Grassroots 92130 Cares group runs food distribution events in Carmel Valley

92130 Cares volunteers in action.

What started out as a simple query on NextDoor about sharing a Thanksgiving dinner with a local family in need has blossomed into something wonderfully unexpected for Carmel Valley resident Cheryl Hsu.

Last November, Hsu started 92130 Cares as a way to connect local families who had fallen on hard times due to the pandemic with other local families who were in the position to help, right in her own neighborhood. She was on a mission to create community connection through acts of kindness and neighborly love.

Hsu formed a Facebook group to launch her Adopt-a-Family Thanksgiving Dinner project and with help from a group of volunteers, 135 different families were connected to provide Thanksgiving meals. That effort led to My Neighbor’s Closet, a drive for clothing and other household items. 92130 Cares has now grown to include the Fresh Food Connection Program: food distribution events that have been held every weekend for the last three months at four low-income housing communities in Carmel Valley. At the events, neighbors can come and take whatever they need. Everything is free.

A recent 92130 Cares food distribution event.

“As a result of the Thanksgiving sponsorships, we have learned about so much food insecurity in 92130,” Hsu said. “There are over 700 low-income/affordable housing units in the Carmel Valley zip code, but no public transportation and no food bank or food pantry that services those in need in our community. Our neighbors continue to struggle financially through this pandemic and we learned many do not have regular access to quality fresh food.”

A couple of months ago, 92130 Cares volunteer Miriam Leaman decided to call up some local grocery stores to see if they would donate their near-expired but otherwise unsellable but fresh foods. Many stores said no as they already donate their food to the food bank or other large organizations, however, after many rejections, Whole Foods in Del Mar said yes.

Leaman drove to Flower Hill on a Sunday and filled her SUV with food such as prepackaged meals, bruised but still fresh produce, dented cans and lots of bread. She then went to a low-income community where she and other neighbors distributed the food from a neighbor’s garage.

“One ‘yes’ got the ball rolling and ignited this big thing,” Hsu said. “You would not believe what this has become. To be honest, I can hardly believe it myself…What we have now, literally it’s a farmers market.”

Young volunteers help deliver food for neighbors.

After a lot more emails and phone calls, 92130 Cares now has two Whole Foods (Del Mar and La Jolla) and Jimbo’s in Del Mar Highlands Town Center donating their near-expired foods on Sunday mornings. They have also formed a partnership with Mira Mesa Grocery Outlet where they spend $50 on groceries and independent owners Bud and Treava Kottman match them dollar for each dollar, giving them $100 of purchasing power. With the monetary donations from neighbors, Hsu purchases food to add to the Sunday distributions with the Kottmans sometimes pitching in extra food donations.

In addition to donating food every Wednesday, Trader Joe’s in the Village at Pacific Highlands Ranch also donates flowers that are then donated to Torrey Pines Senior Living community: “It’s the most beautiful thing,” Hsu said.

The donated foods are sometimes “luxury” items that are outside of the normal staples that a family might purchase. One weekend, they were able to give out tons of avocados and pineapples. Last month Jimbo’s donated hundreds of mangoes and the community was “abuzz”. Gourmet cupcakes from Whole Foods are also always a big hit with the children, Hsu said.

For the food distributions, 92130 Cares rotates among four of the largest low-income communities in Carmel Valley: Cielo Carmel, Torrey Del Mar Apartments, Windwood Village Apartments and The Crossings.

Every Sunday a group of six volunteers does three grocery store pickups while another set of volunteers gets the market set up with tables, wagons, baskets and coolers. Neighbors also drop off food during the set up, including items from their pantries or produce from their backyard gardens like harvests of fresh lettuce or last week’s haul of cumquats.

“It’s a great way to share food and share the abundance that we have in the community,” Hsu said.

Every week about 12 volunteers come to help with the distribution and many opt to bring their children—children will sometimes load up wagons with bread or other foods and take them through the community door to door.

Hsu said every week they are serving about 30 to 40 families and she estimates that about 40-50% of the people who come are seniors. She said the best compliment she has received was when neighbors from nearby multi-million dollar homes mistook the set-up at Windwood Village for a farmers market.

92130 Cares is in the process of achieving 501c3 nonprofit status and it has warmed Hsu’s heart to see the generosity of spirit. After Thanksgiving and the holidays, people weren’t looking for a tax write-off, they just wanted to help with their time and their money. One San Diego philanthropist reached out and donated $500 while a local restaurant owner chipped in $300. Another resident gave $1,000 worth of Visa gift cards to support 10 struggling single moms.

Fresh produce on display at a 92130 Cares food distribution event.

What has made 92130 Cares so special are the volunteers, the Carmel Valley residents, mostly moms, who have dedicated and devoted their time and energy to help neighbors in need: “They’re so exceptionally bright, talented and resourceful in making this run,” Hsu said.

“Despite the extreme isolation caused by this pandemic, our community is coming together like never before to connect and support each other. So many people are coming out to volunteer and wanting to help,” said Hsu whose Facebook group has now over 800 members and the sign-up sheets for the Sunday events are full for months in advance. “Despite social, cultural or economic differences, people are meeting, talking and connecting. It’s exactly what I’d hoped.”