Amid film aspirations, McAllen native used quarantine to hold bake sale benefits

Sunita Badiga visits her home of McAllen frequently, but when she left Los Angeles to come home for a wedding in March, the pandemic happened.

Badiga is one of countless Americans who were unable to return home due to stay-at-home and travel restrictions.

However, Badiga didn’t sit still during quarantine. She used the free time to get to work on baking goods and selling them to donate proceeds to various foundations.

Although she was born in New York, Badiga mentioned her family moved to the Rio Grande Valley when she was a toddler.

She lived in Weslaco for a while, before moving to McAllen around her middle school years.

But Badiga already knew what she wanted to do: she wanted to work in the film industry, but just didn’t know how to make it happen.

Things became clear when she took a course on producing at NYU.

“Because I was majoring in communications, I actually didn’t really have much…I wasn’t in film school,” Badiga said. “Because I wasn’t in film school, I kind of busted my butt trying to produce all of the junior, senior film projects … through that I made connections.”

Due to NYU’s film school’s prestigious reputation and the fact she wasn’t in it, Badiga had to work harder in networking to get her name out.

“I had the opportunity to take one producing class [in NYU] and that kind of changed it all,” she said.

Through several internships for various film companies such as Tribeca Film Institute and The Weinstein Company, Badiga turned her “want” into “accomplished.”

After receiving her bachelor’s degree from NYU, Badiga stayed in New York and continued working in production as a production assistant and an assistant director for several TV shows and movies, such as Amazon Studios’ “Mozart in the Jungle” — one of her biggest breaks.

“It just kind of fell naturally,” Badiga said. “Networking is like a game. When you’re in film, you just have to keep going and keep going and you kind of have to go nonstop, the hours are crazy, but yeah I kept going.”

In 2017, Badiga left New York for California. Two years later, during her time at the University of Southern California, Badiga received her master’s in Fine Art in producing for film, TV and new media.

Now living in Los Angeles at 27-years-old (unless you’re a casting director, then Badiga just turned 21, she joked), Badiga took a year to focus on her passion for stand-up comedy and acting by taking full-time classes and auditioning.

“I came from the business side of film, I’m just applying that on the other side which is being in front of the camera,” Badiga said after describing the industry as a hustle due to how much of it relies on networking. “I think I have a leg up in some ways and also having the connections and network that I had before, especially from my graduate program.”

Badiga says she comes home to McAllen often. When she can, she said, Badiga makes time to visit her family and friends in the Valley. When she was in town for a wedding three months ago, Badiga was forced to stay due to the restrictions being enforced at the time in response to the pandemic.

“I think when I came down, I was like, ‘Well what can I do with this time to make it useful, especially since the film industry is completely shut down and production has stopped,’” Badiga said about quarantine. “I did some research on foundations.”

Badiga’s pastries are unique in flavor and often include rosewater, lavender, cardamom, figs and edible flowers. She loves to decorate with fresh flowers and uses a natural, rustic design. (Courtesy of Sunita Badiga)

Through her research, Badiga chose the CDC Foundation and the Feeding America organizations and figured out how to help others: selling the baked goods she was baking to pass the time.

Due to the pandemic, Badiga took precautions by making the orders pick-up only, in addition to sanitizing her kitchen and making sure she was healthy when she needed groceries from the store.

According to Badiga, a basket was set up outside her door where she’d place the baked goods and whoever was picking up could walk up and take their pastries themselves.

Badiga’s father, local physician Dr. S. Murthy Badiga, agreed to match her donation, which is about $4,000, and will donate to the Food Bank of the Rio Grande Valley, she said.

“When my dad agreed to match, I had no doubt he would. We get it from him and my mom, so it made sense,” she said.

Additionally, her father helped Badiga take pastries to the hospital; he shared her fundraiser on his social media, where people from his work such as nurses wanted to order baked goods from her.

“It’s a little cliche, but the only thing I can say is that, you know, I got it from my parents in that sense,” Badiga said. “They always shared their table and just kind of always given back to the community as much as they could.”

However, this fundraising isn’t Badiga’s first, nor will it be her last.

Twice, Badiga organized a fundraiser to donate to reproductive rights. In 2017, herself and someone involved with reproductive rights activism at the time orchestrated a fundraiser at Edinburg’s The Grind Coffee. Although they raised around $500 for Planned Parenthood and Whole Women’s Health in McAllen, Badiga is still proud she was able to help out considering the circumstances.

In 2018, Badiga “decided to go a little bigger,” she said. She held the same fundraiser, but this time she contacted organizers at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.

With local clubs helping her out, they raised about $1,000 dollars and donated the proceeds to Frontera Fund and Whole Women’s Health.

With recent peaceful protests surrounding the death of George Floyd, a black man who was killed after a white officer knelt on his neck for about nine minutes, Badiga decided to raise funds again.

Badiga’s newly launched menu for her fundraiser. (Courtesy of Sunita Badiga)

After three weeks of the COVID-19 relief fundraiser, Badiga was happy with the response from the community, in addition to feedback and testing her own instincts through baking.

“That’s what I really use cooking and baking for,” she said. “For my own selfish reasons to kind of test my instincts and such because you’re kind of on your own when you’re baking.”

Curating by what people loved from her over the years, Badiga launched another baked goods menu on her Instagram — @la.mala.sol — and will be donating 20% of the proceeds to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

“For myself, I’m obviously not black and my life has never been at threat, but I am a person of color,” Badiga said. “I also thought, this can affect future generations and stuff and my own friends and family, so why not give back? Considering everything that’s going on, I’m in support of [Black Lives Matter].”

As for the future, as restrictions are being lifted and plans to restart film production are being tossed around, Badiga is taking her baking business with her.

“My LA friends have kind of been getting jealous,” she joked. “They’re like, ‘Can we place orders now?’”

With her fundraiser ending on Father’s Day, more information on ordering pastries from Badiga can be found by contacting her on her Instagram, @la.mala.sol.