USC partnered with St. Agnes Catholic Church in May to scale up the church’s community food distribution program and help South Los Angeles families experiencing hardships during the pandemic. The program went from serving 50 families to as many as 1,000.

As of Oct. 17, approximately 980,000 pounds of food have been distributed, said Patricia Alarcón, the relationship manager of USC Educational Partnerships. “That’s astronomical for a project that started with a couple of hundred boxes to now thousands of boxes per week,” she said.

The program starts at 10 a.m. every Saturday at the St. Agnes Catholic Church and goes until supplies run out, providing groceries that include dairy, fresh produce and dry goods. Organizers said the amount of food is enough to sustain a family for a week. Alarcón said the program offers four types of food boxes: two that average around 31 pounds each and the other two 25 pounds each.

“We’ve traditionally been open from about 10 a.m. to 11:15 a.m. and now more like 9:45 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.,” said Stephen Wesson, USC Village Ombudsman. Wesson added that the program has extended its operating hours on both ends to meet increased demands.

Wesson said there are no qualifying standards to determine who can receive the food package. “We don’t turn anyone away," he said. "We open the doors and whoever comes in and is prepared to receive groceries, we try to accommodate that.”

“It’s obvious that people are suffering,” said Kim Thomas-Barrios, the associate senior vice president of USC Educational Partnerships K-12. “We’ve even seen very expensive cars drive up. Sometimes people are picking up for neighbors that can’t come themselves and they get back in this long line. So we can’t put any qualifiers because we don’t know people’s situation.”

Part of the Family Schools Network adopted over 25 years ago, St. Agnes Catholic Church and its school has a historic partnership with USC and has been working on food distribution in the community for years.

“What we brought in was a scalable infrastructure,” Wesson said. “It really was the coming together of the need that the community had, the location the church provided and the additional resources the university could bring in the way of food product, volunteers and a real operation that made things much more sustained.”

“It was a natural fit because they have such a large, large playground and lot,” Thomas-Barrios added. “Trucks can pull up, ingress and egress of cars and vehicles quite separate from where staff the walk-up will be, so it lent itself to quite a bit of space for safe distancing.”

Wesson said the biggest commitment is the human capital from USC, as program volunteers give up their Saturdays, often arrive as before 7 a.m. and stay until around 1:30 p.m.

“We’ve got faculty staff members that receive those pallets, roll up their sleeves, put them in position and these are hundreds of hundreds of boxes of groceries,” he said. “The university supplies all of the PPE equipment, food, lunch, snacks and cost items. But to me, the real investment we’re making is in the human connection between the people at USC who are willing to come out and touch the community directly.”

Thomas-Barrios added that even after the distribution is over for the day, volunteers will distribute any boxes that are left out house to house to people who they personally know are struggling or could not get to the distribution, including families headed by single parents with several children and no transportation.

“It’s really a beautiful thing to see the way we’re all holding hands to ensure that this community is able to have something so profound that, at least once a week, allows for food insecurity to not be a thing,” she said.

Alarcón said the program serves as a catalyst to a broader range of community distribution.

“We are reached by other student groups or departments to identify other distribution resources," Alarcón said. "We connect them with other distributions so they can also have a broader reach in both University Park campus and Health Sciences campus areas.”

USC Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry donated hundreds of dental kits through the program, she said, and USC DPS helps direct traffic during food distribution and deliver food. Other USC organizations involved include USC Neighborhood Academic Initiative, USC KID watch and Marshall School of Business, which plans on joining efforts soon, Alarcón said.

“We all look forward to the day when it [the program] will be sunsetted because that will mean it isn’t necessary,” Wesson said. “But right now, it is very necessary. When we think we’re shutting down, people begin to pool up and we have to reopen to accept additional people that are coming through.”

Wesson said he looks forward to the continued commitment from the people, “because that’s where it all starts.”