As a middle school student in Kentwood, Mich., Kristen Cox says she was drawn to the underdog.
“I believe that’s who I was at birth,” she says. "It’s nature vs. nurture. My mother was a teacher and did similar things. My dad was a social worker. That’s why I take care of people.”
That attribute has helped shaped who she is and why she is doing what she is doing right now as the founder and executive director of the Long Beach Community Table.
What started as a seed of an idea in 2017 grew into a nonprofit in 2018. It started as a two-person operation, and now has part-time employees, an active volunteer crew that numbers into the hundreds and a database of almost 4,000 volunteers.
What started as only 50 pounds of food to hand out to 24 people has grown into a warehouse that processes 15,000 to 17,000 pounds of food per week.
Last year, LBCT distributed more than 300,000 pounds of food along with hygiene products and clothing to a long list of housing and/or food insecure people.
LBCT gets its food from a network of community gardens, Food Finders and Food Forward, grocery stores, farmers markets and local schools that, while closed, are still feeding meals to students. During the week, Cox says volunteers deliver to seniors, veterans and other nonprofit locations. On weekends, they go into parks on the north and west sides of the city handing out food and hygiene products.
LBCT also has open warehouse hours where a white board lists what goods are available and people can pick up whatever they need. The LBCT warehouse is at 9038 Artesia Blvd. in Bellflower.
Cox works an 80-hour week and draws no salary. Her efforts are more urgent now with the COVID-19 crisis, because, she says, some people can be one or two paychecks away from being needy.
“There is a whole new level of consciousness in this city,” she says. “This virus is waking people up. This is a turning point in how we look at society.”
Brennan Hill and his wife Claire got the wake-up call. The Seal Beach residents are members of the Outrigger Canoe Club based at Mother’s Beach on Appian Way. They have seen Cox’s operation up close, becoming volunteers.
Hill says he believes that many people want to help, but they just don’t know how.
“I really feel I’ve been fortunate through this crisis,” he says. “It really makes you realize how many people are out there who need help. Who ever saw this coming? This is an easy way to help and connect with Long Beach Community Table.”
The canoe club has scheduled a personal hygiene/food drive from 9 a.m. to noon this Saturday, May 30. Volunteers wearing protective equipment will collect donations from people who drive up to the location on Appian Way.
“It was good to have Brennan and his wife come to the warehouse,” Cox says. “And with the boat club, it just shows how great it is to see people from all walks of life pitch in.”
Long Beach Community Table is a reciprocal society, Cox says, rather than a one-way street. Participants pitch in to support their neighbors in need, even if they need help themselves.
“We don’t want anyone to feel like a charity case,” she says. “We build garden boxes and teach people how to be self-sustaining. We want people to know how to grow food and cook food. We have a whole team of master gardeners ready to get going when we are able.”
Cox was a Democratic National Convention delegate in 2016. She led a grassroots campaign in Long Beach but it wasn’t as successful as she had hoped.
“I was very political,” she says, “but I was exposed to a system that just isn’t fair. But I was determined not to let people slip through the cracks. I was determined to gather people and say, ‘let’s take care of our community together.’”
Cox says she has been gratified by the influx of volunteers. But it’s not only the number of people — it’s the solidarity across races and religions.
“Everyone knows there will be long term repercussions from this pandemic,” she says. “But it’s amazing how this increased connectiveness has evolved. Whether people are Cambodian or Buddhist or Jewish or Black Lives Matters, all are pulling together. We are seeinga lot of people starting to work together and letting those lines that divide us just drop and it’s just so cool.
“We’re all on the same team.”
LBCT was recently awarded a $20,000 grant through the Coronavirus Relief Fund offered by the Long Beach Community Foundation in partnership with the city of Long Beach.
“We have grown so, so quickly,” she says. “The number of volunteers has increased dramatically. I know that people are sitting at home and that they want to help. People in this community are more than happy to contribute.”
Each week, LBCT member-workers distribute more than 6,000 pounds of groceries and fresh produce, as well as clothing (before the virus) and toiletries. Right now, the organization needs personal hygiene items but are also accepting all kinds of food, from fresh fruit and produce, to beans and rice, to canned items and pet food.
“The hygiene products are needed because it helps to keep our expenses down,” Cox says.
Personal hygiene items include soap/cleansing gel, shampoo, toothpaste, toothbrushes, combs and hair brushes, toilet paper, feminine supplies, hand sanitizer, razors, cough drops, lip balm, bandages, antibiotic ointment, knee/ankle braces, flashlights, batteries and reading glasses.
“Long Beach is my niche,” she says. “Long Beach was a breath of fresh air, more accepting of people than where I came from. I pinch myself sometimes; I believe I was meant to do this.”