How 2 ‘NCIS: Los Angeles’ Assistant Directors Reassign Hollywood’s Groomed Leftovers to Skid Row

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Everyday action from Sam Luu and Hillary Cohen works to redistribute food waste on TV and movie sets. (Photo: Hillary Cohen/Instagram)

Trucks laden with gourmet meals — from steak to pasta to salmon and filet mignon — often pass through Los Angeles homeless camps on their way to Hollywood movie locations.

And the worst part is that two or three trays of leftover food would go to the bin.

This wasteful habit did not sit well with longtime television and film producer Hillary Cohen, an associate director at NCIS: Los Angeles. She asked, “Why are we throwing this away?”

“I just couldn’t help but feel what the person on the other side of the fence must feel when they see us eating all this amazing food and have no part in it,” Cohen tells Yahoo Entertainment.

LA accounts for 3% of the total population in the US, but it is home to 7% of the country’s homeless crisis. The number of tented camps in California has increased in the past two years as highway overpasses have become refuges for the homeless, with little or no access to food and water. Cities across the country are facing similar problems, fueled by a housing shortage, rising rents and a hangover from the pandemic.

Cohen wanted to make a difference and teamed up with her boyfriend and NCIS: LA colleague Sam Luu to found Every Day Action, a nonprofit dedicated to redistribution of food waste on TV and movie sets, during the midst of the 2020 pandemic. The program picks up leftover meals from Hollywood sets and serves these to underserved communities in the greater LA area.

“We got out of a Rolodex and… [made a call] to all our friends and said we started this. If you’re on a set, give us a call,” Cohen says.

The idea behind Every Day Action was to inspire people every day to do something for someone else. It started as an effort to make masks before it became a means to help solve the homeless crisis in LA.

Cohen and Luu, along with a small group of full-time and part-time ‘replacers’, collect leftover meals from various locations and deliver them to anyone who needs them. These reassigners—a term used to describe the dedicated team of production assistants, stand-in actors, and crew members—safely and quickly pick up and set up meals from sets across Southern California, from downtown LA to Santa Clarita. community refrigerators, homeless shelters and encampments.

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In its first year, Every Day Action raised $40,000 through donations. In its second year, the organization raised $100,000 thanks to a grant from Broadway Cares and donations from shows and celebrities. Singer and talk show host Kelly Clarkson donated $10,000, equal to NCIS and Sprouts. Whole Foods also donated $25,000 to the charity.

Freeform’s good problems was the first TV show to sign up. Since then, Every Day Action has collaborated with 15 sets, including those from UKTN NCIS: Los AngelesHBOs Insecure and Euphoria and ABCsThe Goldbergs, which saves about 2,000 meals a week. In the past month, it has reallocated nearly 9,000 leftover meals, the most in any month since the program began. Last year, it saved about 110,000 meals — big enough to fill the LA Coliseum.

“We want to be the standard for everyone in Los Angeles and eventually California,” Luu told Yahoo Entertainment. “We should be part of every single [Hollywood] production. No production should waste food.”

More than 60,000 people are homeless in LA County, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. Nearly 40% of out-of-home individuals in LA County reported experiencing mental illness or substance abuse problems.

Luu has a “different sensitivity” to the LA homeless problem. The daughter of a Vietnamese-Chinese father and Mexican-Spanish mother, Luu learned not to waste food, even calling it a “crime against nature.”

“Food is how you express your love in cultures, especially mine,” explains Luu. “There are so many people who need help. To just walk by or just ignore people, it’s terrible,” she adds. “I just couldn’t ignore it anymore, and I’m not sure how anyone can.”

Luu grew up in Arkansas but has lived in LA since 2006. She has seen the city’s homeless population explode. Watching her mother’s brother struggle with schizophrenia, Luu spent most of his life in and out of mental health facilities. “I knew what that was like for us, inside and outside facilities. You get into the system,” says Luu. “The system has let a lot of people down.”

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Two years ago, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Luu saw a homeless man in the shade by a palm tree. She thought he might need food, so she pulled over her car and gave the man a hot meal. She introduced herself, sat down with him and had a conversation.

“He told me he lost his sister. And that drove him crazy,” Luu recalls. “Every day he didn’t feel like living.” Luu called her brother Hungly, 42, deceased two years ago and had a “delightful cry” with the homeless man. Luu asked if she could put her hand on his shoulder because she felt the man needed a human touch or human connection. He said it was okay, and then he said to her, “Look, what a beautiful thing you do with your sadness.”

In that moment, Luu knew she had to keep going and not give up after a rough year.

Cohen chokes on a moment last year when she visited an encampment on Gower Street in Hollywood. While many in the camp were grateful for the hot meals, some could not eat because the food ran out within minutes. There were just too many people in need of food.

“The hardest thing is not having enough” [food], and to say ‘no’ to someone. Not having enough food is hard for me and Sam, which is why we want [Every Day Action] to get as big as possible,” says Cohen.

“Hearing someone say, ‘I’m hungry’, it’s terrible. If someone is on drugs, you don’t know why they are on drugs,” Cohen continues. “Maybe they were in the war and they can’t get off that drug. Maybe they broke their leg and a doctor gave them a pill, and now they’re addicted to it. Maybe they’re addicted to drugs, because that’s what their brain is like.” is wired. It doesn’t make them a bad person or someone we shouldn’t help. Everyone needs help at some point.”

Cohen and Luu admit that maintaining the program has been tough, even though the reward far outweighs anything they’ve done in their careers. Apart from carefully managing their daily tasks on NCIS: LA, they coordinate the schedules for food packaging, pick-ups and deliveries. It is a heavy workload that is becoming increasingly challenging to sustain.

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Every Day Action offers a contract that any studio can sign, completely exempting it from any legal ownership or responsibility for the surplus food. Each meal is carefully sealed in trays and placed in warm thermal bags (or Grub Hub bags). Most food deliveries are made at the Los Angeles Community Fridges, a nonprofit organization that operates a network of decentralized, independent refrigerators and pantries.

All transferors must wear a safety vest with an alarm. They must wear a mask, face shield and gloves during labour. No one is allowed to visit encampments alone and must travel with a ‘buddy’.

“You have to be on a team of two,” says Cohen. “We’re not going to Skid Row without a guide.”

A typical day for Cohen and Luu goes something like this: Waking up at 5am to go to work NCIS: LA. A normal working day is about 10 to 12 hours. That gives them a short time to organize the Every Day Action plan, which includes sending driver data and collecting and packing food from nine to 15 sets.

Luu says Cohen handles most of the schedules in the evening. “She sleeps less than I do,” Luu says. “She’s kind of a pro napper right now. Poor thing. She works 24 hours.’

Cohen says she gets about four hours of sleep, while Luu gets “a little more” of sleep. “Five is probably more of my average. Seven if I’m lucky,” says Luu.

“Some people doubt our sanity,” Luu jokes.

It’s an exhausting process that both women admit can become untenable if the collection goes beyond 20 sets. The ultimate goal of Every Day Action is to be fully funded so that it can buy a food truck and hire more employees. Cohen and Luu envision a best-case scenario where a food truck loaded with reassigned meals is scattered along Skid Row. Recently, the program received a major boost with the purchase of a van through a generous donor.

Cohen and Luu often repeated a sentence when they hit a wall or ran into problems. “Not today but tomorrow,” they say. So they both hope that if it’s not today, maybe tomorrow will be better.

“Yes. It’s hard,” admits Luu. “I don’t think we’ve worked that hard all our lives, but there’s just a different energy behind this work, because you make a difference.”

To donate food to Every Day Action, visit the website at: youreverydayaction.org.

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