GUADALUPE MORALES WAS SCARED. She was pregnant and knew she needed prenatal care, but she didn’t have health insurance and wasn’t sure where to go.

“I felt lost,” Morales remembers. “I was a teenage mom, and I was a single mom, so it was very difficult. I was struggling.”

She didn’t know what to do, until a friend told her about the nonprofit Venice Family Clinic. Since 1970, the Clinic has provided high-quality health care — including primary medical care, dental care and behavioral health services — at low or no cost to people in need. The Clinic began at a borrowed dental office after business hours, and the volunteer doctors saw only about a dozen patients at first.

Guadalupe Morales
Rozette Rago
Guadalupe Morales, general manager of UCLA’s Bruin Plate, received prenatal care at Venice Family Clinic more than 30 years ago. “The Clinic gave me so much when I was going through my pregnancy,” she says.

Today, Venice Family Clinic has become an invaluable community resource, with 14 locations that serve more than 27,000 patients around Los Angeles. It has also expanded to a staff of 400 people and more than 1,400 volunteers.

“The Clinic gave me so much when I was going through my pregnancy,” says Morales, whose son received pediatric care there until he was 7. “Given everything the Clinic did for me, I wanted to give back.”

Now, more than three decades later, Morales has that opportunity. As the general manager of UCLA’s Bruin Plate, she oversees the UCLA–Venice Family Clinic Emergency Food Partnership, which delivers thousands of meals every day to patients at the Clinic that helped her years ago.

A Perfect Partnership

The idea for the UCLA–Venice Family Clinic Emergency Food Partnership began when Administrative Vice Chancellor Michael Beck reached out to Dr. Wendelin Slusser, the associate vice provost for the Semel Healthy Campus Initiative Center at UCLA. He told her that there would be fewer students coming back to campus in the fall and asked if there were ways the UCLA Dining staff could apply their skills to help both UCLA and the Los Angeles community it has called home for the past 101 years. Slusser immediately thought about the Clinic, where she worked for almost 20 years and helped start its pediatric training program.

Since 1978, physicians from the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, as well as medical students and premedical undergraduates, have volunteered at the Clinic. UCLA hospitals also donate radiology, laboratory, surgical, emergency and other clinical services.

“UCLA’s partnership with Venice Family Clinic really demonstrates how much UCLA can do for the broader community in ways that are so material and so immediate,” Slusser says. “Part of UCLA’s mission is service, and even though UCLA is also under great stress during the pandemic, we’re not forgetting other people.”

Slusser began to think about how UCLA’s resources and talent could help the families at the Clinic. She then called Elizabeth Benson Forer, the Clinic’s CEO and executive director, and told her: “We’ve got this first-class dining team. And wouldn’t that be amazing if we could have them deliver meals since you’ve got this great distribution system going for all your patients?”

Rozette Rago
UCLA Dining workers unload trays of food at Venice Family Clinic’s Santa Monica location. About 13,000 meals are distributed every week.

It turns out the stars were aligned: Forer had just spoken with an anonymous donor who was interested in helping to address food insecurity.

“The donor provided a really generous gift, so we could start the emergency food program,” Forer says. “I realized how fast we had to move. People are running out of money. And the next round of federal money isn’t here yet. People are hungry. They’re losing their jobs. They’re losing their housing. We’re hoping that by replacing the cost of food in their budgets, they can have some money to keep paying the rent. It’s getting really hard.”

After a few trial runs at the end of September, UCLA Dining started distributing 500 meals a day to the Clinic’s patients. The following week, it was 1,000. Then 2,000. By November, UCLA Dining was preparing between 2,000 and 3,000 meals a day — about 13,000 meals a week — for people in need, using no tuition funds, thanks to the donation to the Clinic that paid for the food.

 

“UCLA’s partnership with Venice Family Clinic really demonstrates how much UCLA can do for the broader community.”

— Dr. Wendelin Slusser, associate vice provost for the Semel Healthy Campus Initiative Center at UCLA

 

“UCLA has been amazing,” Forer says. “They’re good at their logistics, and we’re good with our logistics, so the teams have come together with big smiles. We work well together.”

UCLA Chancellor Gene Block commended the collaboration for its ingenuity.

“I’m exceedingly proud of this partnership and the ways in which UCLA staff has stepped up to meet the challenges of this moment,” Chancellor Block says. “Not only does it highlight our commitment to serving the community, but it also shows the resourcefulness and creativity of Bruins.”

Quality Cuisine

Before the pandemic, UCLA Dining prepared about 32,000 meals a day. But since the transition to remote learning, the residence halls have only 5% occupancy, and the dining staff now prepares about 1,200 meals for students every day.

“It was one of those shocks to the system,” says Jeff Viviano, executive chef at Bruin Plate. “You’re always, go, go go. And then it was … stop.”

Although most of the eateries on the Hill are closed, UCLA made a commitment to not have any pandemic-related layoffs through June 2021. Therefore, campus leaders began to think about how the talented chefs and dining staff could help the broader Los Angeles community, keeping the university’s mission of service top of mind.

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A UCLA Dining staff member adds sauce to a dish of Spanish rice and chipotle chicken. It’s one of the dishes that will be distributed at Venice Family Clinic later that day.

“UCLA is not only a great institution for learning, but it cares about the community,” says Joey Martin, senior executive chef of UCLA Housing and Hospitality. “The UCLA Dining staff put a lot of heart and soul into the Venice Family Clinic program to make sure that we’re not only providing meals to people who need nourishment, but they’re also really good.”

By 6 a.m. workers have already started their shifts, packaging the meals that will be distributed at the Clinic, as well as preparing the food for the following day’s delivery. On this morning, two chefs place pieces of raw chicken, which had been marinating in large containers of orange sauce, on stainless steel trays in preparation for cooking. Another chef sprinkles seasoning on thick cuts of beef before placing them on an open grill, as tall flames dance up through the black cast-iron grate. Toward the back of the kitchen, two staff members scoop Spanish rice and chipotle chicken into plastic containers, topping them off with freshly made pico de gallo — the diced red tomatoes, chopped white onions and green cilantro leaves adding a burst of color to that day’s dish.

 

“The UCLA Dining staff put a lot of heart and soul into the Venice Family Clinic program.” — Joey Martin, senior executive chef of UCLA Housing and Hospitality

 

Many of these meals are based on tried-and-true Bruin Plate recipes and feature organic, sustainable ingredients. In fact, the dining hall’s dishes are so popular that the Bruin Plate Cookbook, which was released in 2018, is now sold out.

“We’re making everything in house,” says Viviano. “There’s 5 ounces of protein, 5 ounces of vegetables and 5 ounces of starch per meal, so the patients are getting almost a pound of food per meal. We’re making sure everything looks presentable, wiping the sides of the plastic containers. We don’t want any detail missed. It’s a big symphony.”

That attention to detail is important to Viviano. “I want these people to open up their containers and be like, ‘Wow. Look at what we’re getting.’ It’s UCLA’s recipes, and we have a standard to uphold. I want it to be the best.”

This partnership with the Clinic is one of the many ways in which UCLA Dining helps address food insecurity. For example, a new program, supported by UCLA Veteran Affairs Relations and community partner Village for Vets, provides hundreds of meals per week to veterans. Dining also works with UCLA’s Economic Crisis Response Team to address food insecurity on campus with solutions such as meal vouchers. It’s all part of UCLA Dining’s mission to partner with on- and off-campus organizations to alleviate food insecurity among students, veterans and the community at large.

Rigoberto Garcia, the Clinic’s director of health education, helps incorporate food and nutrition into a patient’s overall health care.
Rozette Rago
Rigoberto Garcia, the Clinic’s director of health education, helps incorporate food and nutrition into a patient’s overall health care.

Food as Medicine

When the pandemic began, the Clinic had to quickly move most of its services to telehealth, including pediatrics, general adult care and well-child care. Other services, such as dental and acupuncture, were closed. For Rigoberto Garcia, the Clinic’s director of health education, his whole world was turned upside down.

“We usually do a lot of face-to-face interactions, group education classes, one-on-one education classes,” he says. “When the pandemic hit, we went from providing all of these services and being at the top of our game to having zero patient interaction.”

It was a sink-or-swim moment, and the Clinic’s staff adapted quickly, focusing on what they could do to meet patients’ needs.

One major problem is food insecurity, which has been exacerbated by the pandemic. In fall 2019, the Clinic started a free food market, offering fresh fruits and vegetables, as part of its mission to incorporate food and nutrition into a patient’s overall health care.

“We started to hear about how our free food market was making a difference in people’s lives,” Garcia says. “And as we’re talking about food as medicine, helping patients understand nutrition and how to eat healthy, we started to ask, ‘What else could we do?’ And that’s where the partnership with UCLA came in, providing prepared meals to our patients.”

UCLA Dining and Venice Family Clinic workers prepare for the day’s food distribution at the Clinic’s center in Santa Monica.
Rozette Rago
UCLA Dining and Venice Family Clinic workers prepare for the day’s food distribution at the Clinic’s center in Santa Monica.

On a Tuesday morning in late October, about a dozen people have gathered outside the Clinic’s Simms/Mann Health and Wellness Center in Santa Monica. The distribution officially begins at 8 a.m., but these patients — some elderly with wheeled carts, others with young children — have shown up early, wearing masks and staying 6 feet apart along the Clinic’s walkway. When it’s time, the patients each approach the outdoor table, where there are stacks of UCLA’s packaged meals, as well as fresh bread from the campus bakery — an extra treat for that day’s food delivery. Venice Family Clinic staff and volunteers greet each patient, check their names on the sign-up list and hand them a reusable grocery bag, which is filled to the brim with containers of delicious food, such as steamed fish with Veracruz salsa, roasted Brussels sprouts, and grilled corn with cilantro roasted-garlic butter and cotija cheese. The patients all smile at the bounty, placing the bags securely in their carts or carefully carrying them to their cars. Although the bags are made of a sturdy fabric, they seem vulnerable to the food’s significant heft.

Robert Chen says he has “fewer things to worry about” because of Venice Family Clinic’s assistance.
Rozette Rago
Robert Chen says he has “fewer things to worry about” because of Venice Family Clinic’s assistance.

There’s also a drive-through option, in which the packed bags are handed to patients in their cars. Since people must sign up ahead of time for the meals, the Clinic’s workers know how much food should be packaged in each bag, and the lines move quickly.

“There was a day I was distributing food, and a couple came up to us,” Forer remembers. “They hadn’t signed up, but we had enough food so that we could give them each four meals for the week. And I remember the relief on their faces. The minute we said, ‘We have food for you,’ their faces lit up. They were so excited. And we see that all the time — the weight has been taken away, the worry.”

Robert Chen, a Venice Family Clinic patient, similarly feels the worry. Because of the pandemic, he lost his job at a travel agency, which has now shuttered. “The pandemic has destroyed a lot,” he says. “It makes me feel very stressed.” Chen, his wife and their then-newborn baby have been assisted by Venice Family Clinic, where a case manager helps them resolve different kinds of problems and find resources.

“With this kind of community service, we have fewer things to worry about. And I come here every week for the food. It’s very nice,” Chen says with a smile.

A Chance to Give Back

All these years later, that life-altering sense of community still resonates with Morales, who continues to feel an immense amount of gratitude for the care she received at the Clinic.

“When I found out that I was going to be part of this program, it was great because I feel like I’m giving back,” she says. “With this program, I get a chance to give it back and pay it forward.”

Rozette Rago
Venice Family Clinic patient Virginia Gomez says her daughter enjoys the meals and is open to trying new vegetables.

Today, Morales keeps the emergency food program running smoothly, from ordering the necessary produce and packaging to coordinating the transportation to the Clinic’s locations.

“I go to all the deliveries,” she says enthusiastically. “I haven’t missed any of them.” She enjoys seeing the smiles on people’s faces when they receive the meals, which are all well-balanced and nutritious.

When she first went back to the Clinic for a food delivery, she remembers feeling the chills. “It brought back so many memories,” Morales says. “I got a little teary-eyed, because they did so much for me back then. And to be able to pay it forward now is really priceless to me.”