California’s College Corps shapes local students into future public leaders —
PUBLISHED: November 6, 2023 at 8:56 a.m. | UPDATED: November 7, 2023 at 1:19 p.m.
Three days a week, 19-year-old Katie Vo heads over to Garden Grove for several hours to volunteer at a local nonprofit that aims to solve food security in Orange County.
Once she arrives, she goes straight to the kitchen, puts on a red apron and gets right to work chopping vegetables, cutting deli meats, packing Caesar dressing and scooping hundreds of containers of soup.
Vo, a second-year student at UC Irvine, is part of College Corps, a state initiative that provides undergraduate students at 45 public and private colleges and universities across California the opportunity to earn $10,000 for committing to one year of service focused on three key issue areas for the state: K-12 education, climate action and food insecurity. The program, which began last school year, is slated to run until 2026, according to the Governor’s Office.
At UCI this year, 91 students were chosen as fellows; 42 of those spots filled by undocumented students. That’s a slight increase from last year’s inaugural cohort of 75 fellows, said Student Affairs deputy chief of staff Sherwynn Umali, who helms the program at UCI.
“Our community partners ensure that they have sites where students are learning and developing. They’re not there to just stock shelves,” Umali said. “They’re learning about what it means to be food secure. They’re learning how the environment is impacting their daily lives. They’re coming out of it with their eyes open to the work of public service.”
Bracken’s Kitchen, where Vo spends 10-15 hours volunteering per week, is one of 23 community host sites where UCI places College Corps fellows.
Vo, who is majoring in environmental science and policy and minoring in civic and community engagement, said the food insecurity-focused nonprofit, is a perfect fit.
Vo, born and raised in Orange County, said she was searching for ways to continue her volunteer work within the community when she came across the College Corps program. She had done a lot of volunteer work in high school and wanted to get involved in something hands-on, she said.
“I’m really interested in looking at our food system and seeing how we can mitigate food waste since food waste that ends up in landfills releases a high amount of methane, which contributes to greenhouse gas emissions,” Vo said.
Bracken’s Kitchen addresses food insecurity in Orange County through several different ways, said volunteer coordinator Travis Bannerman. The first is through “food rescue,” in which Bracken’s Kitchen intercepts food on its way to the landfill through partnerships with local farms, meatpacking plants, grocery stores and restaurants, Bannerman said.
“85% of what we use here is rescued food that’s donated,” he said.
Community feeding, which Vo helps out with, is the nonprofit’s primary function, said Bannerman.
“This is a grand production of approximately 8,000 meals every single day,” he said. “We also have a food truck that goes out around two to three times a month to different low-income communities as well as churches, elementary schools (and) anywhere that needs help.”
The thousands of meals prepared every day with the help of Vo are picked up or delivered to local food banks, shelters and pantries, including the UCI Basic Needs Center.
Bracken’s Kitchen relies heavily on volunteerism, and Vo and several other UCI fellows have been an integral part of its operations, said Bannerman.
“We’ve really depended on them to show up every day and make an impact,” Bannerman said. “They’ve really been the lifeblood of maintaining our operation here in Garden Grove as well as our satellite kitchen in Costa Mesa.”
Nearly a quarter of all College Corps fellows from year one have come back to serve this year, said California Chief Service Officer Josh Fryday. That indicates the program’s success and its value within the local communities students serve, he said.
Matthew Margrave, a fourth-year anthropology major at UCI, is one of those returning fellows.
After volunteering at the Newport Beach Bay Conservancy last year, Margrave said he applied again to further his experience in the environmental sector. For 10-15 hours each week, Margrave takes on a variety of tasks, from cultivating native plants to writing short articles for pamphlets.
“I would say this program is a connector because not only does it connect you to resources you need — it allowed me to pay for housing last year — it connects you to the community around you. I would not know as much about this area or the environment if I wasn’t in this program,” he said.
Margrave and Vo both expressed a desire to continue working in a public service setting.
“What I’ve learned so far is that there’s just so many opportunities, especially in the environmental sector,” Vo said. “Right now I’m focused on exploring the opportunities that are out there and seeing where that takes me.”
Of the students who went through the program in the first year, Fryday said over 90% said they want to pursue a career and a life in public service.
“Because the program is creating service opportunities in the community, it’s really connecting these young people to their campus and to their community in a whole new way,” Fryday said. “And because of that, they’re gaining a really important sense of agency where they’re able to create and shape and change their community on issues that they’re passionate about.”