Before the pandemic hit, Heleo Leyva owned a quesadilla stand in East Hollywood, where he offered a special: buy one quesadilla, share the other for a discounted price.
But when he lost customers due to the pandemic and had to close his stand, he started a GoFundMe site to help pay his bills. That’s when he realized he could also use social media to feed others. His first step was creating a community fridge, where people could donate food.
“From the fridge, we discovered there were a lot of people who had no homes and so they had no place to cook the food like rice and beans and things like that,” Leyva says.
Since then Leyva says he’s cooked free meals for communities in places like Menlo Park and Skid Row in Los Angeles. But on this Tuesday, he’s making a hot lunch for 150 farm workers near the small town of Selma.
“Every cookout that we do in a different place is like planting a seed if you will,” he says.
He recalls planting vegetable seeds with his dad and brother in Mexico when he was younger. So when Fresno resident Kendra Lopez reached out to organize a community cookout in the San Joaquin Valley, he saw it as a way to reconnect with those fond memories.
“This is like where things grow,” he says. “So this is like planting a seed and hopefully you guys can take care of this seed and make it sprout into something here in the valley.”
Leyva says he wants people to see it’s not difficult to start something like this anywhere. He does crowdfunding on social media to pay for all the materials and food.
“The materials, charcoal, water everything we need comes from Venmo and usually to set up a thing like this is 400 bucks more or less,” Leyva says as music plays over a speaker and the farm workers, who have just finished pruning almonds for the day, walk out of the orchards. They meet Leyva, Lopez and other volunteers who are waiting to serve them the food they’ve just prepared.
On one end, Kendra Lopez hands out to-go containers filled with rice, beans, nopales and a choice of chicken or carne asada. On the other end volunteers are helping distribute ppe, hats and winter gloves. Lopez, who organized the event says the concept is pretty straightforward.
“In terms of reaching out to our local community maybe they’re like, ‘hey my restaurant is closed’ or ‘hey I don’t have my taco stand but I have a grill. I can donate my grill, you can use it for this’,” she says. “And this is kinda how Heleo came about doing his community cookout.”
When it came to gathering items like hats and gloves for the cold weather, Lopez says she posted a call to action on social media. She also partnered with Ricardo Castorena from Centro Binacional, an organization that provides education on COVID along with ppe to farm workers in the Valley. Farm workers have been extremely impacted by the virus, Castorena says.
“They have very few resources,” he says. “Just because they’re working doesn't mean they have everything they need to sustain their lifestyles or that of their children’s, especially now that they’re home.”
He doesn’t expect the cookout to solve all their problems but he says it’s a matter of perspective.
“That meal can be the best meal you’ve ever had or it can be the one that lets you get to the next day,” Castorena says. “And that’s what it’s all about.”
Farm worker Jose Guadalupe, 48, says he does appreciate the sentiment.
“This is good to see,” he says. “We work in the fields all day so it’s nice to be recognized and appreciated for our hard work.”
Kendra Lopez says they’re already planning their next cookout for farmworkers in Riverdale on Tuesday. She’s looking for volunteers to help make breakfast burritos and people to donate toys, school supplies, and socks. For more information, go to central valley community cookouts on Instagram.