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by Jill McKenna

Fewer than 10 miles from Disneyland, Angel Stadium, Honda Center and other monuments to prosperity, approximately 15% of the population lives below the federal poverty level. But one small Episcopal congregation is fighting hard to alleviate food insecurity in this densely populated area of Orange County.

St. Anselm of Canterbury’s Sharing Abundance, a food-outreach ministry, provides weekly donations of fresh produce, meat, dairy products, and baked goods to clients in Garden Grove.

“Many of the people we serve are low-income. Many are elderly immigrants,” said the Rev. Jeffrey Clawson, priest-in-charge at St. Anselm’s. “We get about 150 people in our line every Tuesday to receive food for their households, which translates to about 500 people served weekly.”

The food ministry is led by Clawson and Rachel Fonseca; along with Lola Watson, food committee leader, Marcos Cumplido, dispatcher, and Hoa Mai Huynh, pastoral assistant to the Vietnamese congregation. They are supported by about 36 volunteers who pick up and distribute food on Tuesdays and Saturdays.

St. Anselm’s is a small, diverse congregation located near Orange County’s Korean and Vietnamese districts, and with substantial Latino population as well. Services are held in Spanish, English, Vietnamese and Korean every Sunday. The Sharing Abundance leaders are divided by language but united in purpose, said Clawson, who speaks Spanish.

“These people have no common language, but they communicate,” he said. “Once in a while there’s a breakdown and Rachel [Fonseca] will have to call me to interpret for her and Marcos. I don’t know how they do it, but week after week, they do. The heart and soul of this outreach is cooperation, with the occasional gift of a miracle.”

Cooperation in four languages

One day in early November, no Vietnamese speaker was available to help clients with the serve-by-number admission system. (People who need food are given a numbered card, and admitted to the food-distribution rooms in groups of five.) Clawson, who does not speak Vietnamese, was trying to oversee the line, but felt frustrated because he could not communicate with the clients waiting outside for food. A Vietnamese-speaking volunteer emerged from the line, explained the process, and restored order within minutes.

“I had no idea what I was going to do, and at that very moment, he just did it. He got the next group in line and we became instant new friends,” Clawson said. “It’s risky to rely on miracles but we’re in the middle of so many of them. All we can do is be grateful.”

The team uses a borrowed van to move the food from the donating agencies to St. Anselm’s. One day the battery died and Cumplido called Juvencio, a parishioner who is retired and owns a pickup truck. Within minutes, Juvencio was there with his truck, and the team made the circuit to three markets to pick up the food.

“These things happen all the time,” Clawson said. “We don’t have enough money and we don’t have enough people, but it has never fallen apart.”

Collecting healthful food for those in need

Clients are not means-tested, Clawson said. The only question volunteers ask is how many people are in their households. These numbers form the basis of monthly statistical reports that are submitted to regional food-donation agencies.
St. Anselm’s works with the Orange County Regional Food Bank, as well as Second Harvest’s Grocery Rescue program, which sponsors relationships with grocery stores to connect excess food with those in need. That food is then passed along to underserved residents in central Orange County.

Fonseca finds motivation in helping people eat healthful food. “I was inspired by the idea of helping people live a healthy life,” she said. “The people we serve are probably praying for relief and Sharing Abundance helps answer that prayer. God uses us as instruments to send the message that they are not alone in the time of their need. It’s more than food — it’s the love of God.”

Many clients end up joining the volunteers, Clawson said. “It moves people. We all know the need (for food) is so elemental, so basic.”

From client to volunteer

One such volunteer team is Kennya and her husband Antonio. Kennya came to the inaugural Sharing Abundance donation event in May 2015, her family having fled Mexico after a drug cartel threatened violence against their young son. By the family’s third visit, they were volunteering. “We were relieved to have food when we first got here,” Kennya said. “St. Anselm was the first place we found help in this country. I want to help here — this is a beautiful time in my life. The best part was finding Fr. Jeffrey.”

Kennya is currently unable to lift heavy food boxes, as she is expecting her second child — a girl due in March — but is eager to resume volunteering after her daughter is born. “We had no food, no family and no friends here,” said Antonio. “We came to St. Anselm and found help and relief.”

Clawson was first impressed with the need to provide relief in urban food deserts while in seminary at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley. There he worked with Sara Miles, food activist and author of Take this Bread, at a San Francisco food pantry. “They put me in charge of cucumbers,” he said. “Some accepted the cucumbers and some didn’t, but the people were so beautiful. I remember one fragile woman whose face beamed because she loved cucumbers and hadn’t had one for so long. It was compelling. That has stayed with me.”

In addition to providing mostly fresh food, supplemented by a few packaged products, Sharing Abundance also accommodates the working poor by operating in the evenings. “Quite a few of our clients are working full time, some in more than one job,” Clawson said. “Having our outreach in the evenings helps us serve more of the working poor.”

As to the future, Clawson said a diaper program is starting in December. He also hopes to soon be able to provide soap and other personal-care items. Second Harvest has also selected Sharing Abundance to join its new Emergency Food Assistance (EFAP) program, a monthly outreach that provides additional food to those in need.

Jill McKenna, a member of St. Wilfrid of York Church, Huntington Beach, is a volunteer for St. Anselm’s Sharing Abundance program.