How 2 ‘NCIS: Los Angeles’ assistant directors are reallocating Hollywood’s catered leftovers to Skid Row

Sam Luu and Hillary Cohen's Every Day Action is working to reallocate Hollywood's leftover set food to homeless encampments. (Photo: Hillary Cohen/Instagram)

Sam Luu and Hillary Cohen’s Every Day Action is working to reallocate food waste on TV and film sets. (Photo: Hillary Cohen/Instagram)

Trucks loaded with gourmet meals — from steak to pasta to salmon and filet mignon — are frequently seen driving past homeless encampments in Los Angeles en route to Hollywood film locations.

And the worst part is that there would be two or three trays of leftover food headed for the trash bin.

This wasteful habit didn’t sit well with longtime television and film producer Hillary Cohen, an associate director on NCIS: Los Angeles. She asked, “Why are we throwing this out?”

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

L.A. accounts for 3% of the total population in the U.S., but it is home to 7% of the nation’s homeless crisis. The number of tent encampments in California increased over the past two years as highway overpasses have become havens for the homeless, with little or no access to food and water. Cities across the country face similar problems, fueled by a housing shortage, rising rent prices and a hangover from the pandemic.

Eager to make a difference, Cohen teamed up with her friend and NCIS: LA colleague Sam Luu to create Every Day Action, a nonprofit organization working to reallocate food waste on TV and film sets, during the middle of the pandemic in 2020. The program picks up leftover meals from Hollywood sets and serves them to underserved communities across the greater L.A. area.

“We got out a Rolodex and [made a call] to all of our friends and said we’re starting this thing. 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 a mask-making endeavor before becoming a vehicle for helping fix L.A.’s homeless crisis.

Cohen and Luu, along with a small group of full-time and part-time “reallocators,” collect leftover meals from various locations and deliver them to anyone in need. These reallocators — a term used to describe the dedicated team of production assistants, stand-in actors and crew members — safely and swiftly pick up meals from sets across Southern California, from downtown L.A. to Santa Clarita, and drop them off at community fridges, homeless shelters and encampments.

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, matching the amount from NCIS and Sprouts. Whole Foods also donated $25,000 to the cause.

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Freeform’s Good Trouble was the first television show to sign up. Since then, Every Day Action has partnered with 15 sets, including CBS’s NCIS: Los Angeles, HBO’s Insecure and Euphoria and ABC’s “The Goldbergs, saving approximately 2,000 meals a week. This past month, it reallocated nearly 9,000 leftover meals, the most in any month since the program began. Last year, it saved about 110,000 meals — large enough to fill the L.A. Coliseum.

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

More than 60,000 people experience homelessness in L.A. County, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. Almost 40% of unhoused individuals in L.A. County reported experiencing mental illness or substance abuse issues.

Luu has a “different sensitivity” to L.A.’s homeless problem. As the daughter of a Vietnamese-Chinese father and Mexican-Spanish mother, Luu was taught not to waste food, even calling it a “crime against nature.”

“Food is how you express your love in cultures, especially mine,” Luu explains. “There are so many people who need help. To just walk past it or just ignore humans, it’s an awful thing,” 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 L.A. since 2006. She has seen the city’s homeless population explode. Luu saw her mom’s brother struggle with schizophrenia and spent most of his life in and out of mental health facilities. “I knew what that was like for us, being in and out of facilities. You end up in the system,” Luu says. “The system has failed a lot of people.”

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

“He told me that he lost his sister. And that’s part of what drove him crazy,” Luu recalls. “Every day, he didn’t feel like living.” Luu mentioned her brother Hungly, 42, died two years ago and had a “lovely cry” with the homeless man. Luu asked him if she could put her hand on his shoulder because she felt the man needed some human touch or human connection. He said it was OK, and then he told her, “Look, what a beautiful thing you’re doing with your grief.”

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

Cohen chokes up while recalling a moment last year when she visited an encampment on Gower Street in Hollywood. While many at the encampment were grateful for the warm meals, some couldn’t eat because the food was gone within minutes. There were just too many people who needed food.

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

“To hear someone say, ‘I’m hungry,’ it’s awful. If someone is on drugs, you don’t know why they’re on drugs,” Cohen continues. “Maybe they were in the war and 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 are addicted to drugs because that’s the way their brain is wired. It doesn’t make them a bad person or not someone that we shouldn’t help. Everyone needs help at some point.”

Cohen and Luu admit maintaining the program has been taxing, even though the reward is far greater than anything they’ve done in their careers. Aside from carefully managing their daily tasks on NCIS: LA, they’re coordinating the schedules for food packaging, pick-ups and deliveries. It’s a heavy workload that’s getting more challenging to sustain.

Every Day Action offers a contract that any studio can sign, fully releasing it of any legal ownership or responsibility of the food excess. Each meal is carefully sealed in trays and placed in hot thermal bags (or Grub Hub bags). Most food drop-offs are done at the Los Angeles Community Fridges, a nonprofit that runs a network of decentralized, independent refrigerators and pantries.

All reallocators must wear a safety vest with an alarm. They must wear a mask, face shield and gloves during delivery. No one is allowed to visit encampments alone and must travel with a “buddy.”

“You have to be in a team of two,” Cohen says. “We don’t go to Skid Row without a guide.”

A typical day for Cohen and Luu goes something like this: Wake up at 5 a.m. to start work on NCIS: LA. A regular workday is about 10 to 12 hours. That gives them a short window to organize the Every Day Action plan, which includes sending out driver details, and collecting and packaging food from nine to 15 sets.

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

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

“Some people have questioned our sanity,” Luu jokes.

It’s an exhausting process that both women admit could become unsustainable if the collection goes beyond 20 sets. The ultimate goal for Every Day Action is to get fully funded, allowing it to purchase a food truck and hire more workers. Cohen and Luu envision a best-case scenario where a food truck loaded with reallocated meals being distributed all along Skid Row. Recently, the program got a big boost by acquiring a van through a generous donor.

Cohen and Luu would often repeat a phrase whenever they hit a wall or run into issues. “Not today but tomorrow,” they say. So, they’re both hoping that if not today, maybe tomorrow will be better.

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

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