Boyle Heights nonprofit feeds undocumented restaurant workers during pandemic Thanksgiving

Othón Nolasco (left) and Damián Diaz (right) are two of the co-founders of the nonprofit No Us Without You. Their organization has been helping undocumented restaurant workers facing food insecurity since the early days of the coronavirus pandemic. They began with a goal of feeding 30 families a week. They’re currently providing a week’s worth of meals to more than 1,300 families. Photo by Mel Castro.

As many people prepare for a Thanksgiving like none other, thousands of Californians aren’t sure if they’ll be enjoying the traditional turkey with all the fixings. COVID-19 has cost livelihoods, shuttered businesses, and left a lot of people not knowing where they’ll get their next meal — even restaurant workers. 

From the early days of the pandemic, the nonprofit No Us Without You has been helping undocumented restaurant employees.

In April, when KCRW first spoke with them, they were feeding around 160 families. Now they’re serving more than 1,300.

In the run-up to Thanksgiving, one of the organization’s co-founders, Othón Nolasco, says they’ve been particularly busy. On November 14, No Us Without You asked their Instagram followers for donations, so they could provide all the families they serve with a turkey dinner for the holiday.

“I’m very proud and happy to say that yes, we were able to meet our goal,” says Nolasco. “For $20, we were able to give everyone a 14 - 16 pound hen turkey.”

According to Nolasco, handing out all of those birds was a lot of work.

“The past few days have been very intense,” Nolasco says with a smile in his voice. “We’ve focused our energies on condensing our work week into one day, so that we could distribute to all 1,300 families in our program and give our volunteer staff time off at home.” 

Nolasco and his organization have roots in Boyle Heights, but he and his team are new to the nonprofit world. Before COVID, they were involved with bars and nightlife.

“My partner Damián Diaz and I founded Va’La Hospitality, a bar consulting group, back in 2017,” Nolasco says. “Up until March, when COVID-19 shut down Los Angeles, we were enjoying a pretty good life. And the week of March 19, our world kind of shattered. We’re on unemployment now like most people in the restaurant industry, and so we pivoted.”

The watering hole and cocktail whizzes decided to start a 501c3.

“No Us Without You was founded out of frustration and anger,” Nolasco recalls. “Back when the shutdown happened, we noticed a lot of GoFundMes were popping up for the front of the house, the bartenders, the waiters — everyone you interact with at restaurants and bars. We noticed very quickly that no one was really paying attention to the back of the house, the dishwashers, the line cooks, the prep cooks.”

That’s no accident, if you ask Nolasco.

“It’s really just emblematic of the fact that a very high percentage of back-of-house staff are undocumented,” he says. “We used to think that it was 30 to maybe 35% undocumented back-of-the-house staff. In the past several months, talking to friends who are chefs, owners, and general managers at various restaurants, it’s closer to 75 to 90%.”

Nolasco is quick to point out these employees aren’t enjoying some beneficial, off-the-books arrangement.

“The families in our program, they’re paying every week via payroll taxes, they’re paying into unemployment insurance, and they’re not getting any benefits. There’s no bailout, there’s no federal stimulus checks for them,” Nolasco says.

Initially, No Us Without Them set a goal of feeding 30 families a week, but almost immediately that jumped to more than 100. Now, as they serve more than 1,300 families, Nolasco attributes the rapid growth to communications and operations.

No Us Without You is headquartered in Boyle Heights and staffed by volunteers, including (from left to right) Edwin Rodriguez, Daniel Zarate, Mykle Casarin (squatting), Cedric Ransburg (squatting), Ally Devellis, and Sunny Lam. Currently, the organization is prepared to expand its operation to help feed up to 2,000 families weekly. Photo by Mel Castro. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

“We treat it like a business,” he says. “It’s a very, very organized process of dealing with so many different families’ situations. We just want to feed as many people as we can.”

They’re surely going to be facing a greater need as Los Angeles County shuts down dine-in service at restaurants and only allows takeout in an effort to stop the current spike of coronavirus cases. While done in the name of public health, the move will likely cause more establishments to permanently shutter and leave more people out of work.

At the moment, Nolasco says his organization has the capability to expand its services to 2,000 families a week without having to dramatically alter their operation. But it’s not just a one time thing, he says.

“Once we accept a family into our program, we don’t just feed them one time,” says Nolasco. “It’s every week until the pandemic is over or they’re able to go back to work, which those two things aren’t happening anytime soon.”



Matt Guilhem