When shoppers step into the Laguna Food Pantry, the first things they see are baskets of colorful flower bouquets and fresh produce.
The pantry, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, prides itself on offering visitors a retail-like experience rather than simply handing out pre-selected food.
“Other pantries box food, and we’re really proud of the fact that we can allow them to shop,” Executive Director Anne Belyea said. “Taking away a plant or flowers also adds to it. … They don’t have to spend the money on a luxury like that.”
The pantry began as a relief center during the devastating fire that hit Laguna Beach in 1993, and it has been helping homeless and low-income people feed themselves and their families since. It has been an agency of the Second Harvest Food Bank of Orange County for 18 years.
The pantry is open from 8 to 10:30 a.m. Mondays through Fridays at 20652 Laguna Canyon Road, sandwiched between the Laguna Beach Dog Park and the Friendship Shelter’s emergency shelter.
According to Marianna Hof, a volunteer six days a week and a member of the pantry’s board of directors, the establishment started in a small house on the other side of the dog park. She estimated it used to serve 40 to 50 families a day, compared with the current 75 to 120 a day from across Orange County.
“We’ve grown steadily,” Hof said. “When I was thinking about how many people we serve, what short amount of time and in this small space, I kind of said to myself, ‘We’re small but mighty.’ ”
The shopping area truly resembles an overgrown kitchen pantry, with a tightly packed space for people to circuit around once. Fruits and vegetables are first, then dry goods, salads and sandwiches, meats, dairy items, desserts and bread.
“What we’re doing is supplying them with a week’s worth of items so they can put together meals,” Belyea said.
The typical shopper takes about 50 pounds of food. A shopper can visit the pantry once a week.
A single mother who declined to be identified said going to the pantry once a week supplements her food needs and leaves her feeling positive thanks to the friendliness of the volunteers.
“They’re always really nice and welcoming,” she said. “So it means a lot to us — it helps my little family.”
One of Belyea’s favorite things to do is offer young children who come with their parents a free stuffed animal or a book from the small supply near the door.
“We feed not only the body but the soul as well,” Belyea said.
Many of the 100 volunteers who work in the pantry and the 30 volunteer drivers who transport food have used the pantry’s services themselves.
After a long road of addiction, homelessness and jail time, Vince Jenkins spent a year and a half in the Friendship Shelter before he started going to the Laguna Food Pantry about five years ago. Now eight years sober and living in Santa Ana with a job as a trade show installer, he is a regular volunteer.
“I kind of identify with the people next door,” Jenkins said. “[Working at the pantry] is just about being helpful — having empathy for people. … I don’t have much money, but I can give my time because I have time, so that’s what I do.”
Other shoppers visit on behalf of others who can’t themselves, such as senior citizens and people with disabilities. Sally’s Fund, an outreach program for seniors in Laguna Beach, takes a bus full of shoppers to the pantry once a month.
With the pantry’s continued growth, Belyea said she hopes it will expand soon by adding a 10-by-20-foot space on the side of the facility that faces the dog park. A Laguna Beach Planning Commission meeting about the plan is set for December.
The pantry receives support from many community members, businesses and organizations. On Sunday, the Mike Johnson Group, a real estate firm, sponsored the Stock the Pantry Kitchen Tour of five Laguna Beach homes to raise money for the Laguna Food Pantry and SchoolPower.
The pantry is always seeking additional volunteers and donations, especially of peanut butter and jelly, macaroni and cheese, pasta and pasta sauce, rice and beans, tuna and cereal.