Photo courtesy of Brenda Gutierrez

Pallets of fresh fruits and vegetables waiting for be distributed as part of CSUN’s Healthy Living initiative in Canoga Park. Every month, approximately 4,100 individuals and families receive food as part of the effort. 

On the fourth Friday of every month, volunteers, students and staff members with California State University, Northridge’s CalFresh Healthy Living initiative in Canoga Park load boxes filled with fresh fruits and vegetables into the backs of cars for distribution in the community.

The goal is to provide the area’s low-income residents with healthy food options. The next distribution is scheduled to take place Friday, Aug. 23.

“This a great way of ensuring that people in the community have access to fresh fruits and vegetables,” said Brenda Gutierrez, health educator with CalFresh Healthy Living. “It’s also a wonderful way for the community-based organizations we work with to connect with the people they serve.”

The food distribution is a collaborative effort between CalFresh Healthy Living, Food Forward, Follow Your Heart, Earth Island Natural Foods, Freedom Church and about a dozen local community-based organizations.

On the day of the event, Food Forward — a nonprofit organization that fights food hunger and waste by rescuing surplus produce and giving it to organizations that help people in need — delivers a truckload of fresh fruits and vegetables to a parking lot at Freedom Church in Canoga Park. A team of students, staff and volunteers with CSUN’s Cal Fresh Healthy Living, with the help of equipment and personnel from Earth Islands Natural Foods and Follow Your Heart, quickly sort the produce into boxes.

Soon after, representatives from dozens of nonprofits that serve the needy throughout the West San Fernando Valley begin arriving. As the drivers fill out paperwork, Gutierrez and her team load the cars with boxes of food, fresh produce, cookbooks, recipe cards and other nutritional information developed by CalFresh Healthy Living students and staff.

“It’s an amazing process to watch and be a part of,” Gutierrez said. “I refer to it as  ‘drive-through’ distribution. They literally drive up, open their cars and we load the goods. By the time they finish filling out their paperwork, they’re ready to go.”

Every month, approximately 4,100 individuals and families receive food. The food distribution project officially launched in March, when more than 13,000 pounds of fresh produce were distributed to 19 organizations throughout the West San Fernando Valley.

In addition to the monthly food distribution, CSUN students and staff working on the CalFresh Healthy Living program partner with the Guadalupe Community Center’s food pantry and the university’s on-site food pantry to procure fresh fruits and vegetables, while providing nutrition education to patrons of the pantries. There also is a task force comprised of university personnel and community members to ensure the initiative is responsive to the needs of the Canoga Park community. The project has been coordinated by Viridiana Ortiz, of CSUN’s Champions for Change, for the past year.

CSUN students have conducted classes on developing healthy eating habits and cooking practices, helped establish community gardens and attended weekly farmers markets to distribute health information such as recipes that are healthy, affordable, culturally sensitive and use the produce available at the market.

The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health CalFresh Healthy Living progam began three years ago as CSUN Champions for Change, the result of a collaboration between two CSUN centers and two co-principal investigators — family and consumer sciences professor Annette Besnilian, director of the Marilyn Magaram Center for Food Science, Nutrition and Dietetics; and sociologyprofessor David Boyns, director of CSUN’s Institute for Community Health and Wellbeing — that work in the community. CSUN’s Magaram Center in the College of Health and Human Development teamed up with the Institute for Community Health and Wellbeing and its Neighborhood Partners in Action (NPA)initiative. NPA is designed to help optimize Canoga Park’s resources, collect data about community needs and form partnerships to foster relationships between residents, local businesses and the university.

The CalFresh Healthy Living initiative is funded with a $895,000 grant from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, whichs supports a project to reduce obesity rates among low-income populations in Canoga Park that receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program-Education benefits. The grant aims to reduce obesity by providing nutrition education, promoting physical activity and working to create healthier environments for low-income individuals and families where they live, learn, work, play, pray and shop.