South County Outreach (SOC) is an Irvine-based non-profit organization, helping provide families and individuals with financial rental and utility assistance, along with food support through different programs including a 2,000 square foot walk-through style market in Irvine.

In an interview with Irvine Weekly, SOC’s newest Executive Director, LaVal Brewer, discussed the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, in terms of SOC’s normal operations – and challenges for the community the organization serves.

LaVal Brewer (South County Outreach)

Over the last year, Brewer said the community in which SOC provides service has expanded by 15 percent, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Currently, South County Outreach serves more than 5,000 individuals.

While services have increased, Brewer was proud to report that donations have enabled SOC to distribute more than 730,000 pounds of fresh food.

“It is my absolute honor to serve South Orange County as president and chief executive officer,” Brewer said. “I look forward to changing more and more lives each year and am lucky to have a dedicated team by my side. Last year we served 5,500 people. In 2021, we aim to relieve 6,500 individuals from food and housing insecurity.”

Brewer, who has more than 30 years of non-profit experience, explained that the main objective of South County Outreach is not only to assist people to find their way out of hunger and homelessness, but also be able to do so through dignified, respectable avenues.

“We don’t just hand you a box of food,” Brewer said. “We say, ‘Go with a shopping cart, and shop for your family’ – and they walk down the aisle and they actually choose the brands of food that they desire best for their family. We give them food, but we give them the ability to have their own choice.”

Brewer, who joined South County Outreach in February, said he’s implemented several nuances to the market that provide key necessities to families that were not always available to people in need.

(South County Outreach)

One issue Brewer worked to address was the lack of dairy products. Brewer saw this as a significant problem considering two of the most selected items were cereal and macaroni and cheese. However, families were constantly unable to find milk or butter.

“In the last year, we made a commitment that over the next two years, every client that comes through our doors will have the ability to get eggs, milk and butter when they shop in our market,” he said. “If you don’t have milk and butter – you can’t make macaroni and cheese.

The food market at South County Outreach’s Irvine headquarters is just one of the SOC’s two core programs. The other, Brewer explained, provides rental assistance of up to $10,000 to help people stay in their homes.

Cheryl Flohr, chair of the South County Outreach Board Of Directors, said she is looking forward to Brewer’s innovative leadership.

“South County Outreach is fortunate to have LaVal at its helm,” Flohr said. “He brings broad experience and expertise in the nonprofit arena and has already provided strong leadership for the organization, particularly during these challenging times. We look forward to the continued growth and development of the agency under his direction.”

(South County Outreach)

Brewer explained that in order to service the dietary needs of more than 5,000 people, South County Outreach’s food collection efforts are threefold.

“We’re assigned our grocery rescue stores through Second Harvest Food Bank. We go to our assigned stores, and we pick up either shelf-stable items, bread, dairy and even frozen protein. We get guacamole, we get pico de gallo — a wide array,” he said. “So that is really diverting food that can be consumed from going to the landfill, and we bring that and we stock it and we try to move it out as fast as possible.”

Local food banks and local groups also help supply South County Outreach’s Irvine Market through food donations. Brewer explained that local groups will organize food drives, which is a critical part of community-driven food collection.

“This local Irvine Brownie troop had done a food drive within their families, and each had collected bags of food and the troop got a chance to see how the food came in and out of the market,” he explained. “They were part of the system to donate food to people in need, and this one Brownie says, “This is a cool store!”

Brewer also discussed what South County Outreach calls “buying the gap.” The gap is the shortage of food that does not come by way of donation, but rather is purchased directly by SOC.

“The final way, between what we get donated from grocery rescue, and what we get donated from our food drives – there’s a gap, and that gap is the dairy (the milk and the eggs) as well as produce and protein,” he said. “We believe so heavily in the dignity and respect factor, that when someone walks in we never want them to go, ‘Oh, you don’t have any milk?’”

Looking ahead, Brewer said he wants to reopen the market’s doors to the public, which have been closed due to COVID-19.

“I’m starting to rethink the market. I want the shopping experience in the market to be such where no one feels like less than when they walk in,” he said. “We’re starting to look at technology improvements, as well as logistics – and finally the layout and the feel – so when people walk in, they feel like they’re in an actual market.”

Lastly, Brewer reminds us that this community effort is volunteer-driven. Even with more than 250 regularly scheduled volunteers, and 1,500 occasional volunteers, South County Outreach is always looking for individuals to help with various tasks, from stocking shelves in the food pantry, driving trucks and picking up donations, handling retail responsibilities, to teaching classes at the Computer Learning Lab.

For those interested in volunteering please www.sco-oc.org/volunteer/ or call (949) 380-8144 ext. 217 for more information.

(South County Outreach)