By Alyssa Shapiro
Food is love—that message is clear in the work being done by LaRayia Gaston, activist and founder of Lunch On Me, which feeds 10,000 organic, plant-based meals to the homeless each month. She’s also the founder of LaRayia’s Bodega, an organic vegan/vegetarian dollar store located in Los Angeles’s Westlake neighborhood. There, LaRayia and her team serve home-cooked meals and cold-pressed juices to the community for five dollars, and groceries are all priced at one dollar. She’s making healthy meals—a major building block of a healthy life—accessible to those who might not be able to afford them otherwise.
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Alyssa Shapiro: Can you explain the connection between LaRayia’s Bodega and Lunch On Me?
LaRayia Gaston: Lunch On Me was our first program for Skid Row where we bring organic food and holistic healing to the homeless community and foster care community. LaRayia’s Bodega, La Bodega, is our initiative to bring access to healthy food for everyone. When we started Lunch On Me, it was all about foster youth and the homeless community, but a lot of people don’t realize that one in six Americans goes home to an empty fridge, and I also wanted to address that by making food accessible, understanding that the average person that lives on food stamps spends $3 a day, and no one can afford healthy food, even if they wanted to. It’s a privilege.
I feel like love is my protest. Being an activist, it’s important that we solve problems, and our issues are solvable. The Bodega is an answer to people having access to healthy food, being able to have a healthy lifestyle. Everyone understands the importance of a plant-based meal, but they don’t understand how inaccessible it is. I wanted to make sure people had a chance to eat, no matter what their circumstance was, and what their budget was. I just wanted to support people and [end] hunger in America, so I created this, which is food for everyone. Love is my protest, access is my protest, nourishment is my protest. And that’s why I created this: it’s a safe space for everyone to have access to healthy food, and be introduced to a plant-based lifestyle.
Alyssa: I know that you started by feeding people—you worked in food service, and you’d bring leftovers—
LaRayia: Yes, my uncle owned a restaurant. I was 14 years old when I first started working, and I saw food waste firsthand. I read statistics that 40% of food never even reaches the table in America, and I wasn’t shocked because I’d seen it. One day I was throwing away food and a man was digging in the trash can, and that was a problem I could solve immediately, and that’s where it all started. It was the catalyst, and from there, Lunch On Me grew. Hunger and waste shouldn’t be in the same place—it doesn’t make sense to me. That’s why I look at it as a problem that’s solvable.
Alyssa: What was that interaction like?
LaRayia: That was the first person who I ever spoke to who was homeless, but I’ve always noticed them. There was never a moment they were invisible to me. I saw someone suffering and I looked for a solution. It started with a hello, it started with concerning myself with a community that was in need, recognizing their pain. If I see them at a coffee shop, I invite them in with me. That’s just been my walk. It’s a small gesture that has a ripple effect. I’ve fed thousands and thousands of people in my life, almost a quarter million people to date, and that just comes from every day, not ignoring it.
Alyssa: It really sparked the direction of your life. I know you started Lunch On Me by bringing meals with your friends to Skid Row. As it grew I understand you were able to talk to people in the food industry and circumvent what would have otherwise been waste. That must have been difficult to try to get that food and redirect it. Can you talk about what went into that?
LaRayia: Anytime you’re a visionary, you see the vision first. It feels like you’re kinda selling something. It takes a fight. The fight was for people to be seen; it was fighting the resistance to help. What I’ve learned is that people have energy toward the resistance of lending a hand, and it was fighting that, saying, but why can’t we help? What in you thinks it’s ok that someone can be hungry, and we waste like we do?
I was having conversations with people’s hearts. I was humanizing things. It wasn’t about blueprints, it wasn’t about structures, it was, do you want to help someone in need who you can help? What we did was unorthodox because I tapped into people’s hearts by having a real conversation. I wasn’t going to take ‘no’ for an answer. I was reminding people what they forgot to remember: that we all need each other, and we can help each other. We’re more powerful than we think, and it starts with small gestures. It starts with saying yes.
Alyssa: Now do you have a direct line with certain restaurants and food companies?
LaRayia: People create barriers in front of their hearts; I feel I was dealing with a heart issue, getting them tapped back into wanting to help. When you have a vision without a point of reference, it requires a lot of soul and vulnerability. I cried in meetings because I couldn’t help it. I knew how fragile life is, and that if I didn’t help, people would go hungry. People wouldn’t have health. Food is connected to our health, to our emotions, and how we approach life. Now, people want to help. People understand the vision now, fully.
Alyssa: Do you have a personal connection to homelessness? I understand you spent time on Skid Row. What led to that?
LaRayia: We’re going into post-production for a documentary… I spent 43 days in a tent on Skid Row, consecutive days, straight. I wanted to understand it through a first-person experience. I understand things deeply, but I also recognize I’m still a witness. You can’t be an expert until you walk in those shoes and understand it. So I had to go hungry, I ate bad food, I ate rotten bread. That was difficult. I’ve seen cop brutality, I’ve seen people hurt.
Alyssa: That must have been really difficult to make the choice to live that.
LaRayia: It was one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done. There’s not anything I’m not willing to experience so I can be of more service. It was almost like a personal pilgrimage. I already knew that people were suffering, but I got to see how people still show up. They might be half-broken, but they still believe in humanity. It made me fight differently. It made me stand up and speak from a place of conviction because then I knew what it was like to feel unstable and unsafe, and exposed. You stay in a tent, a zipper keeps you from the world. That’s painful. And then you’re hungry every day. The society we’ve created is not built on generosity, on showing up for each other, and people are dependent on that for resources. It’s difficult when what you have is in the hands of someone who might not be giving. I cried and I smiled every day. I try not to get emotional, but it’s hard.
Alyssa: What do you think that the biggest misconception is about homelessness?
LaRayia: There are so many misconceptions about homelessness. Most people don’t interact with the homeless community. What I hear most about homelessness is that they’re dangerous, that they’re lazy, that they’re on drugs. I hear double standards. A homeless man can have a beer and he doesn’t deserve it after a hard life? But then CEOs I know are going home to have a glass of wine, and that’s celebrated, that’s the finer things in life... The judgment, the lack of understanding… there’s a conviction in people’s stance on strangers.
People create stories about people’s lives, and they couldn’t be more far from the truth. 50% of foster kids become homeless within six months of turning 18—kids that never had a chance! They become homeless adults because no one has ever helped them, and they’re told they’re lazy. But they’ve never been given an opportunity.
I don’t believe you can love anything you don’t understand, but I don’t think you can understand it if you don’t put forth effort. That effort comes from how you value someone. We did not get here, to this homeless crisis, because of caring.
Alyssa: Can you tell me about the connection you’ve found between healthy food and love. Is that about energy and intention?
LaRayia: Food is love. I don’t care what culture you come from. If you understand agriculture, if you understand the labor of love that goes into food, that’s why it’s an expression of love. There’s time involved. There’s energy involved.
One day, a man whose name is Scotty, he’s on Skid Row, he said to me, “I can tell how someone feels about me by the plate they serve me. And sometimes I feel people hate us.” And it’s true that love is in the details. The little things. The plate I make on Skid Row is the plate I make for my family at Christmas. There’s no difference, because it’s all love. I don’t think one person is more deserving than another. I don’t reserve my love for my family only, it’s for the world, and humanity.
That started with food, for us. It’s bigger than that. It’s love without reason. That’s our slogan, because love gives upon itself, and that’s why food is our medium. Food is love. It’s always been about that.
Alyssa: Is the People’s Free Food Program something you were inspired by?
LaRayia: Lunch On Me was definitely inspired by the Black Panthers. My father made me understand the history, growing up. They introduced free food programs for kids. That inspired me because it was innovative and community-based. The most radical, impactful things in society have happened through human unity. I thought, if they can give free food to kids, so can I. It made sense. It’s a solvable problem: food waste, food redistribution, and having so many resources in America that we just don’t use properly.
The Black Panthers were amazing. The other day, a Black Panther walked in here—the riots actually started across the street, this area is a part of the history of America. So a community coming together to say, we will take things into our own hands and we will take care of our children collectively, that is beautiful! Lunch On Me is an ode to the Black Panthers, as a woman of color navigating America, 100%. I’m all about it. It makes me excited to think about the love that they had.
Alyssa: A lot of your energy is spent on others—is there anything that you do when you feel like you need to get grounded or connect with yourself? What brings you back to that space?
LaRayia: I meditate. I check in with myself before I check in with the world. I understand that there’s a lot of energy in the work that we do. I never feel depleted because I start with me. I don’t require much time, I’ve learned that about myself, but I do require my mornings. I require coffee. I require sage and palo santo in the morning. And I talk to myself; I talk to my heart and I’m like, What’s up! Are you good? Is everything ok? And I find out my intentions for the day. What I usually say to myself is, you know, god/universe/spirit, whatever you want to call it, Lead me where I may go. I’m a collaborator. I always ask that I stay transparent in most encounters and obstacles, and that I handle things in grace and honesty. And that I am not nice, but fair. And I remind the people I love how much I love them.
Alyssa: What makes life beautiful to you?
LaRayia: Breathing and existing. Crashing down here. The mystery of life is beautiful. To not know what happens in between birth and death, to not know where you go from here. We have ideas, but to not truly know… These moments might be fleeting, so to be in the moment is beautiful. No attachment, no idea of what life should be. To be okay with that, to be okay with not having all the answers. I think it’s liberating. If you can find that space every day, life will be so beautiful to you. Every breath is meditative, because when you have peace that the next one might not come, and can be present, that is beautiful.
Photographed and directed by Alex Kenealy