Profile: UCLA's Hunger Project Advocacy Director Sonia Lyengar

Hunger Project, a service organization at UCLA, strives to combat homelessness and food insecurity in Los Angeles.

Established in 1987, Hunger Project has partnered with local non-profit organizations such as PATH (People Assisting the Homeless) and goes to different sites every week. Volunteers at Hunger Project cook meals for the homeless population and also get to have conversations.

This year, Hunger Project has taken one step further and created the Advocacy and Policy Outreach branch to further its mission by constructing a more unified community, in order to keep the conversation about homelessness going. Its most recent program, Bruin Dine, focuses on relieving food insecurity experienced by UCLA students. Every Tuesday and Thursday from 9:30 to 10:30 p.m., leftover hot food from the dining halls is served free at Kerckhoff State Rooms.

Sonia Lyengar, a fourth-year biochemistry student, is the director of the advocacy committee. She told Her campus about the one-on-one relationships with people experiencing homelessness that are important to feel integrated into a real community.

Her Campus: How did you first get involved with the Hunger Project?

Sonia Lyengar: So I am actually a pretty unusual story. Most people that join Hunger Project when they are younger. I joined Hunger Project in my junior year, actually. And now as a senior, I help start the advocacy and government relations committee. So now I am a director, as opposed to a general member.

HC: How was your first experience as a volunteer at the Hunger Project sites?

SL: My experiences as a volunteer really are what made me want to start the advocacy committee. Our sites are really powerful, just because you get to go to Skid Row or transitional housing complexes, and you get to see really what the conditions are like for individuals that are homeless. It’s something when you’re not there, you can empathize with it, you can kind of get a little bit of sense. But once you’re there, you’re really immersed in the environment. You can smell what it smells like; you can hear what it hears like; you can see what it looks like. It’s just really awful, and it really makes you want to do something about it, and change the way that the conditions are for people that don’t have the voices to speak up for themselves.

HC: Did you experience any difficulties as a women being involved in the political aspect of Hunger Project?

SL: So we’ve just begun getting involved with all of that this year this year. So far for me, no, even though I know that’s kind of the general story. I think the difficulties are more, not just being a woman involved in policy making at this point, but being a young woman involved in homelessness policy making.

As an issue itself, homelessness policies are really difficult, it doesn’t get a lot of attention and it doesn’t get a lot of funding. We’re really trying hard to be with people that brings attention to what the conditions look like so we can help change that, and it looks like our city is definitely changing that. But in terms of the difficulties in being in these spaces, I’d say the difficulties are not just about me being a woman. It’s about me being a woman of color who is a student and I’m automatically taken less seriously. But that’s okay.

Members of Hunger Project (from left to right): Kienna Qin, Gauri Ganesh, Claire Chua, and Sonia Lyengar

HC: What is the most rewarding aspect of joining Hunger Project?

SL: Boy, that’s hard. I would honestly say even being on the advocacy committee now, I don’t really get to go to sites to much anymore, just because once you’re not a general member, they want you to take a step back so you can let other people have that experience. But for me, my favorite or most meaningful aspect of this is going to the sites itself. It’s definitely something that I miss a lot. I’m from LA and just as someone who lives here, we don’t really talk about Skid Row. My family would never let me go there, just because they’re worried about my physical safety. But now that I get to go and I get to see what that’s like, it just makes me want to keep going back more and more, and keep helping more and more.

HC: Do you stay in touch with people that you’ve helped?

SL: There are definitely people that I really like and we’ve seen multiple times. Every time you go back, you see some of the same people coming back over and over again to get food. A lot of those people, while they’re getting the food or while you’re setting it up to give it to them, you get to talk to them and you really get to hang out with them.

One of them, his name is White Boy, he’s vegan, so he doesn’t eat all the food that we bring, but he still comes and talks to us every time and he’s entertaining. I’ve definitely missed a lot of the people that I’ve met down there. All of us work together to build those one-on-one relationships, and having that personal contact is so important because, we recently went out to Westwood to talk to a lot of the homeless people there. What we ended up hearing from a lot of them is that having that one-on-one contact with people was so much more important to them than everything else. Because their condition isolates them, and it makes them feel like people don’t want to talk to them. And so they really want people to talk to them so they can feel connected back to society. Those one-on-one relationships are really personal and meaningful to all of us.

HC: One of the main themes of Hunger Project is education. How is it important in terms of solving food insecurity and homelessness issues? How did you first make that connection between these three aspects?

SL: That’s definitely a big question. Homelessness is one main issue, but for people that experience homelessness there are so many side issues that they experience and one of them is food insecurity. There is definitely a direct link between homelessness and food insecurity. Usually if you can’t afford a home, the chances are you can’t afford food and that’s kind of terrifying.

Especially now that we’re starting Bruin Dine for students on campus that are food insecure, having to be homeless, food insecure, and a student is just the worst trifecta that you can ever imagine. The link that I see between education and these issues like homelessness and food insecurity is that a lot of students on campus...We hear so much on the news about marginalized communities and a lot of the news reporting lately has been really good, but that doesn’t mean that everybody really gets and understands what that feels like.

The first step to getting people to empathize and want to help is education. I see us going down the Skid Row as education. That’s our personal education, we are learning about what it’s like to live someone else’s life, especially one that is far less fortunate. So I see the advocacy committee and Hunger Project and where we’re going this year, I see that as education helping the larger campus learn more about these issues through the lens of people like us that work with those issues daily.

HC: Congratulations on the launch of Bruin Dine! What are your aspirations for this program?

SL: I am one of the many people that helped Bruin Dine come into being. I guess our main goal is to reduce and de-stigmatize food insecurity, our second goal would be to reduce food waste, our third goal is to build a sustainable practice. We really want to make sure that students who are food insecure first know that they are food insecure and really recognize that and once you recognize that issue you can work toward changing it. It’s so hard to label yourself as food insecure, but we hope that by programs such as Bruin Dine, just providing meals without asking people to disclose anything about themselves, people will be able to meet the needs that they need to meet and be able to go by their daily lives, and also that food won’t get wasted.