Little Tokyo Eats: Delivering Meals for Low-Income Seniors Stuck Inside

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Businesses help those left without support under L.A.’s shelter- in-place order.

Don Tahara (left), owner of Sake Dojo, and daughter Jill Tahara prepare spaghetti bolognese for a Monday Little Tokyo Eats delivery.

By CRYSTAL DUAN

Translated by MAKIKO HIRATA

When the shelter-in-place ordinance in California went into effect, the Little Tokyo community of Los Angeles was worried about its low-income seniors. How would they get access to food once all the restaurants and businesses closed? How could they stay safe and well fed?

Keiro, a Little Tokyo organization engaged in improving the quality of life for older adults and their caregivers, and the Little Tokyo Service Center teamed up to make sure that wouldn’t be a problem.

Thus, Little Tokyo Eats began. With the help of a grant from Keiro, this program provides meals straight from the delicious kitchens of various restaurants to the local low-income seniors, at the usual operating costs for the businesses.

A Little Tokyo Eats volunteer provides a contactless delivery to a senior resident living in low-income housing on Third Street in Little Tokyo.

The Rafu Shimpo spoke to Mike Murase, director of service programs at the Little Tokyo Service Center, and Gene Kanamori, executive director of Keiro.

Rafu: What has been the impact of the pandemic on the Little Tokyo community?

Murase: As COVID-19 continued to spread, small businesses in Little Tokyo (as elsewhere) are being impacted in a devastating way. With social distancing in effect, restaurants are not allowed to have customers in their dining areas. Overnight, they faced closure by having to resort to take-out and delivery only. Workers had to be laid off and bills became harder to keep up with.

At the same time, with safer-at-home orders in full force, senior residents in Little Tokyo Towers, Miyako Gardens, Casa Heiwa and other affordable housing buildings were forced to retreat into their homes. They now had fewer options for shopping and eating. Their forced isolation and uncertain future created fear, anxiety and stress for seniors.

Rafu: In light of this, how did the Little Tokyo Eats project come together?

Murase: The leaders of Little Tokyo Community Council (LTCC), Little Tokyo Service Center (LTSC) and Keiro came together to discuss how the Little Tokyo community could be supported during this crisis.

Kanamori: Our partners in Little Tokyo noticed an immediate need to support the most vulnerable older adults living in Little Tokyo that now may not have access to other sources of food without putting themselves at risk.

Murase: It was clear that small businesses and seniors, both sectors that are a crucial part of our community life, needed help. All of the leaders wanted to do something for Little Tokyo and each group had something to contribute. Thus, the idea of restaurants preparing and delivering meals to seniors in their homes came about.

Under this new program, Little Tokyo restaurants are paid regular costs for their meals, but seniors are able to buy their dinners for $3 a meal, with the Keiro grant covering the difference. LTSC has had decades of work with seniors in Little Tokyo, as well as staff and volunteers who are already very service-oriented.

Mamoru Hanamaru (left) walks along the counter of Mitsuru Sushi & Grill, checking on Friday’s Little Tokyo Eats delivery.

Rafu: Have you received any feedback from the work so far?

Murase: Many people are grateful that Little Tokyo Eats was launched. One resident told us from a distance, “Taihen ne… minasan arigatou gozaimasu.” (“Isn’t it terrible… Thank you so much, everyone!”).

An LTSC social worker on the project also had a few things to muse on: “Restaurant and business owners and their staff, the volunteers coming into Little Tokyo from all over L.A., the LTSC staff, the community at large and everyone who is staying home (all have) a part to play in this. People’s spirit, humility and willingness to learn something new to help and do whatever they can to get through this time is an opportunity for everyone.

Rafu: You gave a grant to keep this project going. Why is this project important to Keiro and how does it reflect Keiro’s mission?

Kanamori: First and foremost, we were concerned about the hundreds of older adult residents that are at risk of contracting or spreading the virus.

We want to prevent them from going out of their residence to pick up food. And if we can provide our restaurants financial support while being able to feed individuals that are at high risk, we consider that a win-win situation.

Keiro works with dozens of organizations serving the Japanese American and Japanese-speaking communities throughout Southern California; however, Little Tokyo is our home.

Although we are relatively new to Little Tokyo, we understand the historic significance and important role this neighborhood plays in our community. The only way we are going to get through this pandemic is by working together — right now is the time to collaborate to address the growing needs of our community.

Tomoya Yano, Suehiro Cafe manager (left), Anthony Marsh, Little Tokyo Eats community volunteer (center), and Tomoko Suzuki, Suehiro Cafe co-owner (right), package and prepare over 120 orders of grilled mackerel in the dining area of Suehiro Cafe for a Little Tokyo Eats delivery.

Rafu: Is there anything you learned from working on this project during this pandemic?

Murase: I think we have a new appreciation for something we already knew. Little Tokyo is a resilient, compassionate community that is capable of locking arms (of course, not literally) to come together for each other in times of crisis.

This is a 136-year-old neighborhood who has lived through alien land laws, housing discrimination, anti-immigrant and xenophobic attacks, the Great Depression, the turmoil of war and camps, and multiple waves of displacement through redevelopment and gentrification.

If we don’t help each other now, post-COVID-19, who knows what Little Tokyo will be like? I think we all want to do what we can to live up to our shared goal of preserving the best of a community that we all love.

Rafu: As of now, the safer-at-home public order has been extended to May 15. Are there plans to continue this project as long as the mandate is in effect?

Kanamori: As the safer-at-home ordinance extends, we hope that programs like Little Tokyo Eats can continue to serve our most vulnerable older adults, while supporting our local businesses, but it will take everyone to come together to support these efforts. We hope that individuals in our community will continue to support this project by volunteering or making a financial gift to support these efforts.

For information about the Little Tokyo Eats program, contact Margaret Shimada at LTSC, (213) 473-3035.

Photos courtesy of Little Tokyo Eats

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