At a bustling farmers market at Santa Ana High School on a recent Thursday, families packed shopping carts, cardboard crates and strollers full of fresh produce. The day's bounty — onions, potatoes, chili peppers, apples, pears, watermelon, plums and carrots, plus containers of oatmeal and boxed cereal — was all completely free.
The monthly open-air market is part of Second Harvest Food Bank's mobile school pantry program, which offers free fruits and vegetables at 30 schools across the county.
"My resources are very limited, so the ability to get so much free food is a blessing," said Josefina Xochitla-Garcia, a single mother of five whose 15-year-old son attends Santa Ana High School. "Now I go to the store knowing that I already have this stuff, so I can get other things. And I feel like a lot of people in the community are in the same boat."
About 91% of Santa Ana Unified School District students qualify for free or reduced-priced meals, meaning their families are living at or below 185% of the poverty line.
While Second Harvest has been distributing food to needy families in Orange County for more than 30 years, offering fresh produce at schools is a relatively new strategy. The idea is that by bringing healthy food out into the community — instead of keeping it all in a centralized food bank — families will have an easier time accessing goods they need.
Now in its third month, Santa Ana High School's October farmers market served 278 families, who each received about 30 pounds of food. Second Harvest is aiming to bring the program to six new schools each year, so that they'll reach 48 by 2021.
"We're bringing it to a space where the parents are already coming," said Ellie Nedry, community programs manager for Second Harvest Food Bank Orange County. "They're coming to drop their kids off from school or pick them up. It's also a safe space — it's already a place that they trust and feel comfortable coming to. It's familiar to them."
Jeff Bishop, principal of Santa Ana High School, said that this familiarity is particularly important to his students' families, many of whom are undocumented immigrants.
"Whereas in other communities, they have welfare, that support system, that safety net, these folks don't have safety nets — so that safety net becomes the school," Bishop said. "Of course, in the world right now, they don't even want to open their doors, so we're going to open up. When you come here, you're going to have a fortress, someone you can trust."
"We want parents to know that we love them and want them here," Bishop said.
The market is open to anyone, not just the parents of students, said Nedry, and Second Harvest doesn't ask for income verification or about citizenship status.
Wendy Sarinana, a parent volunteer who helps run the market, agreed.
"People feel secure in a high school," she said. "With everything that's going on, they don't want to just show up somewhere. You've seen what happens sometimes, so in a school setting they feel that they're not in any sort of danger. It's a safe environment."
And as for students, they feel like they are contributing something to the household, said Sarinana, who has a 15-year-old at Santa Ana High School.
"A lot of the kids feel that way, like it's my way of helping my family," Sarinana said. "The kids are calling their families saying, 'Come,' because they know the struggle."
To find a Second Harvest food distribution site, visit www.feedoc.org/get-help or call the food assistance helpline in English or Spanish at 855-2-FeedOC (855-233-3362).