For the love of the neighborhood

Locals form south Chico nonprofit to combat food, housing insecurity

Left: South Chico Community Assistance Center co-founders John Howlett (left) and Rich Ober opened the doors at the 1805 Park Ave. location in June 2022. (Photo courtesy of South Chico Community Assistance Center)

Twice a month, struggling families, college students, seniors and unhoused folks browse the South Chico Community Assistance Center’s free neighborhood pantry at 1805 Park Ave. There, they can fill up a bag or two with canned or dry goods, hygiene supplies and fresh produce from local farms. Nobody is turned away, and people browse as they please, with friendly volunteers sharing recipes and providing any assistance needed.

The center (SCCAC) was born from grassroots efforts to improve food access in south Chico in 2020 and has quickly grown. In addition to food giveaways, its organizers host community gatherings and activities centered around important issues such as climate change and homelessness. They’ve received a positive response from the community—events and food pantry days are well attended. This year, the center’s organizers plan to keep up the momentum and expand their services, given the need.

According to co-founder Rich Ober, the mission of the center is to address housing and food insecurity—to “keep people housed” by providing services that help people “get through the last week of the month.”

“We’re clearly focused right now and [have been] for the past year on food and the food pantry, but we’re also very much wanting to be a hub, wanting to be a place where … people can come, meet, organize [and] do work out of this space,” he said.

Current center offerings, in addition to its food giveaways, include the Climate Cafe, informal gatherings where people concerned about the climate crisis meet, speak freely and share food (see “In this together,” Dec. 1, 2022). The SCCAC also holds vegan food revolution dinners, where people cook together (the center has a full kitchen) and work on community-building activism.

The center co-hosts events with other community organizations, as well, such as last month’s Homeless Persons Memorial Day, a partnership with Chico Red Meals and NorCal Resist. In October, the SCCAC partnered with the Butte Environmental Council to plant fruit and shade trees outside of the center for Community Climate Action Day.

Humble beginnings

During Ober’s 2020 bid for Chico City Council, he and friend/campaign manager John Howlett (a local educator and former Chico Planning Commissioner) became intimately aware of the needs of south Chico. It is where they both reside and the district Ober was running to represent.

Food distribution events at the South Chico Community Assistance Center are held twice a month and open to any community members in need. (Photo courtesy of South Chico Community Assistance Center)

After the pandemic began, the pair jumped into Ober’s green pickup truck to deliver food and water and help clean up at homeless encampments about two to three times a week. They decided then that they wanted to continue to do this kind of work “basically trying to keep people safe and healthy” regardless of the outcome of the election, Ober said.

Ober did not get elected (Councilwoman Deepika Tandon won the District 7 seat), but he remained resolute when it came to his vision to help south Chico. He and Howlett hosted their first event, a free food and emergency supply distribution at the 1078 Gallery parking lot, in January 2022. They formed a nonprofit 501(c)(3), got a board of directors in place, recruited volunteers and found a physical space.

Board members include Howlett and Ober (who also serves as Vice Chair of the Chico Planning Commission) as well as Mark Stemen (a Chico State professor who serves on the city’s Climate Action Commission), Lauren Kennedy (executive director of the North Valley Housing Trust) and gardener Ali McMorrow, who has an extensive background working in food-waste prevention and food access.

When Steve Schuman—a local produce distributor, music promoter and friend of Stemen and Howlett’s—died in 2021, the commercial building he used at 1805 Park Ave. became available for lease through his estate, Ober said. The center took up residence there and opened its doors in June 2022.

Food for all

SCCAC food giveaways are attended by a variety of people, including single mothers, families with children, students, seniors and homeless individuals with pets. Most attendees are housed but are low-income and food insecure. The center typically sees about 50 to 100 people at the giveaways, with new faces showing up at each distribution, Ober said.

When the center launched the food giveaways, which are held every second and fourth Saturday of the month (see infobox at bottom of page), it was really important to the organizers “to set it up as a shopping experience,” Ober said, and recognize that everyone has dietary needs and preferences. “To just give everybody what we think that they need or what we have a surplus of or something like that has never felt right and isn’t current best practices at food pantries.

“We have a lot of families who come through,” he continued. “Part of the idea in being in this kind of a space and being friendly is to destigmatize the experience for the kids so that we’re not feeding into institutional and generational poverty.”

The CN&R spoke with a Chico State student who has attended food giveaways; she shared that they have been an invaluable resource, keeping her from going hungry when money is tight at the end of the month. She is a full-time student who works part-time and does not qualify for food stamps.

The center also has been a welcoming place for helpers. Cindy Gerstein has attended about a half-dozen food distribution events, she said, and picks up food for her friends in need who lack transportation—“some who live outdoors and some who have a roof over their heads but they’re food insecure.”

“They’re lovely people [at the center]. They have a nice selection to cover the bases … and I can get things there you can’t get other places: produce, meat, some dairy, eggs—depends on what’s donated to them,” she said. “The people I’m helping are very happy and appreciative. They’re just so very grateful.”

All about community

The center plans to expand its offerings this year, Ober said. The center team would like to host a food giveaway every week and add free clothing to those distributions as well. They already have started working with other nonprofit organizations to co-host events and provide a space for meetings and community-building activities (such as writing and tech-literacy workshops) and aim to expand these collaborations. The center’s organizers also aspire to host meal-prep and recipe demonstrations and provide other educational opportunities.

Long-term, Ober said, SCCAC organizers want to launch a mobile food pantry, bringing food directly to people in need in south Chico and beyond. They’re also interested in forming a resilience hub—a central gathering space for local service providers to coordinate, prepare and respond to natural disasters.

Board member McMorrow said that many people feel isolated, especially after the pandemic, and a core value of the center is to cultivate and foster community.

“Getting help can be really vulnerable—we don’t have a culture where it’s OK to lean on each other. There’s a lot of shame around that,” she said. “When you walk into the building and see that there’s [many] other people doing the same thing, it makes you feel less alone.

“What we are providing [at the center] is community support—reminding people that we are a community,” they continued. “It’s just pure love coming out of this space, and we need so much more of that to be cultivated. … We have to support each other.”

The South Chico Community Assistance Center holds free food distributions every second and fourth Saturday, 2-4 p.m. For more information and to find out about other events email info@southchicocac.org or visit the center online.

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