Program delivers food to populations hit by pandemic

By Ashley Orona

Contributing Writer

WALNUT PARK — A partnership between nonprofit organizations and private health care companies has formed to help address food insecurity among senior citizens and other high-risk populations in Los Angeles County during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The health care group Optum California partnered with Wider Circle, which organizes neighborhood support groups for seniors, and Helping Hands Community, a food delivery nonprofit, to offer a meal delivery service to more than 60,000 Optum patients free of charge in the greater Los Angeles area, including Walnut Park.

The program operates from Long Beach to the San Fernando Valley and makes weekly deliveries of fresh produce, dry goods and canned foods. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated food insecurity among seniors, low-income communities and households where family members have lost jobs. Seniors and those with underlying illnesses are even more at risk, since they are limited in their ability to go to the grocery store.  

Wider Circle personnel said they learned about the extent to which food insecurity is a problem during COVID-19 through their support groups. By partnering with Optum California, the organization can use the health care company’s data to help those enrolled in the food delivery program as quickly as possible.

Longino Barragan Sr., a resident of Burbank, and a Wider Circle recipient and volunteer, used to go to the grocery store himself and prepare his own meals. Barragan, however, is diabetic, which puts him at higher-risk for COVID-19 if he continues to do his own shopping. 

The food delivery program ensures that Barragan gets the nutrients he needs without exposing him to COVID-19. He also benefits socially as a volunteer by making calls to check on members, answer their questions and help resolve any issues with their deliveries. 

“I feel so good helping other people,” Barragan said. “If I can, I try to do it.” 

Around 30% of L.A. County households are food insecure, according to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, and face regular barriers to purchase healthy foods such as fruits, vegetables, lean meats and foods high in fiber. 

Latinos make up half of the county’s population and two-thirds of food insecure households. The Southeast Los Angeles population is predominantly Latino, with Darin Buxbaum, president and chief operating officer at Wider Circle, saying the organization has seen a high concentration of need in the area and has made many deliveries there.

“We’re really grateful to be working with these communities to get food to those in need at this time,” Buxbaum said. “It renews a sense of purpose.”

The program will run through the summer with the possibility of expanding beyond that timeline.