The line snaked around the block on a recent Sunday afternoon as Angelenos on foot and in their cars waited to receive grocery bags brimming with squash and tomatoes, multicolored carrots and loaves of fresh-baked bread from two dozen volunteers, most of them young.
The food giveaway took place under makeshift tents set up in the parking lot of the Wood Cafe in Culver City, Calif., which has been closed for business since early in the pandemic. Demetrios Mavromichalis, its owner, teamed up with Natalie Flores, an urban farmer and educator, to use the restaurant to store and distribute quality surplus organic and seasonal produce collected from local farmers’ markets and grocery stores, as well as herb and vegetable seedlings from Ms. Flores’s gardens to help people grow their own food.
They served over a thousand people, a number that has been growing weekly since the pandemic began. Mr. Mavromichalis credits the program’s success to the “dream team” of high school and college-age volunteers.
“These amazing young kids are running the whole show,” he said. “We sit back and they just take over. They have a better idea of how to distribute the food, how to keep the line moving, how to distance people. Their energy propels it; they are not being micromanaged with adults telling them what to do.”
Mr. Mavromichalis’s 19-year-old son, Nikolaos, was recently appointed secretary of Nourish LA, the group formed to manage the enterprise.
“It’s just a thrill to see my neighbors again,” he said. “It not like a ‘handout of food to the needy,’’’ he said, explaining that they do not feel that they are “doing charity,” but rather sharing food with neighbors and friends. “I want this to be the coolest, most fun thing that you can do, like a party.”
Despite the upbeat spirit of the volunteers, the situation faced by many of the families that they serve remains grim. A perfect storm of job loss, rising food prices and school closings, and the loss of subsidized school meals, has resulted in “a hidden epidemic of hunger in America” said Crystal FitzSimons, a director with the Food Research and Action Center.
As of April, food insecurity in the United States had doubled over all and tripled among households with children over pre-pandemic levels, according to a report published by the Northwestern University Institute for Policy Research based on data in the U.S. Census Household Pulse Survey.
The institute’s director, Diane Schanzenbach, said that the latest available figures, released in the middle of July, show that things have gotten a bit worse since April.
This crisis has become palpable for 14-year-old Maccabee Veder, who volunteers weekly at the Wood Cafe. “In the cars sometimes there are little children. It’s sad to see how the pandemic has affected them and that they don’t have enough food,” she said. “Once I even recognized someone from my class.”
Maccabee’s contribution this Sunday was placing a long-stemmed flower in each food bag. She was joined by 9-year-old Kalea Jade, who said, “I don’t just give food. I help to spread happiness and kindness.”
Research shows that volunteering has a variety of benefits, including enhancing empathy, lowering the risk of depression, instilling a sense of purpose, and even improving one’s physical health. Of special relevance during the Covid-19 crisis, volunteering is also one of the best way to combat feelings of social isolation.
At a time of rising political polarization, reaching out to serve others can renew one’s sense of shared national identity and purpose, says the Harvard developmental psychologist Richard Weissbourd, the director of the Making Caring Common Project, an organization that promotes civic engagement in the young.
“We have a lot of Americans who are vulnerable and suffering right now,” he said. “To the extent that we are all Americans, each one of us is responsible for all of us, that’s an attitude that we want to cultivate in young people.”
Dr. Weissbourd argues that service expands one’s circle of concern beyond family and friends to “people who are different from you, who you would not ordinarily meet.” But he adds the proviso that one should serve others without condescension.
“What we worry about some with our work with high school students is that service takes the form of doing for others rather than doing with them, and it can become patronizing,” Dr. Weissbourd said. “There needs to be a reciprocal relationship where you are learning from them and receiving from them as well.”
The Coronavirus Outbreak ›
Frequently Asked Questions
Updated August 27, 2020
What should I consider when choosing a mask?
- There are a few basic things to consider. Does it have at least two layers? Good. If you hold it up to the light, can you see through it? Bad. Can you blow a candle out through your mask? Bad. Do you feel mostly OK wearing it for hours at a time? Good. The most important thing, after finding a mask that fits well without gapping, is to find a mask that you will wear. Spend some time picking out your mask, and find something that works with your personal style. You should be wearing it whenever you’re out in public for the foreseeable future. Read more: What’s the Best Material for a Mask?
What are the symptoms of coronavirus?
- In the beginning, the coronavirus seemed like it was primarily a respiratory illness — many patients had fever and chills, were weak and tired, and coughed a lot, though some people don’t show many symptoms at all. Those who seemed sickest had pneumonia or acute respiratory distress syndrome and received supplemental oxygen. By now, doctors have identified many more symptoms and syndromes. In April, the C.D.C. added to the list of early signs sore throat, fever, chills and muscle aches. Gastrointestinal upset, such as diarrhea and nausea, has also been observed. Another telltale sign of infection may be a sudden, profound diminution of one’s sense of smell and taste. Teenagers and young adults in some cases have developed painful red and purple lesions on their fingers and toes — nicknamed “Covid toe” — but few other serious symptoms.
Why does standing six feet away from others help?
- The coronavirus spreads primarily through droplets from your mouth and nose, especially when you cough or sneeze. The C.D.C., one of the organizations using that measure, bases its recommendation of six feet on the idea that most large droplets that people expel when they cough or sneeze will fall to the ground within six feet. But six feet has never been a magic number that guarantees complete protection. Sneezes, for instance, can launch droplets a lot farther than six feet, according to a recent study. It’s a rule of thumb: You should be safest standing six feet apart outside, especially when it’s windy. But keep a mask on at all times, even when you think you’re far enough apart.
I have antibodies. Am I now immune?
- As of right now, that seems likely, for at least several months. There have been frightening accounts of people suffering what seems to be a second bout of Covid-19. But experts say these patients may have a drawn-out course of infection, with the virus taking a slow toll weeks to months after initial exposure. People infected with the coronavirus typically produce immune molecules called antibodies, which are protective proteins made in response to an infection. These antibodies may last in the body only two to three months, which may seem worrisome, but that’s perfectly normal after an acute infection subsides, said Dr. Michael Mina, an immunologist at Harvard University. It may be possible to get the coronavirus again, but it’s highly unlikely that it would be possible in a short window of time from initial infection or make people sicker the second time.
I’m a small-business owner. Can I get relief?
- The stimulus bills enacted in March offer help for the millions of American small businesses. Those eligible for aid are businesses and nonprofit organizations with fewer than 500 workers, including sole proprietorships, independent contractors and freelancers. Some larger companies in some industries are also eligible. The help being offered, which is being managed by the Small Business Administration, includes the Paycheck Protection Program and the Economic Injury Disaster Loan program. But lots of folks have not yet seen payouts. Even those who have received help are confused: The rules are draconian, and some are stuck sitting on money they don’t know how to use. Many small-business owners are getting less than they expected or not hearing anything at all.
What are my rights if I am worried about going back to work?
The opportunities for these kinds of interactions have diminished at a time when social distancing requirements limit our contact with others. But the restrictions have not prevented some young people from devising indirect ways to help.
When sports were canceled at Acalanes High School in the San Francisco Bay Area because of the pandemic, Owen Estee called his friend Zach Appel to suggest that they offer lacrosse lessons to interested teens and donate their fees to the White Pony Express, a local group that delivers food to community organizations that serve the hungry. Zach thought of his grandmother, who was afraid to leave her house and needed people to go out and get her food. “I realized how many people are like that, and maybe we can help them out,” he said.
The boys, both 15, started Lacrosse Against Hunger, which has raised over $3,000 so far. “After the pandemic, we want to get the rest of our team involved and start a lacrosse camp to continue raising money to buy food,” Owen said.
In Columbus, Ohio, Aggie Barrington, age 9, visited a homeless shelter with her mother. The child was upset to see that the people there were not joining to eat hot meals together, as they had done before the pandemic. “I said, ‘Mom, can we please help,’” Aggie recalled. Over dinner that night, the family talked it over and decided to make sack lunches and deliver them to the shelter. Aggie shared their idea in a video appeal posted on social media.
Over 500 families joined in and 12,000 lunches have been delivered to the shelter since March, an effort that is being coordinated by the Columbus-based nonprofit Seeds of Caring.
“Maybe we’re young, but we can still be powerful even though some adults think that we can’t,” Aggie said. “Kids are novices about the way the world works,” her mother, Molly Barrington, added. “But they have tremendous hearts full of passion and compassion to serve others. We adults need to recapture that.”
The future of our democracy may depend on restoring this ethic of mutual caring, says James Youniss, emeritus professor of psychology at the Catholic University of America in Washington. He participated in a 2007 study that showed that students who engaged in service projects in high school volunteered more often and voted in higher numbers later in life.
Dr. Youniss said he wished more schools had well-designed mandatory service requirements to help educate young people about the needs in their communities and instill in them a lifelong habit of becoming engaged.
“There’s something bigger than themselves out there,” he said. “It’s not just about my getting into a good college — it’s what I can be as a person, what I can contribute.”