoods.
Some families had hesitations initially, as there was a great deal of misinformation regarding the vaccines. Like many other Americans, they had questions: What’s the cost? Is it safe? Am I eligible to receive the vaccine? Will I need to show proof of residency?
95 percent of our volunteer staff is fully vaccinated while the remainder is awaiting their secondary doses. The best proof we could offer the families dealing with vaccine hesitancy was as co-founders to lead by example and get vaccinated.
What do you foresee as the future of the restaurant industry?
We’re very concerned. The majority of the families we serve worked two to three jobs just to survive. Many of the families now only work one to three shifts per week. With the contraction rate increasing every week as establishments close for good, it’s become painfully obvious that there will not be enough jobs in the hospitality industry here in Los Angeles to support the numbers of unemployed back-of-house staff.
Upon the opening of limited indoor dining we’ve seen, for example, front-of-the-house staff go on strike after refusing to agree to changes in the tip pool split from 70/30 to 63.5/36.5. This is a prime example of focusing on the “me” instead of “we” in hospitality here in Los Angeles. It’s frustrating to see that people aren’t willing to learn from the past year. There’s no way to grow our industry unless we prioritize equal and fair pay/tip distribution between front- and back-of-house. There’s no moving forward if we continue to leave co-workers behind.
What do you foresee as the future of NUWY?
We understand that food insecurity existed before No Us Without You L.A. was conceived. The fact that it exists to this day in the richest state in our nation, which itself is the financial global leader, frustrates us into continued forward progress.
There’s no easy way to recover from the loss of our loved ones from Covid-19. Likewise, the mountain of debt that the families we serve have incurred while losing those respective livelihoods is almost insurmountable without assistance.
Our plan for the future is threefold. We will continue to provide food security for the 1,600 families we serve every week. We have nearly 300 families on our waitlist who are requesting food relief. We’re continuing to fundraise to be able to provide for these families in dire need.
We will continue to focus on the specific needs of children in our program. This includes providing diapers, formula, and baby wipes, as well as providing healthy food to growing children so they can focus on education.
We’re in the design phase of an urban farm that will be much more than just a garden to supplement the food security needs of families we serve. The space will lead to the future of our 501c3 as it intersects with our goals in the decade to follow. Jobs will be created directly at our urban farm as we continue to assist with job placement within our network of restaurants and bars in Los Angeles.
The physical and mental stresses we’ve endured over the last year pale in comparison to what the families we serve experience on a daily basis. We can’t imagine the prospect of being a parent and having to look at your hungry child knowing there’s no food in the fridge and no money to buy any more. We’re happy to feed those who have fed us for years.