Clinic’s free meals provide food security, nutrition to patients most in need

September 14, 2021

Ricardo Sanchez, 54, has been a patient of Venice Family Clinic for about four years. He lives alone and usually rents out a room in his apartment for extra cash, but with the pandemic, he didn’t feel like that was a safe thing to do. Sanchez is also the primary caregiver for his elderly mother, who also has been a Clinic patient.

So when he learned that the Clinic was giving out free prepared meals about a year ago, he jumped at the chance to become a part of the program.

“I have health issues, so I work very little. With the pandemic, it was even worse. I was just trying to survive on whatever I could,” said Sanchez, who is prediabetic. “So economically the food helped me and my mom a lot. I got food for both of us every time. It was very, very helpful.”

Food insecurity has always been an issue for Venice Family Clinic’s patients, but the COVID-19 pandemic shined a light on this barrier to health like little has done before. Adding prepared meals to our food program seemed like a natural progression from the fresh produce we had been handing out since before the pandemic began.

“When the pandemic hit, we started to see an increase in food insecurity, so we increased the number and frequency of our free food markets. But we knew there was more we could do,” said Rigoberto Garcia, director of health education at Venice Family Clinic. “As a community health center, we wanted to make sure that we were assisting our patients during this difficult time not only by providing medical care but also by providing nutrition. We look at food as medicine.”

In August 2020, the Clinic teamed up with UCLA Dining to design a program that would help meet our community’s increasing need for food security, as the pandemic continued to affect our patients’ ability to earn income. The Clinic raised money to pay for the ingredients, and UCLA Dining prepared meals that addressed the health needs of patients, mostly people with chronic conditions like diabetes or specific nutritional needs, such as those of pregnant mothers. Menu items included blackened fish with pineapple salsa or leg of lamb with roasted potatoes. The program provided four meals per week for every person in a family, with each meal consisting of about a pound of nutritious food.

Five days a week over the course of a year, UCLA Dining made and delivered these meals to Venice Family Clinic sites in Venice, Santa Monica, Mar Vista and Hawthorne, where Clinic staff and volunteers distributed them free of charge to our patients. When the program ended in August 2021, we had provided 525,000 freshly prepared healthful meals and served nearly 41,600 people.

Now that the program has ended, Sanchez, who also regularly picks up fruits, vegetables and some shelf-stable items from the Clinic’s free food markets, said he wants to continue eating more healthfully on his own and has been watching cooking videos online.

“When I first came to this country more than 30 years ago, I was just buying fast food for all my meals. Until I started learning about healthy foods from the Clinic, I used to eat all kinds of stuff,” he said. “But I felt better when I ate the meals from the Clinic. I liked everything about them – they were convenient and delicious. I liked everything they gave us, but the shrimp and beef with red sauce were my favorite dishes.

“I just want to thank Venice Family Clinic because the free meals have been very helpful in these hard times.”

Generous donations to Venice Family Clinic covered the cost of the food. A gift from an anonymous donor allowed the Clinic to start the program; other donors include the Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Foundation, Andy and Dahlia Haas, SCAN Health Plan, The Chuck Lorre Family Foundation, No Kid Hungry, Richard and Harriet Orkand, and Albertsons Pavilions and Vons Foundation.