Students Help Mobile Pantry Feed North County

CSUSM student Isamar Cruz setting up for the Mobile Food Pantry event CSUSM student Isamar Cruz setting up for the Mobile Food Pantry event.

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In eight locations all over North San Diego County, a new kind of food truck makes regular stops. It is a food pantry on wheels, distributing nonperishable food items and fresh produce to rural and migrant communities with limited access to healthy food options.

During each of the 16 monthly distributions, CSUSM student volunteers help community leaders and a charity called Feeding America distribute the food.

This Mobile Food Pantry program was pioneered by The National Latino Research Center (NLRC) at CSUSM and the nation’s leading domestic hunger-relief charity, Feeding America, along with Vista Community Clinic and Community Housing Works. These organizations partnered with community leaders all over North San Diego County to facilitate the mobile pantry stops.

The Mobile Food Pantry is a ten-door refrigerated truck operated by Feeding America that picks up staple items, grains, dairy and fresh produce from a warehouse and delivers them to eight cities twice a month.

“For those who are dependent on agriculture as a livelihood, the fluctuations of the seasons often result in financial instability,“ said Arcela Nuñez-Alvarez, Research Director for the NLRC. “The idea for the Mobile Food Pantry came about in order to meet the nutritional needs of this population.”

The NLRC’s research demonstrated a need for food access in rural areas. This led staff at the NLRC and Feeding America to co-write a grant proposal for the funds to purchase the refrigerated truck. The proposal argued that many members of rural communities could not access healthy food because of the limitations of transportation and infrastructure in those regions.

In 2010 Feeding America received the funds to purchase the truck which they now use to make deliveries each month to Bonsall, Fallbrook, Julian, Pala, Pauma, Rainbow, San Marcos and Vista.

Allyson Diaz, Family Programs Coordinator for Feeding America San Diego, noted that when they were looking for opportunities to partner with local communities in the North County, they looked for more than just a truck parking spot.

“We were looking to serve in high need areas with partners that had a lot to offer,” she said. “The NLRC helped connect us with community members, organizations and volunteers to offer resources and health and nutritional education to the community, in addition to the food.”

Mobile Food Pantry volunteers with nutrition demonstration
Mobile Food Pantry volunteers give a nutrition demonstration

The project is truly a community effort. Feeding America works with local food banks and major grocery stores to provide the food for each distribution. The NLRC helps to staff these pop-up food banks with CSUSM students and community interns from Palomar College.  With a grant from The California Endowment called Poder Popular para la Salud del Pueblo, local community leaders arrange and staff the facilities as well as communicate to the community about the events.

Students roll up their sleeves

Student volunteers fulfill their community service learning requirements by helping out at one of the eight locations for a semester. Ten CSUSM students are involved with the mobile pantry project this semester, but NLRC intern and program coordinator Flor Alvarez would love to have more.

Alvarez has been coordinating the Mobile Food Pantry project for the past two years as NLRC volunteer intern while she is a student at Palomar College.

In addition to providing opportunities for service learning, the NLRC staff also helps to train students for service outside of the classroom.

“When students come to us from one of the service learning courses we walk them through what to expect out in the community and help to culturally and linguistically prepare them for what they will experience,” said Nuñez-Alvarez. 

CSUSM junior Isamar Cruz, a volunteer at the mobile food pantry and intern at the NLRC, finds value in putting her education into action. "I like that we get a different perspective of helping people,” she said. “It’s one thing to talk about service in the classroom and it’s a different experience when you’re out in the community.”

After the training students arrive to their preferred location up to an hour early, help to unload and stack up all the food from the refrigerated truck onto tables and assist in the distribution process along with other volunteers.

The relationships that volunteers develop inspire them to stay involved in their local communities for a long time after graduation.

“I love that I get to have personal connections with the community leaders and the people we’re providing for,” Cruz said. “I know them by name and talk with them as if we have been friends for a long time.”

Another example of this is Daisy Resendiz, a North County native and Caly Poly San Luis Obispo grad who volunteers with the mobile food pantry through her internship with the NLRC.

“We talk a lot about giving back to the community. This is what it looks to give back. People have immediate needs and the community steps in to help,” said Resendiz.

Cruz, a human development major with plans to become a nurse, hopes to stay involved with the food pantry and her work with the NLRC as long as possible. 

“I get the feeling of fulfillment when I’m doing something that matters to people and helps people in need. When a person gives you a heartfelt thank you, that is what makes everything worth it,” she said.

"We get a different perspective of helping people,” said CSUSM student volunteer Isamar Cruz. “It’s one thing to talk about service in the classroom and it’s a different experience when you’re out in the community.”