On April 20th, the Anaheim Union High School District opened the first permanent food pantry at Gilbert High School in partnership with the Second Harvest Food Bank of Orange County. AUHSD defines a community school as a place where students, staff and families can connect to work together and maximize opportunities.

To support the “whole child,” the AUHSD Community Schools Program partners with community organizations, like the Second Harvest Food Bank. Jose Lara, principal of Gilbert High School, said that “Gilbert Mercadito” will replace monthly food distributions.

Jose Lara Principal of Gilbert High School.

Lara believes, “this is a big change for Gilbert High School and the larger community as a whole.”

“Having a place where they can have consistent access to dignified, equitable, nutritious food, creates a foundation for community health for our school and community,” Lara said.

Food security

Food insecurity is highly prevalent among Latino youth and has detrimental health implications, especially for girls, older youth and youth experiencing acculturative stress. Reducing food insecurity and improving health among Latino youth will likely require comprehensive policies that address their multiple migrations, familial and economic stressors, according to the National Library of Medicine.

Gilbert High School community school coordinator, Isabel Tabares, said parents and community members used to receive brown boxes of mystery food once a month. But now parents and community members have access to healthy and nutritious options like fresh fruit and vegetables to choose from at the Gilbert Mercadito. 

“This is something our community has been advocating for,” Tabares said.

Food distributions were done every month through walk-ups and drive-thru. The distribution started as a way to help those who can’t keep up with the inflationary prices of today. Over the year, food prices have increased 6.4 %, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Now that the Gilbert Mercadito is open, many students, families and community members will have the opportunity to visit the pantry twice a week. Storefront days for the Mercadito are Tuesday from 1:30 to 3 p.m. and Thursday from 8 to 10 a.m.

Students from Gilbert High take turns volunteering at the Mercadito.

Lara said some examples of the food they receive are avocados, limes, broccoli, milk, eggs, yogurt, bread and grains like oatmeal. In addition, they also receive beans, rice and meat products like chicken and beef. “Sometimes we also receive vegetarian meat products and tofu,” Lara said.

Pantry capacity

Currently, the pantry has the capacity to serve 150 families. A larger number of families can be served once they expand their availability. Families can enroll by completing a simple intake application. There are no income requirements to be able to qualify for this resource. Pantry office hours for application support are Mondays from 8 to 9 a.m. and Wednesdays from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. Currently, Gilbert Mercadito’s goal is to continue serving the community even during summer break.

As principal of Gilbert High School, Lara is truly proud to help 600 students reach their full potential by connecting them with the resources they need. It doesn’t matter if it’s food, schedule flexibility, or dental assistance, Lara is working hard to ensure the students stay on track. 

Gilbert H.S. is a continuation school and most students are behind in their credits needed to graduate. Most students are there because they have emotional needs, food insecurity, housing problems or family problems. “A student who struggles at home also struggles academically,” Lara said.

Gilbert Mercadito was developed because the school saw that it was a resource that the community needed. “87% of our students are identified as having food scarcity at home, and that’s an alarming number. Also, 93% of our students are ‘unduplicated’ pupils and that’s education thought for either low-income, foster youth, homeless, special education students or all the groups that we typically look at, and for one reason or another they have a disadvantage that a lot of other families don’t have,” Lara said.

The reason why food security is important to the community of Anaheim is because they live in a food desert. Lara said that a lot of community members don’t have access to nutritious food within a mile of the urban desert. For many low-income families, it’s cheaper to buy the unhealthy options that are sold in each corner. He also said that wages haven’t kept up with the cost of living, and a lot of Latino community members are struggling just to have food.

“Sometimes you have to make that decision whether to buy healthy food or not and sometimes you don’t end up buying that salad, you don’t get healthy and that usually ends in having health issues like obesity and other underlying issues,” Lara said.

Adults with diabetes and food insecurity are 40% more likely to have poor glycemic control. Therefore, there is an urgent need to understand the collective impact of chronic diseases and the associated health disparities, according to the National Library of Medicine.

Lara said that this school year, Gilbert High School was designated as a democracy school, which means that all students were able to participate in civic engagement projects, and one of them was to study food insecurity within the district and particularly within their school site.

Gilbert HS is really proud to serve the community. “We have the Mexican version of the Sprouts Market. Our Mercadito is beautified with dignity. Community members can now visit twice a week and bring their market bags and fill them up with nutritious food. Our Mercadito is legit. We have refrigerators, which keep all the food and vegetables fresh and healthy,” Lara said.

AUHSD has been awarded $24 million for community schools at 13 sites, proportionally the most in the state of California. In addition to the Gilbert Mercado, the Anaheim Union High School District has opened the Community Schools Resource Center (CSRC) at Sycamore Junior High School and created the Magnolia Agriscience Community Center (MACC), which has transformed 2.5 acres of undeveloped land on Magnolia HS campus into a school-based community farm aimed at alleviating local food insecurity. 

Gilbert HS next goal

In addition to creating access to food and resource centers, Gilbert High School’s next goal is to bring mental health resources to students and community members to support the “whole child” mentally.

To access other free food distributions, visit the AUHSD resource website. To view the grand opening of Gilbert’s Mercadito click here. To follow more of my health stories, visit here.

Amairani Hernandez is a native of Los Angeles and a graduate of the California State University of Los Angeles with a degree in Broadcast Journalism. She is a staff multimedia journalist, who focuses on...