Water damage at South County Outreach limits operation of food pantry that feeds thousands monthly
IRVINE — Uncertainty lingers in the air inside the South County Outreach food pantry, along with a faint musty smell – both byproducts of a water leak that has disrupted the nonprofit’s ability to serve its clients the past two weeks.
It could take at least two months before contractors can repair the extensive damage from a leak that began in the employee restroom sometime during the night of Aug. 14. Water – as high as 3 inches in some areas – flooded the lobby, offices, a computer training lab and, worst of all, the pantry, which helps feed about 2,000 people a month.
South County Outreach, located off Rockfield Boulevard and Bake Parkway, serves 13 communities from Irvine south to San Clemente.
Lara Fisher, president and CEO of South County Outreach, worried about getting word to clients on the scaled-down operation: “We’ll have a lot of people show up that will be surprised.”
There’s no figure yet on exactly how much it will cost to fix the damage caused by a faulty water supply pipe on a toilet, or what insurance will cover, said Fisher, who hoped to have a figure in hand by week’s end. She said bids to repair the pantry have run as high as $100,000.
And then there’s the unknown amount for the water bill and the electricity bill that will result from running nearly two dozen industrial fans for the 10 days it took to dry up the soaked premises, Fisher said. Damage to shelving and cabinetry also needs to be determined. At least three of the computer learning center’s 24 laptops – used in job skills classes – have been scrapped.
All the vinyl flooring in the 2,110-square-foot pantry was removed. Drywall in some office areas has been cut away as high as 14 inches from the floor. Further use of cabinetry built by local Boy Scouts and pantry shelving that dates back about two decades is questionable.
Still, the nonprofit is keeping its doors open, continuing to provide food to pantry visitors, even if on a limited basis.
Normally, clients get to “shop” on their own. A household of four, for example, can select up to 100 pounds of food a month from meat, dairy and fresh produce items typically stored in a phalanx of freezers and refrigerators, along with non-perishable dry goods on well-stocked shelves.
Volunteers who once served as personal shoppers to escort clients around the pantry, are now reduced to handing out pre-packaged bags of groceries that they put together from non-perishable goods stored in a small, attached warehouse that was undamaged by the water leak and from across the street in two storage spaces South County Outreach had to rent.
On Monday, as a steady stream of people arrived for groceries, volunteers did their best to explain the situation and keep a cheery face.
“Instead of giving them a full basket, we give them three bags of food,” said Nancy McGuire, who has helped out at the South County Outreach pantry weekly the past eight years. “That’s what’s devastating. They count on us.”
Another longtime volunteer, Lily Ellis, broke down in tears as she related the simple joy that morning in finding something from a working freezer to give a shopper who doesn’t eat meat – a lone package of black bean burger patties.
About 65 percent of food pantry clients are working poor; many others are senior citizens on fixed incomes.
Now, with all the shelving removed and much of the refrigeration compromised, the pantry can’t hold the truckloads of rescued items volunteers would pick up from local grocers on weekdays. Those pickups have temporarily halted.
The first day when the flood was discovered, Fisher said South County Outreach distributed 4,000 pounds of perishable food to other local nonprofits – Orange County Rescue Mission, Waste Not OC and Laguna Beach Pantry.
The nonprofit is spending about $500 a day now to purchase perishables for immediate distribution. Some of the unexpected food costs are being offset by a donation of $8,000 in food from a food drive earlier this summer at the Grocery Outlet store in Lake Forest and by longtime donors who have stepped up with cash, said Fisher, who is hoping for more financial support from the community.
One client promised to return to help in any way he can.
Kevin Smith, a middle-aged single dad from Rancho Santa Margarita with two pre-adolescent boys, said his work as a chef can be sporadic. He’s visited the pantry in lean periods over the past two years, the last time three months ago.
Smith called the water damage “a hard hit” and said he is ready to lend a hand with the nonprofit’s recovery: “Whatever they need.”
To find out more, go to sco-oc.org or call 949-380-8144 and ask for Lara Fisher.