OCC’s food aid strategy leaves some student need unresolved

Since the campus closed in early March only grocery store cards and other vouchers have been available.

Jessica Bustos, Oceana Christopher and Eva Muller, Staff Writers

Image courtesy of instagram

In an effort to fill in a gap left by the closure of Orange Coast College’s food pantry and cafeteria services, Food Service Management Instructor Alexandra Yates is working in a donated kitchen off campus to bring meals to needy students.

From a kitchen donated by the Marconi Car Museum in Tustin, Yates and six volunteers are collecting, packaging and distributing food from three Orange County locations and sometimes bringing meals to students’ homes with her own van. She is also delivering to other cities to provide food for seniors and elementary students.

Each day Yates distributes hundreds of meals put together from food donated to a third party non-profit organization and passed on to her.

She said she is in the kitchen Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. until 3:30 p.m. and has distributed over 12,000 meals since March 16.

“The goal was to make the food and bring all of it to OCC and do a drive through food thing, but since campus is closed we can’t do that. What we’ve been doing is delivering them to their doorsteps,” Yates said of her efforts to help feed students.

When the campus closed in mid-March, Yates was forced to take the OCC Food Recovery Program off campus too, and was relieved when she was offered the car museum’s kitchen as a workspace.

Yates’ attempts to stay on campus and continue packaging food in the campus kitchen were quashed when officials reportedly told her the kitchen was closed and wasn’t available for feeding hungry students.

Unlike OCC’s sister campuses Golden West College and Coastline College, which both have food distribution programs for their students, OCC hasn’t offered groceries on campus to needy students during the pandemic.

Kevin Ballinger, vice president of instruction, said OCC isn’t distributing food on campus because 50 percent of the student population live outside the district and officials are instead reaching out to students they know have a need.

“We’re calling students that we know have financial need, giving them gas cards, and plugging them in to the county programs,” Ballinger said.

Ballinger went on to compliment Yates and the job she and the volunteers are doing.

“First of all what Alexandra is doing is amazing. She’s going way above and beyond on her own time. Technically, the college does not have a food recovery program — it should be called the OC Food Recovery Project,”  Ballinger added.

Yates’ Instagram profile shows the organization as the OCC Food Recovery.

Alexandra Yates & Amy Wilson (@occ_food_recovery)

Ballinger said the campus kitchen isn’t available to Yates because it is dismantled and being readied to move to its new quarters in a new building by the fall semester.

Prior to the campus closing, Yates’ food recovery program was making around 500 meals per week and giving them away through Pirates’ Cove food pantry.

The pantry was open to all students in need and was serving hundreds of students each week.

Students who are part of the Guardian Scholars, a program designed to help students with ties to the foster care or juvenile justice system, are being triple impacted on the food front by the campus closure, said Gabrielle Ridley, the Guardian Scholars Program coordinator.

These students no longer have access to the Pirates' Cove for grocery shopping, they cannot access the Guardian Scholars’ drop-in center which provided breakfast, lunch and snacks, and they cannot utilize meal vouchers for on-campus dining which is provided through the Guardian Scholars program, said Cristina Crouth, a Guardian Scholars specialist.

“The majority of our students were utilizing these resources and identified it as a really crucial component for their ability to be successful in college and also to just, you know, live,” Ridley said.

Many students have identified basic living as their biggest need. According to a survey sent out by Ridley, 90 percent of the students in Guardian Scholars identified food and housing insecurity as well as losing jobs and having their hours cut.

Tony Altobelli, sports information director, confirmed that it would be valuable to some athletes to be able to use the food distribution service of the Pirates' Cove during the campus shut down.

Jason Kehler, OCC’s athletic director, said athletes could use a helping hand.

“There are athletes, just like any of the other students that are struggling right now, because they can't just walk over to the food pantry at this time,” Kehler said.

Additionally, students who are veterans utilized the Pirates' Cove when it was operating and so the closure is impacting veterans as well, said Jami Jacobi, a veterans affairs certifying official.

Despite this, OCC hasn’t offered to help students with meals and has instead focused on distributing emergency grocery store gift cards to students in need. The cards are available if a student approaches the college for help, but there appears to be little outreach right now.

In fact, an outgoing message from the OCC Cares coordinator recommends that students in need of immediate assistance contact Costa Mesa non profit Share Our Selves for immediate assistance when accessed through the OCC Cares link.

The pantry’s website requires users to create a separate account and is cumbersome to use. Several attempts to get into the pantry’s link were unsuccessful.

Yates said her food recovery program is able to reach out to students and can deliver meals to them in a day or two once she is aware of the need.

Susana Castellanos-Gaona, a student equity coordinator at Golden West, said when the campus closed a group of administrators got together and planned out how to reach students in need through an outreach effort and data tracking survey.

The group, comprised of a wide range of volunteer faculty and staff from campus maintenance on up, has made 4,391 tracked calls to a general population of students who are not already connected to other campus programs. They are conducting their own outreach and have been able to identify those with critical needs using a special color coded system.

“We really wanted to make sure that our students knew that we were there for them, so the way that we wanted to do it is by reaching out to them, each one of them, through a phone call. We are getting a lot of calls that are being connected and that’s where the data is coming from. We see the data and we see that there’s a need for the student and so we need to address it,” Castellanos-Gaona said.

The college is also offering an on-campus distribution of groceries every Tuesday and has developed a system that allows them to check in with every GWC student each week to make sure they are doing OK during the crisis, she said.

A small team of campus reps is available on campus at GWC each Tuesday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. to try and address students' needs as they come up.

“We’re trying to make it as seamless as possible. We know how difficult this time is and want to reduce any barriers that students are facing,” said Christina Ryan Rodriguez, GWC dean of enrollment services.

Although OCC received a grant of $9.1 million from the federal government last month with at least $4.5 million of that money earmarked for students in need of food, rent, medical or other services, many students are still unaware that the funds are available and have not been contacted directly. An application for those funds can be found on the college’s website.

In the meantime, Yates wants students to know that she is ready to help.

“If they’re hungry just contact me and I will get them food no matter what. There's no reason for them not to get food,” she said.