Food pantry started by OCDE’s ACCESS program celebrates one year of serving students, families

During the pandemic, schools administered by OCDE’s Alternative Education division — also known as ACCESS — began hosting drive-through food and supply distribution centers to support their communities.

Food pantry

The demand in South Orange County turned out to be even greater than expected, underscoring the extent of food insecurity and the pressing need for a longterm approach in that part of the county. That prompted ACCESS staff to reach out to Second Harvest Food Bank of Orange County, an organization dedicated to providing residents with consistent access to healthy food.

And that’s how Capistrano Cellars School Pantry came to be. The space was established in May 2022 at the Orange County Department of Education’s ACCESS site in San Juan Capistrano through a partnership between OCDE and Second Harvest. One year later, more than 110,000 pounds of food have been distributed for free to over 15,000 people, or nearly 3,000 households.

“When we first opened our doors, we had a goal of serving 40 families in the South County community,” said OCDE Community Resource Specialist April Armijo, who coordinates pantry operations at the site. “We are so proud to say that we have exceeded our goal and are now serving over 90 families each week.”

Operates like a mini-market

Capistrano Cellars is modeled after another ACCESS pantry, the Eagle’s Catch, based at OCDE’s Skyview School. Like its predecessor, the name was chosen by students.

Operating Wednesday through Friday, the Capistrano site provides families with fresh produce, fresh and frozen food, bakery items, canned goods, and essential supplies like diapers and paper products. The pantry is staffed by parents and community volunteers — they include retired ACCESS teachers and probation officers — who assist with stocking the shelves and delivering groceries and supplies to families lacking transportation.

Food pantry supplies

“The school pantry model operates like a mini-market, complete with refrigerated and frozen foods sections, shelving space for bakery and other grocery items, and market baskets to display fresh fruits and vegetables,” OCDE Program Specialist Wendy Rogan said. “This model allows families to shop for and select the items that they most need, offering choices and a dignified way to access the food pantry.”

Resources and workshops

In addition to the pantry, Capistrano Cellars houses a Family Resource Center that distributes essential supplies to ACCESS students and their families, including backpacks, school supplies, hygiene products, emergency clothing and household items. Items are donated by community partners or purchased using funds allocated through the school’s Local Control and Accountability Plan. The center also hosts virtual parenting classes and workshops on topics of local interest, such as substance use prevention and parenting skills.

OCDE’s ACCESS program — the name is an acronym for Alternative, Communit​y and Correctional Education Schools and Services — is dedicated to providing educational opportunities and support to students who face unique challenges. The division offers a range of programs designed to meet the diverse needs of students, including those who may be at risk academically or have faced significant obstacles in life.

Luncheon attendees

On May 5, almost one year to the day of its opening, Capistrano Cellars celebrated its first anniversary by hosting a special thank-you luncheon to honor a team of dedicated volunteers who continue to make a difference in the lives of others.

“We are grateful for the partnerships we have developed with Second Harvest and several other community agencies,” said April Armijo. “These partnerships have allowed us to expand our reach and provide even more support to families in our community.”