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A Pacoima pupuseria is among the first to participate in reusable foodware program

After 14 years in business, Maria Flores recently celebrated a big change in her Pacoima restaurant, Pupuseria Cuzcatlan, that she hopes will save her money and help improve the environment.

The pupusas will remain the same, but they will now be served to dine-in guests on reusable foodware, thanks to a pilot effort launched by the Los Angeles Sanitation and Environment Reusable Foodware Microgrant program. She had previously served many guests on styrofoam plates.

The program provides financial support to small businesses in Boyle Heights, Pacoima, South Los Angeles and Wilmington that have dine-in operations to assist with the purchase of washable, durable and reusable foodware. Aside from saving eateries like Flores’ on the cost of buying single-use utensils and plates, the program is designed to cut down on the food containers that end up on the streets or in landfills.

The program has been in existence for about a year, but after outreach and an application process, the program is now in the phase of awarding applicants reusable foodware.

Maria Flores, left, owner of Pupuseria Cuzcatlan, holds up a coffee mug.

Maria Flores, left, owner of Pupuseria Cuzcatlan, holds up a coffee mug while checking out donated reusable foodware.

(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

On Wednesday, Flores unboxed $6,500 worth of reusable plates, cups, cutlery and other products with the support of the program. She hopes to look for alternatives to styrofoam containers the restaurant still uses for to-go orders.

She opened her restaurant in 2009 with the help of her son Manuel Salinas, 33, she said in Spanish. The community overwhelmingly welcomed the brick-and-mortar business after Flores had been selling pupusas from her home, the mother-and-son team said.

Like many businesses that struggled during the pandemic, they’re still looking to cut costs and continue serving the Pacoima community.

“I’m going to save a lot of money now because I won’t have to buy forks, knives and styrofoam containers for the pupusas on a weekly basis,” she said. “It was a lot of money.”

Salinas said they’re also proud to help reduce single-use foodware that eventually becomes “contaminants of littered containers or trash in the street.”

Los Angeles City Councilmember Monica Rodriguez was on hand Wednesday to congratulate Flores on being one of the first participants of the program.

Rodriguez said the program is an example of how government can support small businesses in becoming more environmentally friendly.

“The city is never going to be in a position to achieve our environmental goals alone, we need our residents, we need our business owners to help be part of the solution,” she said.

The Reusable Foodware Microgrant pilot program has received 104 applications, but the sanitation bureau is still accepting applications, said Paul Cobain, the bureau’s assistant division manager.

Brian Rivera, with Initiating Change in Our Neighborhood (ICON), uses a reusable plate.

Brian Rivera, with Initiating Change in Our Neighborhood (ICON), uses a reusable plate while helping himself to some pupusas at Pupuseria Cuzcatlan.

(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Interested food operators can visit the bureau’s website to learn more about the program and apply online.

For now, the pilot program is accepting applications from small businesses in Boyle Heights, Pacoima, South Los Angeles and Wilmington. The only eligibility requirement is that the business must have a dine-in operation.

Once an application is submitted, the bureau will review it and, if the application is approved, contact the operator to conduct a needs assessment, said Christine Batikain, an environmental supervisor and the project manager for this program.

The program is needs-based, so what a business receives is based on the size of the operation, what reusable foodware the business already has and whether the business wants to fully transition to reusable foodware. City officials say the funding is on a pilot basis and they hope it can be extended in the future.

The goal is to support businesses in a complete transition to reusable foodware, Cobain said.

“We’re looking at different ways to partner with small businesses to better understand what their day-to-day operations look like, what their waste stream is, and what we can offer to essentially supplement and support them,” he said.

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