Given its aura of affluence thanks to popular culture, it comes as a shock to many when they learn that Orange County has a surprisingly serious hunger problem. According to Feeding America’s most recent Map the Meal Gap 2016 data, 10.9 percent of county residents (approximately 335,000 people) experienced food insecurity in 2014. Of that number, 141,170 were under the age of 18. With about 750,000 children residing in Orange County, this means that one in five of the county’s young residents suffer some kind of food insecurity. County seniors suffer too, as recent data indicates some 44 percent of residents aged 65 and over struggle with accessing the healthcare, housing—and food–they need.
The list below includes a few of the Orange County organizations working to not only lower those numbers and increase access to fresh and nutritious food for those citizens who cannot afford to purchase it, but also to strengthen community via local food system development efforts.
OC Food Access Coalition
Established in 2010, this Santa Ana-based enterprise seeks to, “create access to healthy, local food options for Orange County’s most nutritionally vulnerable residents.” The organization does this via a combination of right-now and long-range initiatives. Their short-range efforts include The Harvest Club, a residential gleaning program, as well as The Real Meals Project, which provides low-income residents with nutritional meals they can prepare at home. This project also provides culinary classes to those who rely on food pantries to eat, thereby allowing them to make more nutritious meals and food decisions.
The Coalition’s long-range efforts are in the area of policy planning, advocacy and research. Recognizing that most Orange County data flows from state or national research, Coalition researchers are compiling a county-specific Food Needs Assessment in collaboration with several other county entities and educational institutions. This will provide valuable information to allow for the development of targeted solutions to the county’s food access problems.
Second Harvest Food Bank
Founded in October 1983 in a former packing house in Orange and now located at Irvine’s Great Park, Second Harvest Food Bank has a very simple goal: To end hunger in Orange County. They work towards this by acquiring surplus food through purchase and donation from farmers, ranchers, wholesalers, restaurants, grocery stores and supermarkets, the government and other sources. Once they have the food, they distribute it to the county’s hungry via their own programs as well as outside community partners and member charities. With an average monthly distribution of 1.8 million pounds of food, Second Harvest provides approximately 1.6 million meals that serve about 200,000 individuals each month.
Second Harvest’s programs include a Mobile Pantry, which transports perishables and dry goods to needy families, while the Senior Grocery Program provides seniors in need with nutritious groceries twice each month through local senior centers. The Great Park’s Incredible Edible Farm is where volunteers grow and harvest fresh fruit and vegetables, while The Kids Cafe, Mobile School Pantry, Permanent School Pantry, and Nutrition Outreach Programs target childhood hunger and malnutrition.
Community Action Partnership of Orange County (CAPOC)
This broad-based organization was created in 1965 as a direct result of President Lyndon Johnson’s declaration of War on Poverty in 1964. Since that time, it has been working with a variety of local and national partners to eliminate and prevent the causes and effects of poverty.
Many CAPOC programs focus on non-hunger related issues–such as economic security, strengthening families, providing greater independence for seniors and helping underserved youth gain access to educational opportunities. However, alleviating hunger in Orange County is a very big part of CAPOC’s efforts. On the federal level, they work with the School Lunch Program and Food Stamp Outreach to help low-income children and families get enough to eat.
Through the Orange County Food Bank, CAPOC works to end hunger and malnutrition. The Food Bank partners with nearly 400 local charities, farmers and other organizations to gather and distribute food at their 58,000 square foot warehouse. Each month, volunteers pack some 26,000 boxes of food and then load them on trucks for distribution to 50 sites around the county. The Food Bank also operates several programs targeting the county’s hungry, including a Farm 2 Family program that distributes produce shipped to the warehouse directly from farms.
Orange Home Grown, Inc.
This organization grew from co-founder Megan Penn’s desire to replicate the farmer’s market she’d shopped at while attending Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. After graduation, she returned home to Orange and together with friends and colleagues launched the Orange Home Grown and Artisans Market in 2011.
Today, the market is open every Saturday morning, rain or shine, at the historic Villa Park Orchard packinghouse at Chapman University. In keeping with the organization’s desire to support local agriculture, many of its vendors are Orange County growers and/or purveyors of fine foodstuffs manufactured from locally grown crops.
But Orange Home Grown’s efforts to engage county residents in the local food system go far beyond the Saturday market. In collaboration with other local entities, they also do significant educational outreach via farm tours, cooking and canning demonstrations, as well as their popular annual Urban Chicken Coop Tour. Other educational ventures include a community-based Education Farm as well as a Seed Lending Library created for community use and in partnership with the Orange Public Library.
Slow Food OC
The Orange County chapter of Slow Food USA began in 2011 and concentrates its efforts on increasing access to fresh, seasonal, fairly grown and nutritious food through the creation of school and community gardens across the county. It also engages in food education outreach and works to draw attention to others in Orange County who practice and promote a Slow Food way of life.
Their membership engages in a wide range of activities, ranging from installing a new irrigation system at a local community garden to attending a pasta-making class or a talk by a well-known author of organic gardening books. They also participate in farm tours and provide volunteers for like-minded organization’s educational and fundraising efforts.
The Ecology Center
Located in San Juan Capistrano’s 138-year old Congdon House, this educational organization was founded in 2008 with the goal of teaching “hands-on environmental solutions at the household, workplace and community level” in order to coexist with the planet’s natural systems.
The Ecology Center has several programs that work toward improving the local food system and creating access to fresh and healthy food in the county. Their Grow Your Own program provides training and development tools targeting the creation of school gardens, while their Farm to Fork cooking classes teach families how to create delicious meals from freshly harvested produce.