Every other Saturday morning, Julie Atherton braves the blistering Campo temperatures to march up and down Feeding San Diego’s mobile pantry drive-through distribution line-up to help her fellow community members get the food they need. For over ten years, Julie has been instrumental in supervising food distributions for families and seniors living in rural Campo. She is the Outreach Specialist at Mountain Health Community Center, a Feeding San Diego community partner.
The COVID-19 crisis has wreaked havoc for countless families across the county, especially those in rural areas. In a recent interview, Julie spoke to the increasing need for food in her community due to the pandemic, “Our need is rising. I’ve had numerous people tell me how important this distribution is to them because they haven’t gone back to work yet. Families received their stimulus check, but had to spend it paying bills. This mobile pantry helps them with food so they don’t have to worry as much about their money going towards groceries. A lot of parents have told me that because schools are closed and their kids are home, they’re spending more money on groceries. This distribution is definitely a huge relief for this community. We’ve been seeing need for food rise across the board.”
As a 62-year-old cancer survivor, Julie has been advised by her doctor to limit sun exposure, but as someone who feels so strongly about giving back to the community, she persists. “I am out here doing this because I believe in this program. Because of the chemotherapy, my bones are not the strongest, but besides that, I feel fine. A lot of my community members supported me when I needed help — I was a single mom when I was diagnosed with cancer and they started a fundraiser for me. The community partnership that we have out here is amazing. When something goes wrong, everybody is in it together. It’s amazing.”
Located in rural east county, Campo is nearly 50 miles away from the city center. Julie explained that many residents live in extreme poverty and often feel neglected, “Being in such a rural part of San Diego County, we’re often forgotten. We don’t have grocery stores up here. A lot of people in this area live on properties they’ve inherited from their parents. It’s extremely deserted and houses are fairly spread out — we’re living way below the poverty level. Whenever an opportunity arises to improve our community, we do what we can. This mobile pantry is awesome because it takes a lot of pressure off the community. I’ve heard so many powerful stories about how this distribution has helped the people here, and now that we’re going through this pandemic, those stories have only increased. A lot of people are worried that they aren’t going to go back to work.”
Julie has two daughters that were laid off over three months ago and haven’t been called back to work yet, “I have a feeling my kids are going to have to move in with me. They’re 34 and 36 years old and one of them has kids. It’s going to be tough for them, especially for my daughter who has two kids. With remote learning, she’s having to teach her kids what they’re learning in school, but this often includes foreign subjects such as Mandarin. My daughter is struggling to find work so she can pay her bills, but on top of teaching her kids, that’s been really hard.”
Emphasizing on how crucial the food pantry is for people in her neighborhood, Julie shared, “The partnership between Feeding San Diego and Mountain Health Community Center is a necessity out here. Most of the stores in this area are liquor stores that have minimal grocery items. There is no fresh produce, no fruits, nothing of substance. People who come to this distribution really appreciate the produce more than anything else.”
The Mountain Health Community Center, a part of San Ysidro Health, is a stone’s throw away from Feeding San Diego’s Campo mobile pantry distribution, and further supports the community through several initiatives. “We also have a food pantry at the community center, we supplement the food people get, but we don’t have a mobile pantry. Some people who come to the mobile pantry also come to the community center for supplemental food boxes. There are no limitations, we’re here to help. If someone is willing to sit in a hot car for two hours, they need the food. That’s the way I look at it.”
“There is a transient population out here in need of food but is, unfortunately, unable to attend this distribution because it’s a drive-through. Our policy for the community center states that people need to stay in their cars in order to keep everyone safe.”
Stressing the importance of the mobile pantry in Campo, Julie said, “The partnership is a win-win situation because Feeding San Diego is doing what they do best and we too are helping our own community. This is where we live and we’re doing our best to help. We see the same people struggling and we wish we could do more. I know people who completely rely on the mobile pantry, this is where they get their food from. They either don’t have disposable income or fall under the poverty level. I appreciate what Feeding San Diego does for the community here.”
Julie shared many stories of people impacted by the pandemic who are in dire need of help, “I knew a husband and wife living on $300 a month from social security in a small trailer. The wife was on dialysis three times a week. When we brought the food from the mobile pantry to her, she started crying. She has since passed away. We really couldn’t do without this food distribution. It would be a hardship if it weren’t for the mobile pantry. And people who help here at the pantry are people who want to give back to the community.”
Julie recently donated $100 to a friend who owns a barbeque restaurant, but may have to shut it down soon, “He had to start a GoFundMe page because he’s losing the business. They have great food and we need it because we don’t have any restaurants here to go to. You have to drive 30 min to get something nice. My community gave back to me when I needed it and now it’s my turn to give back.”
Thank you, Julie, for sharing your story and supporting us in our mission to end hunger in San Diego County!