To many, Orange County is known for high-end shopping, affluent neighborhoods and, of course, Disneyland. But submerged beneath the county’s oft-glittery surface is the insidious problem of poverty.
According to U.S. Census statistics, median household income in Orange County is $75,998. However, 12.9 percent of county residents live in poverty (defined as annual income less than $12,331).
Poverty often leads to hunger.
“Orange County is a challenging place,” says Christina Hall, executive director of the Orange County Food Access Coalition. “It’s an expensive brand, but with high levels of poverty and food insecurity. We hide that very well.”
This is why there is a need for an organization like the Orange County Food Access Coalition (OCFAC), according to Hall. The group formed in 2010 to “implement sustainable solutions to hunger.” Hall has served as the organization’s executive director since July 2014.
With a focus on policy, research and advocacy, OCFAC strives to solve short-term hunger problems while also aiming for long-term solutions. The group’s 2015 policy agenda outlines initiatives it supports on the municipal, county, state and federal level. These include, but are not limited to: selling produce from school gardens; wellness policies for school districts in Anaheim and Santa Ana; the possibility of a county position related to centralized food security, legalizing seed saving and seed banks; and food assistance programs as put forth in the federal farm bill.
Another objective is maximizing Orange County’s food harvest while keeping food waste to a minimum. The Harvest Club of Orange County, an OCFAC initiative, gleans excess fruits and vegetables from backyard trees in order to help those who are food insecure. So far this effort has resulted in more than 100,000 pounds of fresh produce.
The work of an OCFAC urban agriculture project takes place at L’Avocat Orchard, located in the foothills of the Santa Ana Mountains. Volunteers who visit this historic orchard learn more about the county’s agricultural heritage and contribute to its revitalization.
Acknowledging that food waste is detrimental to bountiful harvests, OCFAC has joined with numerous other entities to reduce the level of food waste in Orange County. The Waste Not OC Coalition, of which OCFAC is a part, recovered 42.7 tons of food in the cities of Anaheim and Orange during the second half of 2014.
Additionally, Waste Not OC Coalition collaborates with Children’s Hospital of Orange County to identify those at risk of being food insecure, works with Anaheim City School District in a food recovery pilot program, and is partnering with California State University, Fullerton and the University of California, Irvine to put in place on-campus food pantries.
With a focus on low-income seniors and families, OCFAC’s Real Meals Project provides nutritious frozen meals to people who lean on food pantries for their food needs. Real Meals concoctions are made with whole grains, vegetables and lean meats.
OCFAC’s Healthier Food Drive initiative aims to educate donors that the quality of food they give matters (it doesn’t do much good if a person in need receives food high in sodium, sugar and fat).
The need for this kind of work in the county is widespread, according to Hall.
“Fifty percent of K-12 students in Orange County are on free or reduced-cost lunch,” she says. “But in Orange County, our work is often not thought of as necessary. So education is a large chunk of what we do. We educate about public health, food security, and the status quo.”
Some of that education is geared to training people on how to inform state lawmakers in Sacramento about food access.
“People in the community need to be able to talk to legislators,” says Hall.
Hall originally joined OCFAC in April 2010, and soon later became chair of a work group. Six years later, OCFAC is still built around work groups, which center on urban agriculture, food justice, poverty, homelessness, and more.
“We do all our work in work groups,” she says.
Hall says future goals for OCFAC will involve a strong push in continuing community outreach. One such effort will be supporting a sustainable agriculture conference scheduled for November 10, 2016 at California State University, Fullerton (in partnership with Seedstock).