Los Angeles

Culver City nonprofit struggles with challenges of rising food insecurity

Grace Diner feeds nearly 1,000 people weekly, but funds are running out.

After serving the community for over a decade, a local nonprofit is at risk of no longer being able to offer meals to the food insecure in Culver City.

Nearly 200 food-insecure locals are served free hot meals and fresh produce every weekday courtesy of Grace Diner, a nonprofit run out of Grace Lutheran Church.

“Our demographics changed dramatically during COVID,” said Program Director Lisa Skelley. She noted that the diner saw an increase in recently unemployed millennials, families with young children, seniors and the unhoused.

“Many unhoused people who saw their lives change very drastically and that they couldn’t go to fast-food restaurants or the deli section at Ralphs to get hor food to eat,” Skelly said.

Food security was already a challenge for many Los Angeles County residents and increased rapidly due to COVID-19. As businesses shut down to slow the spread of the virus, tens of millions of Americans lost their jobs and began to struggle to afford food, housing and other basic needs.

Grace Diner started serving meals to the community in response to the 2008 recession. Skelly said she saw that a lot of people were hurting and wanted to create an environment for people who didn’t have a place to go.

Grace Diner’s indoor service wasn’t like a typical soup kitchen, but more akin to a restaurant, complete with tablecloths, centerpieces, three-course meals and occasional live music. When Grace Diner first started, they served about 110 meals a week.

Because of the pandemic, Grace Diner had to adapt from indoor dining style to outdoor service. With demand for meals increasing, Grace Diner partnered with Feed Culver, a nonprofit organization formed in the advent of COVID-19 to support restaurant employees. Feed Culver sources 160 meals from Culver City restaurants and donates them to Grace Diner two days a week to be distributed to those in need. For the other three days, Skelley and her team are on their own.

But, thanks to community partnerships, Grace Diner has stayed operational for the last 14 months, serving hot meals every day of the week — take-out style.

“People would just line up six feet apart wearing masks and they would get their hot meal,” Skelly said.

With COVID-19 prevention measures in place, Skelly noted that it was hard to incorporate a model of hospitality into a takeaway service. Although she can’t welcome anyone inside, she is intentional about greeting returning patrons by name and with a warm smile.

While they were able to meet the needs of their visitors for the past 14 months, Grace Diner has been finding it hard to sustain supporting such a large community during the pandemic.

“We are in dire need of money,” Skelly said. “Food insecurity is not going away because the pandemic is winding down.”

Before the peak of viral transmission in Los Angeles, 1 in 5 residents faced food insecurity in Los Angeles County. In the wake of the economic recession caused by the pandemic, more than 1 in 4 residents experienced an instance of food insecurity between April and May 2020.

Although the employment rate is rising and the county has begun reopening in recent months, millions are still reporting that their households do not have enough to eat.

Many people were struggling before the pandemic and their hardships have been exacerbated by the COVID recession.

Skelly and her team have seen firsthand how the COVID-19 recession impacted the need for food in Culver City. One of those team members is volunteer Emily Brownlow, who has been serving the Culver City community for almost a year,

“Everyone here in line has their own story and part of volunteering here is getting to know everyone and getting to know their story,” Brownlow said. “It helps us get to know the extent of the problem in Culver City and how we can solve it more.”

Culver City Mayor Alex Fisch commended Grace Diner for serving the unhoused and food insecure — something he says the city has taken too long to do.

“Grace Diner is literally saving lives and I couldn’t be more grateful for them and other small organizations,” Fisch said. “It is a very difficult task because the resources at the local level are limited.”

Skelly says this is the only place that provides free quality food every weekday in Culver City, but without more funding, they’re at risk of shutting down.

To support Grace Diner and other organizations, visit feedculver.org