By Brian Park

David Bordages and Ray Poncé help oversee food distribution to struggling families through Mission Basilica’s Serra’s Pantry & Outreach Ministries. Photo by Brian Park

When Wendi Stewart hurt her knee two years ago while working as a hotel housekeeper, her injury was such that she could not keep her job. Life got more difficult for the Capistrano Beach resident and single mother of a six-year-old, when she took a spill down a flight of stairs and hurt her back and shoulder.

“The injuries stripped my ability to work. No money was coming in. Money was only going out,” Stewart said.

Stewart, who struggled to keep her finances in order even before her injuries, is currently receiving workers’ compensation and often relies on food stamps, now known in the state as the CalFresh Program and federally as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

But while government assistance has helped, it can only do so much. By the end of the month, when her food credits have run low, Stewart is forced to tighten her purse strings even further to feed her small family.

To further compound matters, on Tuesday, October 9, Los Angeles Regional Foodbank CEO and President Michael Flood and Second Harvest Food Bank of Orange County CEO Nicole Suydam held a media teleconference to talk about the increasing difficulty of meeting demands for food assistance due to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s dwindling supply numbers in the wake of the 2008 global recession.

What that means for Stewart, and for more than 3.5 million other Californians like herself who receive federal food aid each month, is that the helping hands of local charitable groups and organizations are often the last resort to keep food on the table.

Fortunately, one such entity exists in San Juan Capistrano, and it has drawn support from local volunteers and businesses to help struggling families in south Orange County.

Serra’s Pantry & Outreach Ministries, the service-focused arm of Mission Basilica, has been providing food assistance to local families for more than 20 years.

What began as a charity-driven service, working out of a small church office to help a few parish families, has grown into a nonprofit organization, 80-plus volunteers strong, that provides groceries and hygiene items for more than 500 different families in need each month.

In addition to food assistance, Serra’s Pantry also provides financial and transitional support for single mothers, abuse victims, individuals with special needs and the homeless. Each December, the group also distributes up to 1,000 donated gifts and holiday meals to more than 300 families.

“It’s the jewel of our social service ministry, just like Mission San Juan Capistrano is the jewel of the California missions,” Serra’s Pantry leader David Bordages said.

Every Monday, Wednesday and Saturday morning, rain or shine, Bordages and his team of volunteers collect donated food, package them in grocery bags and distribute them to around 300 different families per week.

Serra’s Pantry asks few questions of their “clients.” Their only requirements are that individuals provide identification, proof that they live in one of the 12 serviced communities—which includes San Juan Capistrano and those that are generally adjacent—and that families meet income guidelines set by the USDA’s Emergency Food Assistance Program. For a family of four, that means an annual household income of $34,575 or less.

Client families are only allowed to receive donations once a week, but for many, once-a-week is enough to make it through difficult times.

“We’re really lucky to have this. I know that I can feed my kid and not worry, so I can pay my bills,” said Stewart, who added that she is a regular parishioner at Mission Basilica and that she only visits Serra’s Pantry when she absolutely has to. “It saved my life. Without Serra’s Pantry, there wouldn’t be any other options.”

Although Serra’s Pantry is registered with Second Harvest, through which they receive a twice-monthly allotment of federal food supplies, most of the food items they distribute are donated from the parish, non-parish groups and individuals, local markets and businesses and canned-food drives organized by local schools.

Jeri Gesto and Lois Brown for broken or cracked eggs to dispose before distributing before cartons are distributed to Serra’s Pantry’s clients. Photo by Brian Park

A typical day for volunteers begins at 7:30 a.m. with their “grocery rescue.” The group has worked out agreements with several local markets, including Albertsons, Ralphs, Trader Joe’s and Vons, to pick up food items that are nearing the end of their shelf lives. Once they are delivered back to Serra’s Pantry, volunteers immediately store meat, poultry and fish products into freezers. Produce, dairy and bread and cereal products go through a rigorous quality inspection and egg cartons are checked for broken and cracked eggs to dispose.

“The fruit might be a little more ripe, some people say, but it’s all still good to go,” Bordages said. “We have such a quick turnaround that the food we get, we give out within a week.”

“It’s amazing the quantity of things we receive and it all disappears by the end of the day,” added Ray Poncé, a Mission Basilica parishioner who leads volunteers during Wednesday distribution days. “These are high-quality products that you or I could go into the store and buy.”

After all the food is inspected, one dairy item, one or two meat, poultry or fish items and a pound of rice and beans are placed into grocery bags. At 11 a.m., clients, who often line up an hour in advance, enter Serra’s Pantry in groups of six. They are given the filled bags and their choice of produce and bread as well.

According to Bordages and Poncé, the group aims to provide clients with a balanced and healthy mix of grocery items. Once a month, a dietician from Second Harvest also visits to give clients a live demonstration on how to cook nutritious meals.

“We also have pastry items and sweets available that we used to include,” Bordages said. “We’re not in a position to say don’t give your kid a cupcake, but if they have a birthday party coming up, who are we to say no? We now give them a choice.”

The ability to choose isn’t exclusive to pastries. Another important aspect of Serra’s Pantry is its market, which is stocked with canned food, condiments and other products, such as shaving cream, laundry detergent and diapers. Clients are allowed to use the market once every other week. There is no cash exchange involved, so volunteers assign point values to items, which generally run between one to two points, and clients are given point credits based on their family size. The largest tier of credit, eight points, is for a family of one adult and six children.

“The market provides the experience of shopping, of having your choice of what you need,” Bordages said.

Food distributions typically end at 12:30 p.m., and by then, between 110 to 140 clients will have passed through Serra’s Pantry, according to Poncé. Throughout the time volunteers are on site, they also hand out “flips,” pre-packaged sandwiches or salads, to around 20 to 25 regular homeless visitors, according to Bordages.

On Mondays and Wednesdays, there are usually around 30 volunteers who arrive to help at Serra’s Pantry. Monday distribution days are led by Jesse and Sonia Perez. Most of the volunteers are parishioners at Mission Basilica. Saturdays, which are led by Sue Connor, draw a more diverse crowd of volunteers, including students from local high schools, groups from other area churches and even those who have to fulfill court-mandated service hours.

“We don’t ask a lot of questions (of those who are required to do community service). They’ll go through the same orientation as everyone else, and a lot of them still come back because they like what they do,” Bordages said. “We have a core group of volunteers that are really faithful.”

“It’s work, but it’s a lot of fun. The volunteers we have are amazing people and there’s such a camaraderie,” Poncé added.

To learn more about Serra’s Pantry & Outreach Ministries, including information on how to volunteer or donate, visit serraspantryoutreach.org.

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