While at work, Allison Cuff doesn’t sit down. The 38-year-old restocks shelves, takes phone calls, and answers questions from students and staff, simultaneously and tirelessly, Monday through Friday.
Lines form daily outside Pirate’s Cove, the food pantry located on the campus of Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa. Serving more than 300 students per week, Cuff and her staff ensure that everyone who comes there is helped—even if that person has no student identification. No one is turned away.
Cuff has been overseeing Pirate’s Cove since its inception. Tucked into a small closet off an elevator with a small refrigerator, the operation was originally limited in what could be offered and able to serve about 15 students per week. But thanks to demand, it moved into a larger building. “The refrigerator was so small in the previous building, we weren’t able to provide more than boxed and canned goods,” she says. “We are able to feed so many more people now, and we can offer them fresh produce.”
As Cuff sought donations from local food bank Second Harvest, she realized what was supposed to last a week was only sufficient for one day. With the needs of students experiencing food insecurity much higher than she thought, she turned to other charities, organizations and grants. Assisting her in this mission is full-time, unpaid volunteer Steve Parker.
Food deserts are not limited to rural areas. Rising rents and the cost of living in Orange County are major factors for students who struggle to have enough to eat. But people of all ethnicities, ages and backgrounds are welcome at Pirate’s Cove for a snack, a salad or food for the week.
In addition to fresh fruits and vegetables, students can find everyday necessities (which can mean the difference between coming to school and not) such as shaving cream, razors, soap, shampoo and conditioner, even tampons and diapers. And most days, students can get a colorful bunch of flowers left over from Trader Joe’s.
Though there’s often a stigma attached to the people who utilize food banks, Cuff greets everyone with a nonjudgmental smile. She previously worked for four and a half years in OCC’s CalWorks department, helping students apply for food stamps.
Cuff perhaps understands the struggles of OCC’s student population better than others, as she is in the same demographic as the people she serves. The single mother of three children knows firsthand what it’s like to go to school, work, raise kids and still not have enough. Though she cannot support herself with her income from the food pantry, she tries to balance her reality with her passion.
“I don’t sleep, but I love what I do,” Cuff says. “Taking care of the employees who work here is critical to the success of Pirate’s Cove.”