Paula Yoo is a writer and producer in Los Angeles best known for Supergirl, Pretty Little Liars: The Perfectionists and Eureka (to name just a few). She decided to celebrate her 50th birthday at the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank with her friends. We asked Paula to tell us about her experience.
Q: Could you describe the volunteer project you participated in at the Food Bank?
A: I worked for the “gleaning” project where we had to check for expiration dates and sort the food according to their groups (dairy, poultry, etc.). We were in the very cold refrigeration room (thank you for the extra coats you supplied!).
We had to open boxes from Amazon – none of the boxes were labeled so it was a mystery! My friends and I joked that it felt like a math class because we sometimes had to figure out if a carton of milk was safe based on its expiration date and when it would be delivered to a family or shelter by adding and subtracting the days. The LARFB employees were very nice and patient with us because we were constantly asking them questions, like, “So is there a difference between sliced cheese and block cheese with these expiration dates?”
I volunteered all day on April 10, 2019, for both shifts – the 9 AM to 12 PM shift and then the 1 PM to 4 PM shift. During the morning shift, we handled just over 11,000 pounds of food and sorted/gleaned them into approximately 9,500 meals!
Our afternoon shift was small but mighty – we only had about a half dozen volunteers compared to the much larger morning group. But we worked hard and managed to sort through about 2,700 pounds of food, resulting in over 2000 meals! Best of all, several of us became friends and traded email addresses and now follow each other on Instagram.
Q: What inspired you to celebrate your special day with the Food Bank?
A: April 10th was my 50th birthday. In the past few years, I have lost family members and friends to health issues (cancer, etc.). I also am frustrated by the political divide in our country and the increase in racism and violence in our society. I feel at this point we are lucky, blessed and privileged to reach the half-century mark in one piece! So I wanted to give back on my birthday to show gratitude. My dear friend Meghan Welsh is an active volunteer with many groups. We met as writers on a TV show about a ten years ago and have remained friends since. She suggested the LA Food Bank because she had volunteered there before. Given my busy schedule as a writer (and my unpredictable last-minute deadlines!), this was the perfect fit. Plus, I have also noticed the increasing homeless situation in our city. There are now many tents pitched under the freeway pass near our house. I realized the LA Regional Food Bank would be a great way to help those less fortunate than us.
Two friends joined me during the morning shift to celebrate my birthday. Coincidentally, we all worked on the TV show Supergirl together. Anne Renton is a director who was shadowing the director of my Supergirl episode in Vancouver. We met on set and bonded instantly. Angela Zhou is a beautiful and talented actress who starred in AMC’s Hell on Wheels and played the supervillain “Pesticide” in one of my Supergirl episodes, and we too bonded immediately, too. It was nice to have a Supergirl reunion on my birthday! We loved working with the real superheroes of the LA Regional Food Bank, defeating the villains of hunger and homelessness!
Q: Had you volunteered with the Food Bank before or do you volunteer elsewhere?
A: I had never volunteered with the Food Bank before. I have not really volunteered before, other than writing checks for donations to various charities. I have always wanted to do volunteer work, and I figured might as well start my new half-century off on the right foot by volunteering here!
Q: What was the most fulfilling or rewarding part of your volunteer experience and what was the most challenging part?
A: The most fulfilling and rewarding part of my volunteer experience was knowing that all this delicious and nutritious food was going to feed the homeless and families in need. It made me regret all the food I waste at home. I was much more self-conscious afterward about being more careful about food storage and trying not to waste food. It really puts your life in perspective – you don’t realize how lucky and fortunate you are until you spend a day helping glean food for those who can’t afford it.
I would say the most challenging part was one word – MILK. LOL! Hahaha. I kept forgetting the “rules” on the expiration dates for anything that was milk or dairy, so I kept bothering all the LA Food Bank employees with endless questions on whether or not this dairy product would be safe. I’m now so aware of expiration dates! J And I are grateful for the LA Food Bank staff’s patience with me.
As a writer, I sit a lot for hours on end in front of my computer. So the other challenging part was the physical labor – I got a lot of steps in on that day! I hadn’t realized how sedentary I had become. Ha! I even got to help transfer these giant bins of cardboard boxes to the recycling bin and marveled at how huge the Food Bank warehouse is. It also made me more self-conscious of recycling as well. You don’t realize how much we throw out until you see those huge piles of flatted cardboard boxes waiting to be recycled!
Q: What is it about the issue of hunger, specifically, that motivates you to volunteer?
A: I was motivated not only because of my 50th birthday but because I have noticed a huge increase in homelessness in our neighborhood. It makes me so sad to see people being forced to live out on the streets. I always donate money to charities but actually physically volunteering made me feel more “pro-active” in trying to help others.
I have been very blessed not to experience food insecurity. I have friends and relatives from all socioeconomic backgrounds, including people close to me who live in mobile home parks. So I am aware of how difficult the economy can be for people. Because I’ve been lucky to have a steady job since college, I feel it is my duty – and honor – to help others in any way I can. We always have to give back because we are, as they say, “Stronger Together.”
Q: Could you tell us a little more about your background and what role volunteerism and philanthropy have played in your life or your family’s life?
A: I am a writer by trade. I write children’s books and YA novels plus I am also a TV writer and producer. I currently am Co-Executive Producer of the series Pretty Little Liars: The Perfectionists on Freeform. My previous TV credits range from The West Wing to Supergirl. My books are published by HarperCollins, Lee & Low Books and W.W. Norton. Before books and TV, I was a journalist for many years for The Seattle Times, The Detroit News, and PEOPLE MAGAZINE.
In terms of volunteering and philanthropy, I have donated to many charities over the years. I have never volunteered until my 50th birthday in April at the Food Bank and it was a wonderful, rewarding and life-changing experience.
In terms of helping others, I do teach children between my TV jobs and book deadlines. I used to teach violin to at-risk kids in South LA many years ago (I am a professional free-lance musician), and I am a K-12 certified public school substitute teacher, so I have also enjoyed working in the school system when I can. I also do school presentations for my children’s books. In other words, I help feed children’s minds about the craft of writing and reading books. But knowing that my volunteer work at the LA Regional Food Bank would also help feed hungry children made me very grateful.
Q: Did you learn anything new or surprising about hunger or food insecurity while you were volunteering?
A: During my volunteer time at the Food Bank, I was surprised by how much food goes to waste. We had some vegetables donated that were already molding, so we were forced to throw them away. It made me sad to realize how much food we can waste, so that made me much more self-conscious and responsible after that not to waste fresh produce. I really appreciated that.
Q: Would you encourage others to volunteer at the Food Bank?
A: I would highly encourage everyone to volunteer at the Food Bank. I know we all have busy lives and unpredictable work schedules, so what makes the Food Bank “easy” is that it’s just a few hours out of your day. You don’t have to commit to a minimum set time (like having to volunteer X amount of days a month). You can just sign up whenever you have a free morning or afternoon. I love the convenience of that and definitely plan to volunteer again after my next writing deadline is completed!
Q: What is it that you wish more people in our community knew about hunger?
A: I wish people in our community knew how easy it is to donate food to the Food Bank. When you buy too many groceries and can’t finish everything, please donate to the Food Bank because that food should not go to waste. There are people out there who can’t afford to buy this food, and we should share it when we can. It’s heartbreaking to see trash bins filled with food gone to waste when it could have fed a hungry child or a homeless person trying to get back on their feet.
Q: What are you hopeful about?
A: The volunteers and the staff at the LA Regional Food Bank made me hopeful for our country because of their willingness to work hard to help others. Although we are a politically divided nation right now, we can find a common bond in kindness and compassion and a willingness to set aside our differences to those in need.
Q: Is there anything we didn’t ask you that you’d like to share?
A: I am grateful to have spent my 50th birthday at the LA Regional Food Bank. I not only found a new volunteer organization to work within the future, but I also made new friends and had fun! Thank you for celebrating my birthday with me. I will never forget this!