Mounds of vibrant green peas, crispy lettuce and emerald bunches of rosemary lie in the dappled sunlight beneath a leafy green tree, patiently waiting to be selected by a choosy shopper. One by one, customers inspect the offerings, harvested minutes earlier from a local organic garden, to take their picks, together with avocados, bananas, potatoes, onions, fresh eggs and a variety of other tempting options.
Is this the latest farmers market to pop up around Santa Monica? Perhaps a food co/op or farm stand proffering its tony wares?
Far from it.
Midday every Wednesday, a team of workers, led by associate clinical social worker Sharlyne Massillon, offers fresh produce, together with prepared foods, artisan baked breads, shelf-stable staples and hygiene products, all free of charge, at Bodega on the Santa Monica College campus.
Bodega is a bright, inviting and stigma-free modern take on what might otherwise be called a food pantry, where food insecure students enrolled at SMC can get supplies to help get through the week with full stomachs. Organizers estimate around 200 students visit the free market each week.
“There were students who would say that they were hungry and couldn’t focus in class,” Massillon, who helped create Bodega, described. “There were students who were taking a smaller class load because they needed to work to provide their own basic needs for themselves. And so it just dawned on me: Basic needs is really where it starts for schools.”
Massillon came to SMC as a USC social work intern about five years ago; there, she began working with the college’s food security programs. At the start of the pandemic, Massillon was instrumental in creating a drive-through food pantry to help support students beginning back in March 2020. After more than a year operating the weekly drive-through pantry, in the late summer of 2021, Massillon and her team transformed the program into what is now Bodega.
Originally from Orlando, Fla., Massillon said after college she did a service year through the AmeriCorps City Year program, tutoring high school students. That was when she realized she wanted to go into social work, which eventually led to a scholarship to USC for graduate school.
While enrolled at USC, Massillon said she herself sometimes struggled to make ends meet, but didn’t know where to turn on their campus to find help for students like her.
“I didn’t know who I was supposed to talk to about these things, and I felt like I couldn’t talk to anybody. So I realized that I wanted to be that support system for students,” Massillon said. “I wanted to be the person that told them, you know, ‘I got it. It’s really hard here. This is what you can do. You can come through here. Grab some food.’”
More than just providing food and other necessities, Massillon said her mission is “teaching the student how to fish” — in other words, showing students in need how to find support and resources in their own communities outside SMC. “We don’t have a lot of students who live in the Santa Monica area, so we need to reconnect them with their own communities and the resources in their communities.”
One key aspect of Bodega is its openness: Students who utilize the service come from all sorts of backgrounds, reflecting the spectrum of experiences SMC students represent, from teenagers living on their own for the first time to mid-career students hoping to advance their job prospects to emeritus students, senior citizens taking classes.
“The community college population lends itself to a variety of people and a variety of walks of lives, and we’re seeing that in the students who are waiting in line and who are coming as well,” Massillon said.
On Wednesday, Massillon and another SMC counselor, Thaddeus Phillips, were busy checking students in as they lined up to enter Bodega. The two agreed that creating a welcoming, open environment was key to keeping the program vibrant and viable for community use.
“I take a lot of responsibility in making sure the place is really welcoming — like, I make sure that the shelves are really stocked and everything looks nice,” Phillips said, adding, “It’s all about presentation. It’s about being respectful about stuff. It’s about being understanding … that’s why there’s music, because that makes it sort of a more exciting atmosphere.”
Massillon said the last thing they wanted for Bodega was for it to be “hush hush” around campus.
“We’ve got our music playing. We have our great logo and sign. This is a welcoming place,” Massillon said. “We want it to be fun and exciting for students. Students are coming here with their friends, you know, they’re like, ‘Oh, yeah, I just come here and I grab whatever I need.’ So the more we talked about it, the more comfortable students become with utilizing the resource.” By offering services through Bodega, Massillon and Phillips said, the college was able to create stability in the lives of its food insecure students, which in turn creates positive educational outcomes.
“It’s really hard to be successful in your education when you have other needs that are more important, such as food. It’s hard to study if you’re hungry and you don’t know where your next meal is coming from,” Phillips said, later adding, “I think this is giving them a quality resource that lets them say… ‘I can rely on this. And this can help me sort of get through this period while I’m trying to get my education together.’”
Donations for Bodega come from Westside Food Bank, FoodCycle LA, the Santa Monica College Foundation, local grocery stores such as Vicente Foods and Sprouts, and local bakery Jyan Isaac Bread, among other organizations and businesses. Organic vegetables are harvested out of SMC’s Learning Garden, located on campus.
Massillon said anyone interested in donating financially should contact the Santa Monica College Foundation. Bodega is also very happy to accept donations of goods, particularly baby supplies (including diapers, food and wipes) in bulk amounts. Visit santamonicacollegefoundation.org/donate.php to make a monetary donation.