Three days each week in Koreatown, you’ll see a pack of cyclists wearing overstuffed backpacks and zipping toward people living on the streets. They belong to Bicycle Meals, a local mutual aid group that’s been serving the neighborhood’s unhoused residents since August 2020.
Pak initially dragged his feet on this venture though. He says he made excuses, such as being too busy.
“I would tell my friends all the time: I want to do something, but I don't know what it was [sic]. They just really called me out and said, ‘Hey, you can always make time. Start it next week.’”
That weekend, he thought of the name and made dozens of meals in his apartment to deliver. He put up a flier on Monday on Instagram, not thinking much of it. The following Friday, 20 strangers rolled up to his apartment, ready to help.
“It was surprising to me,” Pak says. “It's like, you're dropping everything you have, or maybe you have some free time, just to help out. I'm still shocked every day. I'm really grateful, I’ve met incredible people.”
Pak has met graphic designers, audio producers, and former chefs. During the pandemic, he and volunteers prepared meals in their respective households to distribute the following day.
Sandwiches, fruit, snacks, masks, and hand sanitizer typically fill the bags.
“I have a studio apartment, and it takes up most of the room on the floor, just putting all the bags out and stuff,” says co-founder Jacob Halpern.
They’ve since recently moved into the basement of Immanuel Presbyterian Church, making meal prep a more engaging experience as pandemic regulations loosen.
“This opens the door for more food being able to be prepped a lot quicker, and different activities we could do together. And really learn more about each other and grow from there.”
The in-person packing is like a conveyor belt. Someone opens a brown paper bag, passes it to another person who puts in a water bottle and fruit. Another person puts in a sandwich. A couple of others cut up the sandwiches.
The day after meal prep, cyclists gather at Immanuel Presbyterian around 11 a.m. They load up the meals into their backpacks.
They scatter into different directions to cover as much of Koreatown as possible, heading toward encampments and anyone on the streets who could use a meal.
During the pandemic, volunteers had much more availability, so they scaled up from one day a week to two, then three (Fridays, Saturdays, and Mondays).
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But almost a year into the operation now, strain is beginning to show. Many volunteers are back to their respective offices as workplaces reopen. One recent Monday saw just two cyclists show up to volunteer.
“We all have full-time jobs,” Pak says. “And as things get back to normal with society, everyone goes back to work. It's going to be tough to do weekdays. It's just figuring it out and pivoting and seeing what our volunteers can do. We're just rolling with the punches.”
Additionally, this venture is largely self-funded. While some local businesses contribute food when they can, that’s not a constant. Everything, from the paper bags to snacks to gloves, is coming mostly out of the group’s pockets.
“Just talking with everyone in long-term wise [sic], I don't think that's feasible and possible for us to do,” Pak says. “So it’s about partnering with other people and organizations that are here and asking for help. And we have a lot of help here [in Koreatown].”
Pak hopes other organizations can help them do more, like help find jobs and housing for those in need.
Until that day comes, you’ll still see a Bicycle Meals cyclist zipping by, delivering food to unhoused people in the neighborhood, every Friday, Saturday, and Monday.