The Neighborhood Café Chef, Eddie Gochicoa, preparing warm family-style Café meals for a CARE Box Distribution. / Photo courtesy of Union of Pan Asian Communities

By Annelise Jolley

Every Friday for the past six months, the youth employees of the Neighborhood Enterprise Center have gathered in City Heights to distribute boxes of food and hot meals, greet local families, and share resources on coping with COVID-19. But these employees aren’t outsiders: they’re from the community they serve, often delivering food to their neighbors or even their own families.

With 15 locations across San Diego County and nearly 200 staff members (who collectively speak over 30 languages), Union of Pan Asian Communities (UPAC) provides health and human services to a wide array of low-income and underserved communities. The organization’s commitment to serving ethnically-diverse clientele makes City Heights the perfect location for its Neighborhood Enterprise Center (NEC).

NEC is a hub connecting spokes of the impact that radiate across City Heights—one of the most ethnically diverse neighborhoods in the county. The idea for the center was conceived after UPAC watched its young clients graduate from gang prevention programs and struggle to find employment. “As much as we provided the youth quality mentorship and guidance, a critical element that remained a barrier to the youth was employment,” says Dante Dauz, director of NEC. “So instead of complaining about lack of opportunity or giving up on it, UPAC decided to provide a direct solution through the Enterprise Center where youth are trained in the areas of culinary, hospitality, print, and entrepreneurship and hired to work at the center.” 

The Neighborhood Enterprise Center, which is funded in part through a grant from SDG&E’s Inspiring Future Leaders giving initiative, is a former restaurant turned community gathering space. It houses a cafe and catering business, a print shop, an event venue, and a technology center. Eighty percent of staff are at-risk youth who have gone through UPAC’s gang and community violence prevention program. Any income that comes in through NEC—rental fees, cafe revenue—goes right back into supporting its programs. 

In 2019, the Neighborhood Enterprise Center launched a cafe and catering business focused on providing culturally-relevant and affordable food. But when COVID-19 hit, the cafe closed temporarily and NEC changed its approach in response to urgent community needs. Nearly all of UPAC’s clients live below the poverty line, and many lost their primary source of income in the wake of the pandemic shutdown. UPAC quickly realized that the most pressing issue among clients was food insecurity. Children were out of school, missing their free lunches. Seniors were unable to visit the grocery store. In response, the organization launched its Emergency Food Distribution in partnership with Feeding San Diego. 

The Center’s cafe and catering operations shifted to create CARE Boxes for residents in need. These boxes, which reach 200 families and distribute 6,000 pounds of food a week, include several days of food staples, fresh fruits and veggies, one hot “Cafe Meal,” toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and a game or activity for each family. Boxes also include information about the virus and the 2020 Census in multiple languages. “We provide them with a lot more than food,” says Events and Giving Manager Brittany Bachmann. In addition to the games and hygiene supplies, CARE boxes include a “Mental Health 101” resource—a document that talks about signs of mental health distress, coping skills, and phone numbers to reach mental health services. Providing resources for mental wellness is one way UPAC cares for the long-term wellbeing of its clients. “COVID’s not going away,” Bachmann says. “So [we’re asking clients], How else can we support you throughout the rest of this year?”

As part of the food distribution efforts, NEC also began preparing family-sized “Cafe Meals” once a week. While food staples are helpful, this weekly meal gives families a day off from cooking to enjoy a warm, pre-prepared, culturally-relevant dish. This element mimics the cafe’s commitment to providing affordable, delicious food for local residents. One week the meal might be Somali grits; the next, green chile coconut curry. The best part? The recipes hail from clients’ own kitchens. Clients share their recipes with NEC chef Eddie Gochicoa, who then prepares menus and directs NEC staff as they prepare the meals. 

“Food elicits a lot of pride and symbolism for any culture, so for community members to invite us into their home and teach us is a huge honor that we treat with the highest amount of honor and respect,” says Dauz. Not only that, but sharing these dishes highlights City Height’s unique character. “One of the ways we can express this is through our cultural menu that showcases dozens of traditional dishes from the various cultures of the neighborhood.”

The Emergency Food Distribution also gives NEC’s youth staff a swing at new skills and professional experience. By preparing Cafe Meals, staff members learn what it’s like to work in a banquet kitchen and catering operation. Through CARE box distribution they also gain rental, customer service, and community engagement experience. “We want to build them up and get them ready for college and work experience, and this opportunity has opened new doors for them,” Bachmann says.

Of course, these new operations have required adaptation, effort, and dedication. But Dauz says NEC staff members “have always been very energized at every step and were motivated knowing that their actions were providing direct help to their neighbors and community.” 

The Neighborhood Enterprise Center cafe is currently open for to-go orders and outdoor dining, and the team hopes that revenue from the cafe can support the center as the pandemic continues. Swing by on any given day and you’ll find delicious hot meals for just $5, created by and for the community that the center serves.

[call_to_action color=” button_text=’Learn More’ button_url=’’]To support the Neighborhood Enterprise Center, stop by the café for a delicious meal—available for takeout or outdoor dining.[/call_to_action]

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