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This Grassroots Group is Feeding L.A.'s Hungry, One Burrito At A Time

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Every other week, Chrysanthe Oltmann and Dustin Smith invite over some friends and assemble more than 100 bean and rice burritos in the tiny kitchen of their Westlake apartment.

The pair have been doing this for almost a year now and they’ve got the vegan recipe down pat: The rice is cooked with tomato sauce, vegetables, and a dash of seasoning and the beans are a stewed mixture of refried and pinto. Then comes the lettuce, salsa, and guacamole, the latter two toppings emptied from rubber squeeze bottles to make the process more efficient. The burritos are then wrapped in tinfoil, stacked in insulated shoulder bags, and ready to hit the road.

What looks like the making of a massive catering job is actually the prep for Burrito Project L.A., a grassroots, D.I.Y. effort with a simple yet radical mission: distributing free burritos to low-income and homeless communities living on the streets. The project, which operates under the same name in various independent chapters all over the country, is run entirely by volunteers and donations. There’s little overhead, no middleman, and everyone involved interacts directly with the people they’re serving. The organizers see it as a way not just to feed the hungry, but also to impact local communities, some of which might not have the means or the desire to access soup kitchens, food banks, or shelters.

“Obviously, nonprofits have their value, but grassroots activism is really important not just as a way to make changes in your own community, but also to connect with the people that you’re helping,” said Maria Larios, who previously spearheaded Burrito Project L.A. before moving to Little Rock, Arkansas last summer (she passed along organizing duties to Oltmann). “There are people who need help everywhere, so [Burrito Project] kind of pulls resources within the community and redistributes them to those in need.”

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On Wednesday night, about a dozen volunteers split up into four different groups. Oltmann’s group headed to a street tucked alongside the 101 Freeway near Vermont Avenue and Beverly Boulevard. Tents and canopies lined the sidewalks and bikes and cars filled the streets. Most of the individuals volunteers interacted with were excited by the delivery of burritos, water, and clothing, which had been bought or donated by members of the group.

Others were skeptical. They’d never heard of Burrito Project L.A., and wondered where the food came from, or doubted that it was free. Some were quick to point out that they weren’t homeless and didn’t live on the streets—many saw their situations as temporary. One man said he’d just gotten out of jail; a pair of woman explained their car had just broken down.

Because the number of people who live on the streets in Los Angeles fluctuates on a day-to-day basis, it is difficult to get an accurate estimate of L.A.’s homeless population. According to a count published in May by the Los Angeles Homeless Services, the homeless population in Los Angeles County is nearly 58,000—a 23 percent rise from the previous year. And for the second year in a row, Los Angeles has the highest number of chronically homeless people of any city in the country, according to a federal report published last November.

Burrito Project volunteers say they’re seeing firsthand how the unsheltered population is continuing to grow—and sometimes forced to migrate when the city conducts sweeps of homeless encampments. Up until recently, for example, the group centered most of its activities inside MacArthur Park, where “100 burritos went really quickly,” Oltmann said. But the tent-dwellers the group had previously targeted have been cleared out of the park, Oltmann discovered last week, so the project began splitting up into smaller groups to scout for new locations.

The origins of Burrito Project L.A. date back to January 2006, when “two friends rode their bikes around Skid Row, delivering 90 homemade burritos to the homeless,” according to an LAist post from 2008. (It described the group as anonymous and fairly exclusive at the time.)

Larios, who still helps manage the project from afar, took up the reins in early 2015 after volunteering for Food Not Bombs in Skid Row and realizing: “Hey, my neighbors probably need help too and just because it’s not as apparent of a problem as it is in Skid Row doesn’t mean there aren’t folks in need in my own neighborhood,” she says. “L.A. obviously has a big problem with people being displaced and ending up being homeless.”

Today, there are Burrito Projects in South Pasadena, Orange County, and West L.A., among other places. It’s up to each group to decide how to make their burritos—and maybe more importantly, how to pay for them. The L.A. group, for example, buys wholesale ingredients using money raised at a vegan bake sale held in January at the Women’s Center for Creative Work, while the Hollywood group—which launched about five months ago—distributes burritos cooked and donated by the Loews Hollywood Hotel, according to that group’s organizer, Andrew Fierro.

Nobody expects burritos to solve L.A.’s housing and hunger problems on their own, but the warm tortilla-wrapped meals are a pretty good start—and usually a welcome delivery on the streets. At the very least, says Larios, the project “shows how great things can happen when a community comes together.”

The Burrito Project L.A. meets every other Wednesday at 5 p.m. Their next event is September 27. To learn more about Burrito Project chapters across L.A. County, visit their website here.