By ANNAKAI HAYAKAWA GESHLIDER
Every weekday, Setsuko Nakama packs a cooler full of meals in her backseat and sets out for Boyle Heights. Inside, foil bento hold nimono (stewed chicken, tofu and vegetables) with sides of kabocha and rice. Nestled beside these are styrofoam cups of cucumber salad and fresh cut strawberries. It’s late morning, and she plans to deliver all 30 boxes in time for lunch.
Nakama, 75, wants everyone to be fed — and knows from decades of working with older adults that aging while living alone can make it tough to obtain and cook adequate food. She’s the executive director of Little Tokyo Senior Nutrition Services, a nonprofit that’s been providing free and discounted meals to local Japanese seniors since 1973.
“Living alone, it’s hard to cook. Receiving food is easier,” said Yasuhiro Mishima, 72, translated from Japanese. His Boyle Heights residence is a short drive over the 4th Street Bridge from Nakama’s office in Little Tokyo.
Mishima has participated in the delivery program for the last two years. His favorite meal? “Absolutely fish,” he smiled. “Whenever there’s fish, it’s always good.”
Luckily for Mishima, the city requires at least one fishy meal per week. Around 60% of the funding for the delivery program comes from the Los Angeles Department of Aging, in an effort to provide nourishing meals to the city’s low-income older adults. The rest comes from community donations. Organizations receiving funding from the city must also include at least one serving of vegetables per meal, plus foods rich in calcium and vitamins C and A.
“The program helps you get a balanced diet — which can be hard to get on your own,” Nakama said.
According to a 2015 survey by Los Angeles County, 23% of Asian American and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders were food insecure — meaning they did not have access to sufficient food — and 11% of AA&NH/PI children lived in communities with poor or fair access to fresh food. Over one in five older adults (age 65 and up) in Boyle Heights lived below the poverty line in 2021, according to the U.S. Census.
While Little Tokyo Nutrition Services serves mostly Nikkei participants, it’s open to anyone; a handful of Latinx residents, including two who are Japanese Peruvian, receive the daily lunch. Fellow neighborhood organizations, like the Mexican American Opportunity Foundation, serve greater populations of older Latinx residents in Boyle Heights, Nakama said. An average of 2.5% of the neighborhood’s residents are Asian and 93% are Latinx, USC’s Price Center for Social Change reports.
Certain participants have been receiving lunches for two decades. On Fridays, some request multiple meals to help get them through the weekend.
The suggested meal donation is $3.50, $2 for low-income participants, or free. The food is prepared by staff and volunteers in the kitchen at Little Tokyo Towers each morning.
While Nakama drives around Boyle Heights and East L.A., volunteers in Little Tokyo deliver 50 lunches per day on foot — with stops at the residential communities Teramachi, Miyako Gardens, Tokyo Villa, and Casa Heiwa.
According to a 2020 study by the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health looking at food insecurity during the pandemic, Asian households were more likely to face transportation issues when purchasing food than other ethnic groups. In addition to dropping off meals, Nakama and volunteers will pick up homebound residents and take them shopping.
Nakama believes around 90% of those she serves are homebound. “If they don’t have this kind of program, they have to go to a facility,” she said. “This is our model: keep them living alone as long as possible.” She also coordinates over 60 caregivers, who visit seniors in their homes to help cook and clean.
Yet loneliness is one of the biggest problems affecting local low-income Nikkei seniors, Nakama said. The increased health problems and physical disabilities that can come with aging make cooking difficult or impossible. On top of this, several adults in the program don’t have access to their own kitchen and bathroom, and share with other residents in their building.
Increasing rents and displacement have strained Boyle Heights’ long-time residents, especially over the last decade. After paying rent, some older adults don’t have much left over.
Lillian Marie Chavez, an older adult who recently joined the lunch program, said she learned about it from a neighbor. After being evicted from her home in Boyle Heights, Chavez has been living in her car. She parks in front of a friend’s home in the neighborhood; one house down is the home where she grew up.
Chavez said she gets food wherever she can. “I’m going to be real grateful for the program,” she said, while signing up in late January. “A meal saves my day.” She added undernourishment is especially difficult because she deals with diabetes, asthma, and emphysema.
“Honestly, I never thought that this would happen to me,” Chavez said. “I struggle day to day; I try to work for my food. I don’t want people to feel sorry for me.” Still, she spoke to the difficulty of sharing her circumstances with the people around her.
“I don’t let (people) know because I’m embarrassed of the situation…but my story can help others,” she said, encouraging people to “reach out, and not be embarrassed…no shame at all. Go and get the help that’s out there.”
Little Tokyo Nutrition Services used to deliver to more people — but the once-thriving Japanese community in Boyle Heights has dwindled.Many Nisei in the neighborhood have passed away, and their children don’t always want to take over family homes, Nakama said — adding that many of these children have moved to the South Bay, Montebello, and other states.
Still, the need for accessible culturally appropriate meals is greater than Little Tokyo Nutrition Services can serve. Nakama receives frequent calls from Japanese people around L.A., asking if family members or neighbors can join the program. Calls come from San Gabriel, Lincoln Park, Koreatown, and the South Bay. But because her organization receives funding only to serve Little Tokyo, Boyle Heights and East L.A., she has to turn them down.
“Food that is relevant to one’s culture often helps one thrive,” said Hoa Nguyen, in a video produced by PBS. Nguyen is the director of programs at the Food Group, a food access nonprofit based in the Midwest. “Food is often medicine. Food that you’re able to eat that is connected to your ancestors, and culture — helps ground people.”
“Being able to find food that feels familiar, makes you also feel like you’re able to belong — belong in your home, belong in your community,” Nguyen added. “Oftentimes, a lot of communities are really feeling isolated for just a whole host of reasons — and so being able to center on food that is culturally appropriate and relevant also helps with a lot of community stability.”
Nakama’s daily trek is not over yet. After the drive back to Little Tokyo, she stops by Little Tokyo Towers to chat with staff and volunteers, then heads to the office for paperwork. She then walks 30 minutes to Union Station, where she embarks on a nearly 2½-hour train ride home. The following day she’ll be back, to deliver the next round of lunches. An older adult herself, Nakama tirelessly delivers food despite her lengthy commute.
As for the future, she hopes the delivery program can serve a greater variety of Japanese cooking. To keep food from going bad, the Department of Aging requires meals to be delivered in under two hours — which makes it risky to deliver fresh fish options like chirashi, norimaki, and other sushi. “If we could provide these, the elderly would be more happy,” said Nakama.
She also wants to broaden the program to deliver to people with disabilities, not only older adults.
To sign up for the lunch delivery with Little Tokyo Nutrition Services, email firstname.lastname@example.org. You must be over 60 years old and live in Little Tokyo, Boyle Heights, or East L.A.
Photos by ANNAKAI HAYAKAWA GESHLIDER
This article was written with the support of a journalism fellowship from The Gerontological Society of America, The Journalists Network on Generations and AARP.