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Hollywood’s “Brown Bag Lady” serves up fresh food and friendship to the unhoused communities of Los Angeles

brown bag lady
Photos from Jacqueline Norvell

Compassion, served.

True

Compassion comes in many forms. Sometimes it looks like stopping to jumpstart a stranger’s car. Other times it’s volunteering time or donating. For Jacqueline Norvell, compassion looks like a delicious prepared lunch served in a brown paper bag.

Since 2014, Norvell, aka “Brown Bag Lady,” has arrived on the first Sunday of every month to hand out food and supplies to the homeless communities of Skid Row. Without fail.

Yes, even with the pandemic, she and her team have never missed a Sunday. During the first few months of COVID-19, everyone showed up in hazmat suits to serve.

The idea for Brown Bag Lady was sparked when Norvell was leaving a basketball game in Downtown Los Angeles. She took a wrong turn, putting her on Skid Row–one of L.A.’s biggest “tent cities” with a population estimated at 8,000 people.


This was around Christmas time, in the dead of winter. Los Angeles might be known for never-ending sunshine, but its winter nights are not forgiving. People were huddled together just trying to keep warm. Norvell, compelled to help after what she saw, used the holiday bonus from her corporate job, made 70 meals, and came back. The food was gone in five minutes.

What started out as a random act of kindness during the holiday season became a year-round cause. As an official nonprofit organization, Brown Bag Lady has helped feed more than 75,000 people, partnered with major brands including Vans and Lay’s, and has garnered the attention of Kelly Clarkson and Ellen Degeneres.

They even have a fully decked-out camo minivan with a mission statement painted along its sides: “Feeding the Body….Nourishing the Soul.”

Norvell credits social media as a major contributor to the nonprofit’s now enormous presence.

“Through Facebook and Instagram, we have been able to promote what we do by telling our story through pictures and video,” she explained. “We hope that all of our efforts and all of our hard work are relayed with compassion and love. I do not have a professional social media person. Every photo and every video that is posted, I tell the story myself.”

She added that thanks to the two platforms, items are purchased from all over the country and sent to BBL’s headquarters in Los Angeles. Plus many invitations for news appearances have come straight from her DMs. Like she said, no professional needed. Just letting social media work its magic.

Though Brown Bag Lady is becoming a widespread phenomenon throughout California, the personal touch is ever-present.

Each brown bag still features a lovely inspirational quote to deliver some hope along with sustenance.

Barbers stand for hours cutting hair for free, offering people that priceless feeling of self esteem.

Underserved schools receive backpacks full of important supplies, personally delivered.

Toiletry bags get filled with soap, toothpaste, deodorant, shampoo and conditioner and distributed along with food. (Considering hygiene is identified as a contributor to mental health for unhoused individuals, this is a big one.)

And don’t let the name fool you. The food is not your typical brown bag lunch with cold PB&J sandwiches. Nothing is ever canned or frozen. There’s a strict rule of “always fresh, always delicious.”

Norvell is also not some distant caregiver. “I try to fulfill as many needs as possible,” she told Upworthy. “If someone requests something specific I go buy it, and then I put their photo on the bag so I remember the next time that I see them.”

Below is an example of what her dining room looks like.

Coming to the same street corner year after year has allowed her to forge actual friendships with those she helps—many even have her cellphone number. To this day, she still credits this as being the best part of what she and her team does.

The more her organization grows, the bigger Norvell's aspirations get. The ultimate goal, she says, is to own a building with a commercial sized kitchen to allow for weekly meals, in addition to more space so that mental health services can be provided.

In the meantime, Brown Bag Lady’s latest project is reuniting foster siblings for a one-week sleep-away summer camp. It’s a perfect example of how social media can help bring people together to bring a big vision to life.

By posting photos to the Brown Bag Lady Instagram and Facebook page, more than 11,000 followers were made aware of a special Amazon wish list that includes items such as pillows, sleeping bags and hygiene kits for potential campers. Not only did this make it possible to spread the word, but people near and far could be part of the movement virtually. So far, the collective efforts have raised close to $30,000. Wow.

It seems like no dream is impossible for Norvell and the Brown Bag Lady crew. Just like their van promises, the team is serving up some true nourishment for the soul.

If you’d like to follow along the Brown Bag Lady journey, check out the Facebook and Instagram pages here and here.

All images provided by Kat Chao

A photo of Kat and her mom, and a bowl of her mom's famous curry

True

Whether it’s the mac n’ cheese that reminds you of simpler times, or the exotic spiced chicken recipe you acquired from your travels, every meal tells a story.

This rings especially true for people whose families immigrate to different countries to start a new life. Immigrant parents often not only save every penny, but spend most of their time away working in order to build a future for their children. Each comfort meal they manage to provide their kids in the very few spare hours they have tells the story of love and sacrifice.

For Kat Chao, that meal was her mother’s Korean curry.

korean foodA photo of baby Kat and her mom and dad

Growing up, Kat’s mom worked weekends to support her family. But that didn’t stop her from waking up Saturday morning to dice up some beef and fresh veggies and throw them into a large pot so that Kat’s dad could heat it up and serve it with some rice to her and her brothers later.

Curry was a quick, easy and inexpensive way to feed a full house, but it served more than just practical purposes. As Kat would wake up to the enticing aroma, she was reminded that her mom was always taking care of her, even if she couldn’t physically be there.

koran curryYUM

As Kat grew a little older, her attitude towards her mother’s curry shifted. Instead of looking forward to it, she would “roll her eyes at it,” as is customary of the rebellious teen. Those less-than-positive feelings were only exacerbated by the media constantly labeling carbs, therefore rice, as “bad.” As a kid who struggled with weight, her comfort food became a source of discomfort.

But as an adult, and now a mom herself, Kat has reached a full circle moment.

korean recipes, albertsonsKat, all grown up with her own familiy

As she makes her own kids the exact same curry dish (okay, maybe a leaner cut of beef, and organic veggies…but otherwise exactly the same!) Kat finds a whole new appreciation for the recipe, knowing how hard her mom worked to even make it happen.

Kat was lucky to have grown up with a meal to look forward to each night. Other kids aren’t so lucky. 1 in 8 kids currently experience food insecurity in the United States. But there’s an opportunity to decrease those numbers.

For every O Organics product you purchase, the company will donate a meal to someone in need through the Albertsons Companies Foundation—for up to a total of 28 million meals.

Is there a dish from your childhood that you’ve longed to rekindle with? You could do like Kat does and give it an O Organic twist. Luckily, the O Organics brand has a wide array of affordable ingredients, so creating healthy swaps is easier than ever. Plus, you can provide nourishment to another family at the same time.

Just think—the next meal you prepare could make all the difference to someone else. If every meal tells a story, that’s certainly a story worth telling.

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