When Linne told me about our plan to feature LaRayia, I knew I had to get my hands on this story or get involved somehow. As someone who is passionate about food justice and addressing poverty in America, I wanted to be the one to pick LaRayia’s brain on her human-centric approach to addressing homelessness, and how her organization is ending starvation by redirecting the 40% of food that goes uneaten in the U.S.
LaRayia Gaston is the founder of Lunch on Me, a Los Angeles based non-profit organization dedicated to ending starvation and homelessness by providing opportunities for LA’s homeless community to enrich their body, mind, and soul through organic, plant-based foods and wellness services. What started out as just an idea, Lunch on Me now serves 10,000 people monthly and is quite literally transforming people’s lives.
In an interview on the live talk show, The Doctors, a former LOM recipient talked about the impact the organization had on his life, stating, “A lot of people have programs that feed people, but we’re talking about a program that’s love without reason. It’s giving them love without trying to pinpoint nothing or tell them, ‘You need to do this. You need to do that.’ Love picked me up because I was down; they loved me until I could love myself.”
And now I’m crying.
LaRayia and her team’s people-centered approach to addressing the issue of homelessness, bringing this work back down to its core roots—people helping people—explains why the organization has had such a large impact on the communities they serve. Many former recipients volunteer their time with the organization after getting back on their feet, paying it forward.
I spoke with LaRayia about radical self-love in regards to addressing homelessness, the impact the community in Skidrow has had in helping to shift her perspective, incorporating traditional healing practices into her work, and the importance of love and service.
Naydeline: A part of Lunch on Me’s mission is radical self-love. I quote, “We believe that radical self-love is the foundation for permanent healing.” What does radical self-love mean to you? What does that look like in regards to addressing homelessness?
LaRayia: When I think of self-love, radical self-love to me is my body, spirit, and wellness. When I look at where the wellness world has gone to, it has become a space where our health and our self-healing has been reserved for only those who can afford it, for only those who live in a higher tax bracket. There’s this elitist idea that to be able to take yoga, to be able to eat organic, fresh food, basically to align yourself in mind, body, spirit, and wellness, you have to be wealthy, you have to come from a place of privilege—that’s how it’s marketed. I believe that everyone should have a right to their healing—to mind, body, spirit, and wellness. I think that’s what is so radical about what we do. We create access; to be able to offer these services for free, so everybody has a chance to heal.
Over the last six years, LA has seen a 75% increase in homelessness. What do you believe are some of the causes for this increase?
When you look at homelessness and how it’s worsened over the years, there are a lot of things that contribute. It’s racial oppression, it’s foster youth—50% of foster kids become homeless within six months of aging out of the system in Los Angeles—it’s rent control, two to three thousand people become homeless every year due to rent control. You’re also dealing with senior citizens, people who have retired and live on a fixed income—their rent is raising when it shouldn’t be.
All of these issues are pointed to our system. If millions of dollars are put into something that is worsening every year—just off of numbers—then it has to be dismantled. Our system has allowed homelessness to get worse and worse. And because of this blueprint, it’s only going to get worse. It’s time to start from scratch–what has been in place has never worked. It’s time for change.
Everyone has a story that makes up the content of their character, and I believe that the sharing of our stories is what will lead to a more empathetic world. Is there a story from one of the people you’ve worked with that really impacted and reminded you of why you do this work?
When I think of the stories on Skidrow and the people that have impacted me, I am fortunate to say that I’ve lost count of how many people have inspired me, changed my perspective, shifted my own understanding, and helped me grow. I think that the beautiful part is, energetically, I have met more inspiring people than I have challenging people. Their humility and the fact that they can suffer well and still maintain grace, forgiveness, hopefulness, and kindness…
It’s not just one story, it’s all of them. They’re resilient, they’re talented, they’re ten times more involved then all of us collectively put together. Spiritually, they have reached higher peaks because of what they’ve gone through.
There is something so powerful about that, where it makes me look at my own privilege and access all that I have; it reminds me that my problems are not real problems in the grand scheme of things.
I am constantly meeting people without who are maintaining a better attitude than me, a better attitude than my neighbor, a better attitude than my friends.
So, LOM doesn’t only provide opportunities to heal the body through food, but also provides healing of the mind and spirit through energy healing and yoga. What inspired you to incorporate yoga, meditation, and Reiki Healing into the work that you provide?
I am a woman of color who grew up with ancient teachings; I grew up with meditation, I grew up in a home where we believed that praying is venting to God, and meditating is hearing God’s answer. I think I’m sharing what makes people of color so rich in culture; I’m preserving ancient teachings.
There is a reason for the certain energy that people of color hold, and a lot of it comes from our practices and our disciplines. When you come from that lineage of people who are focused on their spiritual walk, you realize how important it is. It’s like a key into the universe.
Though yoga has become Westernized, it doesn’t take away from where it’s original context comes from, birthed through ancient teachings. As a woman of color, I’m here to preserve that for every walk of life that is open to healing.
Not only are you helping to end starvation by giving out fresh meals, but you’re specifically giving out organic, plant-based foods. This is so important because many of those living in poverty are also dealing with a lot of health issues, yet healthy foods are so expensive, making it inaccessible. How can we make healthy foods more accessible, especially within urban food deserts?
I think every single person should be paying it forward, especially if you have access to healthy food. We’re called Lunch On Me because I believe every single person can pick up a tab for someone else. No one should go hungry, especially not in America. All of us, especially the people who have abundance, should feel more of a responsibility to share. We all should be redistributing wealth.
The number one thing I would say to people is, “Lunch On Me!” Pick up the tab, share with someone else, give to someone that you know may not have access to the same thing. Open your eyes and be aware of those who are suffering–they might not be in your bubble, but all of us have seen someone homeless. How many people have stopped to ask if there is anything they can offer?
Many who aren’t familiar with your mission may say that your main goal is to end starvation, and although that’s a big part of your work, that is secondary to your main mission, which is spreading love. From my understanding, your main goal is to heal communities by restoring empathy for others and humanizing those experiencing homelessness, who are so often dehumanized. In your opinion, in what ways can we revolutionize the service sector, so there is less emphasis on charity and more emphasis on bridging connections?
I believe the most important thing that we can do is give, be of service. I don’t think that there is a higher existence than those who serve. I don’t know if it’s even about charity or bridging connections, I think it’s beyond that. I think service is the key; I think love is the answer and that’s it. Put yourself in a space to be of service. Put yourself in a space to be more loving. It starts with being mindful. Everyone has a mantra about celebrating themselves, but how many people have a mantra about being more loving, being more kind? That is my mantra: to be loving to someone every single day, to reach out and touch someone every single day. It starts with you. How do you change? How do you become that beacon of light by offering light?
If you would like to help further LOM’s mission, consider making a donation here, or learning about other ways you can get involved on their website.