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Pandemic Profile: The Man Behind ‘Take What You Need Tuesdays’

Darnell Williams, founder of

Photo by Matthew Bowler

Above: Darnell Williams, founder of "Take What You Need Tuesday", hands out food in City Heights, San Diego, Jan. 26, 2021.

Listen to this story by Max Rivlin-Nadler.

Lemon Grove resident Darnell Williams, age 46, felt helpless as he saw the lines for food distribution growing during the early days of the pandemic.

"I was watching the news, during the lockdown, and I saw a line of cars at the stadium,” he said. “And I was wondering what they were there for. And they said they were there waiting hours for food. People just needed help.”

So Williams decided to do something about it. Along with some friends, he began collecting food from family and neighbors.

“We set up tables in front of my house that said, ‘Take what you need.’ And that day more people came by to take pictures than to take food,” Williams recalled.

But once word began to spread, those in need began to show up. By spring, Williams had moved “Take What You Need Tuesdays” to the corner of University Avenue and Fairmount Avenue. There, it runs from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. every Tuesday. People can pick up groceries they need for the week, no questions asked.

Reported by Max Rivlin-Nadler , Video by Matthew Bowler

RELATED: How A City Heights Restaurant Owner Found Success During COVID-19

Each week, Williams goes to local grocery stores to spend donated money on the groceries that people need. But buying in bulk during a time of scarcity raised some eyebrows.

“It took going out into the community and building a rapport with grocery store managers to give me a good deal on items and to sell to me,” he said. “Some grocery stores thought I was a hoarder.”

Williams, who worked in insurance before being laid off during the pandemic, recalled his own upbringing. He remembers days where his single mother didn’t have enough food for the two of them.

“As a child, my mom and I found ourselves living on the streets of Los Angeles when I was very young. And there was a time when we needed a program like this. And that program was a ‘no-questions-asked’ program that was at a church,” he said.

That experience inspired him to not turn anyone away.

Photo caption:

Photo by Matthew Bowler

Volunteers organize food at "Take What You Need Tuesday" in City Heights, San Diego, Jan. 26, 2021.

He says they average helping around 190 households at the distribution site each week. On Thursday night, Williams was honored with the MVP award from the Boulevard Improvement Association.

“People that do what I do don’t do it for awards. I told them last night that MVP for me stands for 'more vegetables please' because I’d rather have a case of canned corn to give out to people than an award,” he told KPBS. “But the award is nice.”

Williams has begun a non-profit to keep the work of “Take What You Need Tuesdays” going for as long as possible. And the work of the organization will continue paying it forward to the next generation.

“(My past) is why when I see a young kid coming in with his mom, it reminds me of where we were at. Maybe this kid will remember this program, and help somebody out,” he said.

He says people can help support food distribution through the organization’s Venmo page.

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Photo of Max Rivlin-Nadler

Max Rivlin-Nadler
Speak City Heights Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI cover City Heights, a neighborhood at the intersection of immigration, gentrification, and neighborhood-led health care initiatives. I'm interested in how this unique neighborhood deals with economic inequality during an unprecedented global health crisis.

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