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Kristina Wong wears all the hats. She’s a comedian, a performance artist, a community activist and a director. She also runs the Auntie Sewing Squad, a ragtag group of do-gooders who make face masks for vulnerable populations. She is an in-demand speaker at colleges and conferences, and, as an elected member of the Koreatown neighborhood council, she “votes on things, sits on the Planning and Land Use Management Committee and yells at developers.” The lady is busy.
In late 2019, after scanning “haul” videos and posts about people’s frugal food shopping trips, she fell down a YouTube rabbit hole watching videos by people who were spending only $10 a week on food. Between groceries and dining out, Wong was at the time, spending upwards of $1,000 a month on food. She decided to challenge herself and see if, in 2020, she could spend only $50 a month on groceries — an experiment that she would, of course, document on Instagram. Enter the age of the food bank influencer.
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DOING IT FOR THE ‘GRAM
The challenge of living under self-imposed economic or personal restrictions is a genre unto itself. There was the year of living by the Bible, the year without buying things from China, the year of zero waste (good luck cramming your garbage into a mason jar!) and the classic that started it all, Nickel and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich’s 2001 book in which she worked as a hotel maid, a waitress and a Wal-Mart clerk to explore the lives of minimum wage workers.
Wong doesn’t appear to be angling for a book deal. Her art has always had a strong civic focus, mixing her personal obsessions with her public politics. In 2020, after winning a seat on the Koreatown neighborhood council, she wrote and performed Kristina Wong for Public Office, a one-woman show that explored the experience of joining the political establishment. Her goal was to open peoples’ eyes to the importance of voting and local activism, while entertaining them with 75 minutes of comedy.
For this latest project, Wong isn’t’ interested in staging a full theatrical production (no bedazzled capes or Hillary-esque pantsuits this time). She’s more focused on minimizing food waste, scoring killer bargains and evangelizing for her favorite food pantry.
“It’s the most exciting thing to me,” Wong says of shopping at World Harvest Food Bank a Pico-Union market that looks like the low-key love child of a bodega and a Trader Joe’s. “It’s like the rush of being on a game show, a scavenger hunt, a shopping spree, Christmas. It’s like all that.”
Wong was on a sewing machine repair run when she first noticed World Harvest. Curious and with time to kill, she popped in to do a little shopping. She didn’t realize until she got to the checkout and heard told the total amount for her groceries — a mere $13 — that she was in a food bank. Inspiration struck.
“I started to make these videos where I just wanted people to see how much you could get and how not shameful it was to go and how like, actually just fun it was,” she says.
Artist and performer Mikki Yamashiro was converted to the cause of food banking after seeing Wong’s posts. Before her awakening, Yamashiro was spending approximately $150 a month on groceries. These days, she spends about $80.
“I really love what Kristina is doing. Her videos are so joyful, so fun and really inspired me to go. I tell everyone about it,” Yamashiro says. Now that she’s a World Harvest veteran, she has advice for newbies: “As a vegetarian, I call beforehand to check what the produce situation is like. That’s a pro tip I would offer.”
Fine artist Sara Chao also jumped on the food pantry wagon after watching Wong’s videos. Chao started going to World Harvest last year when her job was slashed to part-time. She frequently shares a cart with friends, some of whom haven’t been hit hard by the pandemic but still want to save money or reduce food waste.
She admires Wong’s practical application of her art. “I really enjoyed her take on performance art, taking it to the real world. And also bringing activism into it, too.”
After more than a year of making these videos, Wong still gets jazzed to shop and shoot. “I get really excited the day of,” she says. “It’s like, ‘Oh, I’m gonna get high today.’ I run through the aisles taking videos and more and more stuff is revealed. It’s like a happy haunted house.”
SISTERS ARE SHOPPING FOR THEMSELVES
On a recent afternoon, I accompanied Wong and two of her friends-turned-food bank-converts, Jessica Hanna and Dylan Kendall, to World Harvest as she shot her latest food bank “haul” video. It was like watching Supermarket Sweep, minus Leslie Jones. Hanna has been tagging along on these trips with Wong since early in the pandemic.
“She turned me on to it,” Hanna says. “I came in and volunteered and was able to feed myself really well and was just like: ‘This is amazing. Why is this place not packed with people all the time?'”It’s not an uncommon reaction when people first enter World Harvest Food Bank.
Located in an unassuming building on Venice Boulevard near Arlington Avenue, its small parking lot is so jampacked with pallets you’re lucky if you find a spot. You definitely want to drive here because you’ll leave with so much food, there’s no way you can schlep it on a bus or a bike.
At most food pantries, you get what you get — usually a pre-packed bag or box of food — and you don’t complain about it. At World Harvest, you pay a flat $40 fee then you shop just as you would in a regular grocery store. Anyone who can’t afford the $40 buy-in can volunteer to do four hours of work, typically something like sorting newly delivered goods or stocking the aisles. The products are always changing, depending on what’s been donated that day. Don’t be shy. You’re encouraged to fill your cart with as much stuff as it can handle. If you have a spare minivan, bring it.
On this day, World Harvest founder and CEO Glenn Curado greets Wong, Hanna and Kendall at the door. Their shared excitement about the donations from top-tier grocery stores (which he can’t name) and luxury hotels (also nameless) is infectious. Adding to the excitement, Hanna’s frequent shopper card means she her $40 cart of groceries is free. Shoppers and workers cheer as the cashier rings a bell to mark the occasion.
The three women have decided to split a single cart because World Harvest gives customers so much food, it’s too much for a single person to store, let alone eat. First, the ladies stock their cart with packaged foods. (Saltines, seaweed snacks and, randomly, water from a German airline.) Then, they add all the produce it can handle. (Peppers and citrus were abundant that day.) After, they head to the meat and dairy section where employees load them up with 10 pounds of Jidori chicken, shredded cheese and other goods. At their final stop, they receive pre-packaged meals of beef, broccoli and rice along with individually wrapped breadsticks, honey cashew bars and more snacks.
As they push their cart out to the parking lot, the’re followed by Curado and a couple employees carrying cases of San Pellegrino and World Harvest sweatshirts, because, seriously, this store will not let you leave without a ton of junk in your trunk.
“As you can see, it’s insane,” Wong says of their overflowing cart. “It’s a project. I don’t think my drunker younger self could have figured this out. But now that I’m sober and bored in the pandemic, I’m like obsessed with managing the food that comes in and out of my house.”
WASTE NOT, WANT NOT
Curado says World Harvest has seen a 300% increase in customers since the pandemic began, which makes sense. Numerous organizations around Southern California (and the United States) say food insecurity has skyrocketed in the past year.
“I would say probably 20% or 30% of our customers might be on EBT. My average customer is actually middle class and the rest are hard-working individuals. They’re just trying to make it,” Curado says.
He wants everyone, regardless of financial need, to feel comfortable shopping at World Harvest, citing the ridiculous amount of food waste in the country. Wong is onboard with the mission. “We have enough in this country. We just distribute it wrong. Shopping here is an interesting way to get to a more sustainable version of the food chain, short of jumping in a dumpster,” she says.
Her shopping experiences have made Wong rethink food access — who has it, who doesn’t and why. She was already living thriftily before the coronavirus pandemic. (When she was performing live, one of her favorite pastimes was raiding green rooms for goodies.) After COVID-19 shut down most comedy clubs and dried up many of her income streams, Wong decided it wouldn’t hurt to keep the challenge going. It meant she’d have to do a lot more cooking and start incorporating foods outside her comfort zone.
“It’s like being on this crazy episode of Chopped, where we have to go, ‘Okay, let me figure out how to cook this random thing,'” she says. Jackfruit was her bête noir. It took a lot of online research to figure out how to prepare it, then two hours to actually get it done the first time. She lived off it for two weeks but says she’d be happy to never see another jackfruit.
As Wong and her pals wrap up shopping and shooting for the day, they roll their loaded cart up to her well-worn Lexus (purchased for $1, long story, but know that she is a bargain shopper in all aspects of her life). There, they divvy up the goods. Wong cleans house on breadsticks and seaweed snacks. Kendall miraculously leaves with only a spaghetti squash and some cans of San Pellegrino. Hanna, the lone meat eater of the bunch, makes off with all the chicken and other animal proteins. Looking over their massive haul, she — like everyone I spoke with — says she makes sure all the food she gets at World Harvest finds a good home. “I will take whatever I can’t use and drop it at community fridges,” Hanna says
Wong’s $50 a month challenge — that’s $600 a year for the math-challenged — came in $42.19 under budget, a fact she announced on Instagram on New Year’s Day. She doesn’t see an end in sight to her budgeting-experiment-turned-performance-art-piece-turned-turned-lifestyle-choice.
Leaving the World Harvest parking lot, Wong shouts to Curado, “Thank you, food bank daddy!” and she heads home to upload her latest video, hoping to add a few more followers to her “Food Bank Fold.”
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