By Greg Mellen     5/7/2020

On a cloudy morning in Santa Ana, the cars begin lining up along a pitted, potholed back alley in an industrial area. By 7:30, about a dozen cars are backed up behind the Doris Cantlay Food Distribution Center in Santa Ana. For the next four and a half hours the line of cars will accordion from long to short and back. 

In the afternoon, groups of homeless and carless residents filter through the backlot of the facility operated by Catholic Charities of Orange County. 

On any given day, upwards of 10,000 pounds of food will be distributed to feed the hungry. In a month, the distribution center will serve between 11,000 to 15,000 clients. 

According to Michael Tijerino, program director for food distribution, he and his crew of six part-timers are delivering 75 percent more food since COVID-19 took hold in Southern California. 

In February 2020, the last month when stats are available, Catholic Charities distributed 287,459 pounds of food, compared to 188,217 pounds in January. 

“Since all this is happening, it’s been crazy,” he said. 

Where once trucks delivered food a couple times a week, they now arrive daily, Tijerino said. 

“We’ve been able to continue without stopping at all,” said Rosy Stock, interim executive director of Catholic Charities of Orange, as she observes the distribution. “The longer this (coronavirus crisis) goes on, the more the demand will be,” she said. 

Many of the clients are like Emilio Delgado. A resident of Santa Ana, it is his first visit to the distribution center. “We’re out of work,” said the unemployed cook, laid off from his job in Lake Forest. 

As he watched the food being loaded into his SUV, Delgado had a large grin, possibly thinking about the evening meal. 

Beginning in mid-March, after California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a statewide shelter-in-place order and social-distancing directives to slow the spread of coronavirus, the food bank switched from walk-in to primarily drive-through service. 

Cars are allowed into the backlot of the Cantlay facility where volunteers roll out a prepared shopping cart of food per car that they load into the vehicle. What exactly each client receives is by luck of the draw and no two loads are the same. Each family receives a 10-15 pound bag of canned fruits, vegetables, soups, sauces or other nonperishables. 

After that it’s a smorgasbord of foodstuffs, depending on what has arrived that day from the Second Harvest Food Bank and Community Action Partnership. 

On this day there are cartons of dragon fruit, which are replaced by watermelon-sized jackfruits later in the shift. Fresh produce, such as organic spinach or lettuce, is often included, along with baked goods and meats. On this day, a lucky family scores a three-pound brisket from Gelson’s. Another family received a birthday cake and yet another a tray of 30 cupcakes. 

The donated food can be anything. Oddly, there is a pallet of filled cartons of individually wrapped ice cream sugar cones. 

The shopping carts, donated by Northgate markets, are arranged in a kind of production line. As each car pulls up, the next basket in line is rolled out. 

“Each of these carts probably has at least $50 worth of food,” Tijerino said. 

With nearly 100,000 square feet of space the Doris Cantlay building, which moved from a much smaller facility about a year ago, has the space. About 50 four-by-four-foot pallets in the warehouse area are stuffed with boxes filled with pre-packed bags of canned goods. The warehouse also has two large walk-in refrigeration units. 

While food is plentiful, volunteers are a constant need, Stock said. 

Leo Gonzalez, a volunteer from Santa Ana, who does maintenance and handy work, was recruited to the production line a day earlier when it was short of volunteers. 

“I went home and collapsed,” the 62-year-old said with a laugh. “I’ve never been so sore in my life.” 

But he is happy to do his part. 

“It’s a good ministry,” he said. “There’s a lot of people out there who need it. A lot of people are not paid well enough to feed their families.” 

Several of the day’s volunteers are not so different from the drive-through recipients. Cuyler Ledyard, Gustavo Sanchez and Ezequiel Magana are all first-time volunteers who were laid off from different companies due to the virus. 

Saying he now had free time, Ledyard said, “Knowing I could make a difference makes the days go by easier. It’s tough out there.” 

Sanchez, who worked at the Santiago Retreat Center until it closed, said merely, “I like to help any way I can.” 

Then there was Kwang Nguyen, the director of Youth and Young Adult Music at the Diocese of Orange. “I’m different,” he said. “I’m busy, but you carve out time to help people.”