LaRayia Gaston on Feeding the Homeless: Mind, Body & Spirit
LaRayia Gaston wears many hats: businesswoman, activist, model, change-agent, actress and producer, not to mention founder and executive director of Lunch On Me, a Los Angeles based non profit dedicated to ending starvation while providing opportunities to enrich the mind, body and spirit of LA’s homeless community.
LaRayia brings a fearless and ferocious love to this project, tracing the roots of her work with the homeless population back to experiences she had at 14 when she realized that perfectly good food from her uncle’s restaurant was being thrown away rather than used to feed hungry people. (Of course, an understanding of the regulations that necessitated this situation came later, along with a desire to amend them.)
On this episode…
LaRayia talks about how her life has been shaped by her passion for feeding the homeless community, and how Lunch On Me is about much more than simply food. She shares how practices recently embraced by wealthy and privileged demographics, like meditation and yoga, are incredibly beneficial for everyone—especially disadvantaged populations.
Tune in to hear about…
– How Lunch On Me grew to be the powerful change-agent it is today
– Why LaRayia feels so strongly about cooking and sharing organic meals with the homeless
– The three women who inspire LaRayia every day
– The thing that she believes is “vital to human beings to exist, to coexist, and to heal collectively.” You might be surprised!
Listen at the link below, on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play or wherever you get your podcasts!
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Theresa Marquez.
THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and I’m here today with LaRayia Gaston, actress and producer as well as founder and executive director of Lunch on Me, a nonprofit organization of individuals constructing greater change in the fight against starvation. Welcome, LaRayia!
LARAYIA GASTON: Hello, how are you guys? Thank you so much for having me.
TM: Yeah! Well, you know, LaRayia, I’ve read that you’ve been doing this for what, 12 or 14 years?
LG: Fifteen years this year.
TM: Fifteen years! Oh my gosh, you are truly a road warrior and an activist and change agent. And I understand that you have been a model, you’re an actress, and you’ve been a producer, and here you are, out there feeding the homeless, and in Los Angeles.
LG: Yeah, we’re actually 58,000. That’s the last count, is 58,000 homeless—
TM: Oh my goodness!
LG: -in Los Angeles County.
TM: That’s huge!
LG: Oh yeah, it’s devastating, the numbers. It’s so many people. And when you think of such a financial capital, you do not make the correlation between extremes of wealth and then there’s poverty to match that as well.
TM: You know, I’m just wondering, 15 years, what inspired you to start Lunch on Me? You know, we all see the need but we don’t always act on it. What gave you the guts to do that?
LG: Well, for me, I think it was, I was 14 years old, my uncle owned a restaurant, and I was getting rid of food that was thrown away. So at that young age I was kind of learning the restaurant industry. And in that moment, I had seen all this food being thrown away, and then a man digging in the trash can. In that moment, I just, it was no thought in my head, I just have all this perfectly good food, someone who’s throwing stuff away, and I just said, “Hey, are you hungry?” And that’s literally how it started.
It was such a deep moment, even though it was just a—I think it was just meant to be. I was planting seeds. And just my life has been planting seeds that that’s what I would do, moving forward. I just wasn’t aware of it. It was a commonsense situation. And it was the first time I had seen it. I was super young, 14 years old, and I just kind of confused, someone’s eating and then I’m throwing away good food because the Health Department says you have to—not that anything’s wrong with the food, but just because these are the rules that have been in place that don’t necessarily make sense, so we have to abide by them. And in that moment I was kind of rebellious. I didn’t really understand the repercussions of what that meant, so I was like, “Oh, are you hungry?” And I started giving out food.
And when my uncle found out I was doing what I was doing, that’s when I learned, specifically in that moment, that it wasn’t allowed, that you’re not supposed to do that, because in restaurants you’re not supposed to give food directly to people because of the liabilities. And to me, it’s outside of rules, this is a human condition, this is a human venture. As much as rules are important, being human and aware of people going through things, to me, are more important. So I just needed to do it, regardless of what that meant. And that’s pretty much how it started.
And from there, I started tithing in that way. I told my mom, “I don’t really like to tithe in churches.” Though I’m not religious, I grew up heavy in a church, and I specifically said, “Hey, is that a tithing? Can I feed people?” Because I really enjoyed it. I started building relationships with the homeless, and in those moments I had realized that I just enjoyed them so much. I had met some of the coolest people. At my uncle’s restaurant they would help me clean up, they would help me wash. It was just like, I started building relations, and from there on, I had done that for about 10 years, I had never told a single person except for my mom. And I was just trying to get permission—I was trying to get permission to be able to, instead of tithing in church, to be able to use my 10 percent towards social good. And that’s when my mother was like, “I don’t care what you do, as long as you’re doing your part.”
LG: And in that moment, it’s like, it was liberating. I was like, oh, I don’t necessarily have to do it in church—I can express myself with what moved me. And it wasn’t necessarily church because I didn’t find God in church. I found God serving people.
LG: So I did it for 10 years, and then holidays would come around, and it just grew. Like if I would go to a restaurant by myself and I’d come across a homeless, I would invite them in for lunch. It was just a part of my life because I had started at 14 and I really always had great experiences with the people.
And so one year, it was during Thanksgiving, my friend was like, “Well, what are you doing?” I was always invited to people’s houses, and I never would go because I wanted to like cook and make something for the homeless. And then one day I told my friend, “Well, I’m doing this.” She had asked me, “Will you come cook with my grandma?” And I was like, “Well, I’m doing this first.” And she was like, “Okay, I’ll help you.” She came and helped me, and then she was like, “Oh my god, I want to do this again.” And that was the first time I realized, like, oh, someone else has an interest in this.
And so, slowly, within that year, other friends got involved, and we started like coordinating. And then I told them also that I take people out to eat, so they started doing that. Then I said, “Okay, well, let’s start looking up organizations.” I wasn’t a nonprofit but I had direct relationships with people. So when I got into the nonprofit world, I hated what I seen. I didn’t like how the people were treated, I didn’t like how there was a separation between the homeless and just housed people. I did not like how the separation just seemed…I didn’t understand it because I never felt that way. And then I felt like the nonprofit world, it was corrupt. It was just not what I expected.
So, because of that, I specifically decided to start Lunch on Me because I was tired of seeing people mistreated. And I felt like I didn’t know how to run a nonprofit but I knew how to love people, and I knew how to treat them as equal, and I didn’t see a separation. So that’s why Lunch on Me started.
TM: Well, you are certainly filling my heart full of hope. It’s just, what a lovely way that you evolved into that. That’s so exciting. But you know, at the same time, according to what I’m reading here, that you were kind of like being described as someone quite beautiful who was a model and probably could have pursued a career in that area. You know, what a juxtaposition of two different things. How do those exist together in your person?
LG: I just feel like I never…it wasn’t something I pursued. It kind of fell into my lap, and I just kind of embraced it, like okay, I’ll try it out. So I never really thought about it, I kind of just went with expression. So whether it was art, whether it was acting, whether it was directing, I just liked art. I liked to create, I liked to exercise my brain in that way. But like my heart, outside of art, it was just always loving people, and for some reason I felt like the homeless, that was my space. And I just go what feels like home. And I feel like when I’m with people, real people who are who they are—not people who have representatives but people who are who they are, which I feel like the most genuine people I’ve met have been homeless people, have been people who have been unloved. The person that has learned love by learning what it’s not has been the most genuine person I’ve ever met.
TM: Oh wow, I can believe that. But you know, I’m just wondering: you mentioned that three women really influenced you. Is Johnnie Gaston your mom?
LG: Yes. She passed away last year. And yes, oh my god, my life—I couldn’t even imagine. I wouldn’t be able to do this work, because… And I didn’t get it. I felt like I was privileged to be a student with a master, and I feel like I grew up with a true master when it came to selflessness, loving. Like I just felt like she was the only person I ever met in my life that got life right. Like my mother never told me who to be—she gave me a space to find who that was.
Oh, and I felt like, in my life I felt like everything that I learned from her was liberating. Everything that she did was, she liberated you to be who you’re supposed to be. And I felt like that was my approach to life. That’s how I deal with the homeless. I love them till they can love themselves, and I liberate them to find out who that is.
TM: You know, your other two sheroes also were quite fascinating to me. Mother Teresa: they’re so different now, but Mother Teresa, she was full of love; and then I was really moved with Anais Nin, who actually is also one of my personal sheroes. Wow, and she lived in Los Angeles. But wow, what a great writer and inspiration for women.
LG: Absolutely. And it’s so interesting because I just, growing up, those were my two favorites. And Mother Teresa, I didn’t understand I would do the work that I did, but in third grade I just remember I would always collect her quotes, I would write them down. And it was interesting because when she passed away, in third grade, I didn’t go to school that day because I was literally just too depressed. But I didn’t understand, because I was so young—third grade, probably like eight years old. And it was one of those situations, I didn’t understand her life; even at that age I understood her light, and that’s what I was drawn to.
TM: Her light, you’re saying.
LG: Yes, her light, her energy, everything that she was when no one was looking, it radiated. And that’s what I’ve always connected to. I’ve always connected, especially on the more spiritual side of life. And even her, I didn’t know, but I was connected to someone who was expressing love fearlessly.
TM: Yeah, and so purely.
LG: Oh my god! And I just feel like, again, even that purity had to come from a fearless place because we have these expectations. Like life gives us these expectations and these rules and these traditions that, they might not resonate with our spirit but we just do them out of habit and comfort.
TM: Well, you know, LaRayia, one of the things I really was inspired with is that for you, Lunch on Me isn’t just about feeding people. It’s also about trying to heal, to give dignity, to help—you call it “mind, body, spirit”—to do yoga, to try and get them healthier. How was it you adopted this holistic approach?
LG: Well, for me, I started when I was like 12, and then I became vegan at 19, and that’s when it started for me. I was really sick and then I got into like holistic medicine and just learning about what nature gave us to be able to heal. And when I started cooking for the homeless I never thought, like, the concept of like charity has kind of been this thing where people become saviors and they’re helping what they call the less fortunate, and so they give them less than they deserve. Wealthy people that don’t eat canned food will go donate canned food.
And for me, when I started, all I thought was like I was giving of myself. Like I was cooking what I ate. I never thought, like, let me give someone less. I shared what I had, and it started with organic food. And as time went on, I realized not only do I need this, do my friends and family, everyone needs access to healthy foods, to just a better quality of life. And I don’t think that poverty due to capitalism should dictate that. And for me, I said everyone’s going to get these things. And then when I realized, literally I looked at what did I use in my life to help me get past all the tough things I went through? It was meditation, it was breath work, it was Reiki, it was a holistic approach. And what that did for me, it empowered my life to not walk around broken, hurt, disappointed, all the things that come with life. And I was able to let those things go in those spaces.
And then, dealing with the homeless, they deal with ten times more than the average person, so why wouldn’t they be the first ones to receive these things? You’re dealing with trauma every day. To live in poverty is to experience trauma. The children I’m dealing with right now, I have elementary kids, 50 percent of them tested positive for PTSD, just living in poverty.
TM: So, you know, yoga—how did yoga come to you as something that you wanted to add to it? I mean, I’m over 70 and I have to tell you, I tell everyone, they say, “Gee, you seem like you’re in good shape,” and I say to them, “Do yoga!”
LG: Yes, the reason yoga was so important is because when you’re living in a survival mode—people live in survival that aren’t even homeless, but just a lot of people go through this thing, living in a survival mode. I realized that the healing part comes from just sitting and having a moment with yourself. A lot of people don’t get those spaces. When you’re on Skid Row and you’re dealing with poverty, mental illness, police brutality, like that’s such a hard space to be in, that I wanted to give people a space to just sit in themselves, to sit in their pain, to recognize what they went through, so that they could let it go. And I felt like yoga was a great way to create a sacred space where people could just sit and be and heal. And I saw what it did for my life, and I knew how valuable this would be for people who are experiencing what they experience in their day-to-day life.
TM: So I’m just curious, are you getting a lot of the homeless people that you work with interested in doing yoga?
LG: Yeah! Yeah, what makes it amazing is I’m not a foreign organization coming in, trying to push an agenda on people who don’t have a relationship with me. This is like me having a conversation with my uncles, my aunts, my cousins, my siblings, and saying, “Hey, I tried yoga. We’re gonna bring this. Would you want to try it? I think it will work with such-and-such.” But I have a relationship with these people. So I’m individually suggesting these things to people when I know where they’re coming from.
These aren’t strangers [where] I’m telling everyone, “Hey, let’s all go in the room and do yoga.” It’s people I have deep relationships with, consistency, and saying, “Hey,” and going into like what I go through every day. I deal with people who have been in prostitution and sex shops since they were five years old. So I deal with the most extreme situations you could ever think of. And in these women, what services they’re provided is “Let’s teach you a job skill, let’s teach you how to make a T-shirt, let’s teach you how to file your taxes.” Like these are the type of resources that are offered to people in these experiences.
And for me, it’s been, let’s sit and go through what you’ve been through, and make space for other things. And that’s different. That’s empowering, because these things, you can’t help and ignore—you can’t ignore the feelings you get from living a healthier lifestyle. Like it just hits every person. Everyone feels better when they’re healthier, optimum health. And bringing these things to people who need them most, that have never been introduced. These are all new concepts to people in this demographic, because no one has ever offered these services to people because it’s become—these ancient teachings have become an elitist concept, but they’re not. If you go to India, if you go to Africa, the poorest people do this because this is something that helps society as a whole. This isn’t a marketing ploy that America’s decided to create for wellness. This is something that is vital to human beings to exist, to co-exist, to heal collectively.
TM: If you’re just joining us, you’re listening to Rootstock Radio, and I’m Theresa Marquez. And I’m here today with LaRayia Gaston. She is a founder and executive director of Lunch on Me.
And I love the way you describe how empowering it is for them to like just do yoga or have a place to sit and meditate. And also you do Reiki classes.
TM: And so how’s that going?
LG: Well, I mean, it’s exciting, any time you discover something new. These are people with the least resources, the least means to get out of their situations. So it’s beautiful because we’ve built such a relationship with the community that there’s so much trust involved that anything we bring them, they embrace it.
TM: I can hear what you’re saying, whatever you bring them they embrace. But you talked about the homeless, prostitutes, sex trafficking—you know, you’re down there with some of the, what some people would call the lowest life or the lowlifes or whatever, and you’re there treating people with dignity. But do you ever get afraid?
LG: Afraid? No. (Laughing) No, I’ve been doing this work for 15 years, and I’ve been in more danger leaving a club out of Hollywood than I have being on Skid Row. And that’s the truth. Like there’s this misconception that homeless people are dangerous. No, drunk people are dangerous, partying people are dangerous. It’s not the homeless. So no. And I feel like the only form of fear that I have ever felt is when cops approach situations, because they’re not trained to be in those spaces. And the only time I’ve felt the sense of danger are cops, because the only time I’ve seen guns are when cops are pulling them out on people.
TM: So that would be part of why the homeless are in so much trauma then, living in poverty.
LG: I mean, yeah, it’s a crime to be homeless, you know? It’s like people are unaware of that. If you look at bus stops now, they have rails in between them. The city put money towards putting rails in between bus stops so people can’t sleep there. Like it’s become a crime to be homeless. But these people are displaced and there’s nowhere for them to go. You can’t just disappear.
TM: So the amount of homeless in L.A. and around the United States is not going down—it’s going up?
LG: Oh, absolutely not. It’s gotten worse. For homelessness for L.A., we’ve gone up 23 percent, and for kids 64 percent.
TM: Oh, wow!
LG: So yeah, I mean it’s heartbreaking when you realize there’s 28,000 kids in L.A. who are in foster care and only 1,400 are awaiting adoption; and 50 percent of them become homeless within six months and aging out of the system at 18. So to know that statistically there’ll be about 14,000 newly homeless children, teenagers, because of the lack of resources that the government has put together, the lack of support from grassroot efforts. Like these situations are literally because no one cares enough. And the numbers—you know, the numbers validate the neglect.
TM: Do you see any programs out there that help move folks off the street or out of the homeless situation they’re in, or out of poverty, that actually work?
LG: The reason a lot of these homeless organizations have such a bad rate of people going back into homelessness is because of the treatment. People who are homeless are mistreated. And it happens in shelters—people leave shelters because of abuse, harassment that they received there too.
And you know, I always tell people, this situation’s not going to be fixed by putting people in a box. It’s going to require community, it’s going to require support, love. Anyone that thrives in this world needs those things, and you can’t just take someone homeless, give them an apartment, and then there you go, it’s done. There’s such a separation. And that’s the biggest issue too. How are you a nonprofit and you have to hire an outreach team because you’re not even dealing with the people that you guys are getting paid to service? That’s what’s happening. They’re bringing in third parties, like mine. I’ve had to say no to so many nonprofits because they’re like, “Well, can you guys come and be our outreach?” No! Like you, why aren’t you making relationships with the people you’re serving? Because they don’t care. People don’t care, and I see it every day. I see it from technically being a witness to having to hear their stories and having to deal with the trauma that’s added to these people that I’m servicing, trying to heal.
TM: Well, you know, you said “We believe that radical self-love is the foundation for permanent healing.”
TM: Can you say something—what is “radical self-love”? Tell us a little bit about that.
LG: Well, to me, I feel like, because people are in awe of what I do in the sense of I offer organic food. But marketing has made it where only the rich shop at Whole Foods, right? And Whole Foods is one of our partners, they’re fantastic to us, we love them to death. But the marketing of that is all these things people think are radical, right, because I’m creating consistency. You know, consistency, no one trusts anything that isn’t consistent in their life. If your job isn’t consistent, if your lover isn’t consistent, you’re going to have red flags. So we’ve created consistency. Consistency is how things change. You know, that’s how you build community trust.
And it actually requires a day-to-day effort. It’s not something you can do at Thanksgiving and Christmas and think you have a relationship with people. But you have to consistently do it. And that is where that radical self-love comes from: us giving them every resource that the elitist gets to have. It’s yoga, Reiki, meditation, breath work, holistic foods, medicine. And all of those things empower them to get into a different space. And that’s what I refer to as radical self-love, because no one is treating the homeless like they belong, like they are equal, like they are deserving. And “radical” is for people to actually treat homeless people like people.
TM: Well, it certainly is something that is just so inspiring. I just will have to say that LaRayia is right: some of the most satisfying moments I’ve had is feeding people.
TM: And so, you know, just camaraderie, feeling like you’re doing something together, it just has a, like, okay, yeah, I like doing this. But I do think that a lot of people are afraid. You know, they’re thinking, “Oh, these are homeless, they’re desperate people.”
LG: Okay, so personally, I have a big issue with that, because people are perpetuating stereotypes that they’ve heard, not because they’ve experienced these things. And I have a big issue with that because homeless people are criminalized, just like people of color are criminalized. It’s the same thing, where people are mistreated because of a stereotype—that who created? You know what I mean?
LG: I have an issue with that because these same people are afraid who never stepped out of their own privilege and comfort zone to say hello to someone who’s in need. That’s an issue. I have a problem with any person who is so self-centered that the only thing that matters to them is their comfort, but they’re comfortable ignoring the suffering of a person next to them. These are people. Why are they treated any different? It’s a condition of the circumstance, but what makes them any different? You know what I mean? You could be in a dangerous situation with a man in a business suit; you could be—like that’s life. It’s not, it doesn’t come with dealing with someone who’s homeless.
And that’s something that I have been a huge advocate to educate people, because the people who are perpetuating it are the people who are the most ignorant about homeless conditions. Because those are false situations. You know, we’ve created this idea as the majority. We can’t form an opinion off of 5 percent of a population. So I’m big on you will not know until you go out of your comfort and privilege to help someone else. Until then, you’re self-centered, period. That’s a problem. That’s a majority of people in America.
TM: I think you’re right on that one.
LG: How did it get this bad? And if I don’t speak on it, who’s going to sit there and tell the truth? Like accountability is important to me as self-correction. We can’t get anywhere. We got this far by not correcting it. Do we want to go another 50 years talking about how we’re going to fix this problem? Or are we going to figure out that what’s done hasn’t worked?
TM: Well, you know, a couple things that this certainly stimulates my thinking on. Do you think that there are some things that we could do in early education or through our education system that could help people get more connected? Have you ever thought about how could we bring that education to more people at an earlier age? Like you started when you were in, what, fifth grade thinking about Mother Teresa, or when you were 14 about feeding? What do you think we could be doing better as a society, as humanity, to educate ourselves?
LG: Oh, I mean, yeah, this Saturday we’re going to be educating children on plant-based organic food. You know, like supporting nonprofits that are doing the work. Not just… You know what I mean? Like people doing their research, and really supporting. Because to say that everyone’s going to get up and start doing these things, I don’t really see that being, you know, something that…people aren’t comfortable. But I do believe everyone has to do their part, supporting the organizations that are boots on the ground. Pledging—that’s, for us, people want to help, we’re doing the work already. Pledge two dollars a month to us. That goes a long way.
We’re a grassroots effort. These things aren’t going to be changed because this is all a government policy problem. We can’t fix these issues that are implemented by the government unless people are actually voting and aware of the policies that are at hand. The only other way to do that is deal with grassroot efforts, because governmental foundations are going to continue what they’ve already started, which is what’s going on now—the food programs in school, which are terrible food. That’s not going to change unless we start supporting our grassroot efforts that are bringing organic food to our elementary schools. You know what I mean?
People volunteering once a month. I get that a lot of people won’t give their life to service, but if every person could donate one day a month toward grassroot effort, half our issues would be alleviated on a grassroots, person-to-person, boots-on-the-ground issue. We don’t have to wait a year for a policy when people could do something today. And that’s like quick change. Every person, like I do believe that people need to be more aware and kind and do their part. The biggest issue here is every day people don’t do their part. It’s not about just the government, it’s not about like…yes, those things that were created to be exactly what they are. But having people create micro gestures of kindness, awareness—I’m donating one day out of the month because I’m aware of all the needs in this world, and that’s how I do my part.
TM: Well, you know, LaRayia, I have to say you rock! And what an inspiration you are. And www.lunchonme.org for our listeners out there. You know, I think that this is all making us feel like whoa, we’d better go out there and volunteer because we are all connected. And I am so thrilled about your focus on love and mindfulness. So thank you for all the good work you’re doing and for being a guest on our radio show.
LG: Thank you so much.
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