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East Bay mom’s porch pantry, food deliveries help feed community

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OAKLEY — The young mother stood on the porch in the dark, devouring frozen burritos from a cooler that had been placed outside.

“She had not eaten in three days,” said Heather Ochoa, who had left the burritos on her porch for anyone who was hungry. The coronavirus pandemic was in its early stages back then and Ochoa already had noticed the need for food was growing.

So she began laying out food from her pantry and extra groceries to help feed hungry mouths.

“What would she do if I wasn’t there?” Ochoa said about the woman on the porch. “She’d be starving. She was giving all the food she got to her kids instead of any for herself.”

OAKLEY, CA – FEB. 22: Neighbor Marcian Thompson, 13, right, helps Heather Ochoa packs up some food donations at her home in Oakley, Calif., on Monday, Feb. 22, 2021. Ochoa is in the process to help those in need. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group) 

The Brentwood mom had found Ochoa through a Facebook group, “See a Need, Fill a Need Contra Costa,” and had messaged her for help.

Social media posts and word-of-mouth helped spread the word that Ochoa, a mother of four, almost always had food to spare. That even though she herself was laid off from her job at a local school last spring.

“The pandemic got me to put it out on my porch,” Ochoa said, noting she has an extra freezer and a large pantry to store extra food.

So successful was Ochoa’s pantry and her food deliveries to those who couldn’t come to her, that she now has her own Facebook group, “The pantry … Where God guides, He provides,” to share news about her daily food giveaways. A nonprofit by the same name is also in the works and friends have started a GoFundMe page to help with legal expenses.

OAKLEY, CA – FEB. 22: Heather Ochoa waits for people to pick up food donations at her home in Oakley, Calif., on Monday, Feb. 22, 2021.  (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group) 

Ochoa’s charitable ways started much earlier when she moved to Brentwood in the early 2000s. A new member of Immaculate Heart of Mary Church, she began volunteering for the weekly Friday food giveaways held in conjunction with St. Vincent de Paul. She would later also found an annual toy drive to help during the holidays.

“I’ve always wanted that (volunteering) — that’s what God called me to do,” Ochoa said.

But realizing many of the city’s older residents did not drive or have the means to get to the church, and others could not make it during giveaway hours, the young mom began a delivery service to distribute the food.

“When it was convenient for everyone, I made myself convenient for everyone,” she said.

OAKLEY, CA – FEB. 22: Heather Ochoa, right, delivers food to Nastassia Walker at a homeless encampment in Antioch, Calif., on Monday, Feb. 22, 2021.  (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group) 

Ochoa later moved to Summer Lake in Oakley and continued her work, both from her home on Sycamore Drive and through her deliveries to those in need, including seniors, cancer patients and others temporarily down on their luck who don’t qualify for assistance programs.

“Driving around to Brentwood, Oakley, Discovery Bay, Pittsburg, Antioch and Concord — that’s what I do,” she said. “I love going to their houses and meeting them and giving them food. Not everyone can afford a car…. I help a lot of families that are cancer-stricken or have an illness, are disabled or elderly. Some can’t afford groceries for a week or they can’t apply for food stamps or government help.”

Every day Ochoa picks up donations of food that is about to expire from stores and bakeries, which she either delivers to those who need it or adds to her porch pantry, open daily from 1 to 8 p.m. She has regular stops on different days, bringing food to elderly families in Brentwood and Bethel Island and to families with children.

OAKLEY, CA – FEB. 22: Heather Ochoa delivers food to a homeless encampment in Antioch, Calif., on Monday, Feb. 22, 2021.  (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group) 

When her 2007 Nissan Armada SUV clocked 149,000 miles and stopped working, she had to borrow her husband’s much smaller pickup truck to continue her rounds until she can save money to fix her vehicle fixed.

“My husband said he didn’t know I worked so much until we started sharing the truck,” she added with a laugh.

When her homeowners association cited her for having food on the porch, almost 1,850 community members signed a petition supporting her work. Ochoa now has a shorter, less visible table and at an HOA hearing set for later this month she intends to request a humanitarian exception so she can keep her pantry during the pandemic.

“Heather Ochoa has selflessly volunteered to organize a food pantry at her home for those in need during these unprecedented times of this pandemic,” Jeanne Reeves wrote in the petition she launched three months ago. “We support Heather in this act of selfless kindness 100% and we do not want her cited or asked to change her set up for providing this food to our community.”

Lacey Yamaguchi, a mother of five, is one who has benefited from Ochoa’s pantry after her husband’s pay was cut.

“Heather’s pantry has come to the rescue for so many in our neighborhood,” she said. “I have received from giving community members as well as I have been able to give at her pantry when I have extra.

OAKLEY, CA – FEB. 22: Heather Ochoa, left, delivers food to Michael Sanchez at a homeless encampment in Antioch, Calif., on Monday, Feb. 22, 2021.  (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group) 

Vicki Aiello, who is diabetic, also said she is grateful for Ochoa’s regular food deliveries.

“I want you to know what a true blessing the food pantry is,” she wrote in a message. “They bring it to our house and it helps so much.”

During the holidays Ochoa also provided many Christmas dinners and toys.

“Whenever we are in need of food or anything, we can truly count on her. She is the best through thick and thin,” Sonia Bryce said.

In addition to delivering to individuals, Ochoa often visits area homeless encampments to give out leftover food and, sometimes, can openers. Other local moms help out as well, she said.

“We go out and minister to what they need,” Ochoa said. “We are all in this community together. People are hurting now. There are a lot of people who have to sell their homes…I am always here and never there to judge you or never deny anyone.”

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