Teen With Autism Heads Up New Produce Pantry For The Needy

SAN DIEGO – When it was time to pick lemons and oranges on a Tuesday in a back garden, Paige Cook was in full swing.

The Oceanside teen, who is on the autism spectrum, quickly put on her work gloves and headed straight for the trees. Paige didn’t dawdle and wasn’t distracted. Working at a breakneck pace, she cut dozens of citrus fruits off and threw them into a plastic box. The box was full within 20 minutes.

Gardening and fruit picking is one of Paige’s favorite hobbies. It is also the inspiration for Paige’s Pantry, a new non-profit that was started by her mother, Malinda Dalton-Cook. The company aims to distribute products to food insecurity in North County while providing life, social and professional skills to young adults like Paige with developmental disabilities.

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Paige, 19, is one of 20 students, ages 12-22, at TERI Inc.’s The Country School in San Marcos. It is primarily non-verbal and its school curriculum focuses on social and professional education rather than academic education. For each of the past seven years at country school, Paige has worked to achieve a range of learning and life skills goals, including in agriculture. Her teacher Meghan Hoppes said that Paige was always very focused when she was working in the raised bed gardens of a TERI group house in Vista.

“Paige is really hardworking,” said Hoppes. “She likes to work, she works hard, and when she finishes one task, she moves on to the next. She is a person who takes command. “

Dalton-Cook said things were going well for her daughter until the pandemic hit last year and closed the school campus and Paige’s access to the gardening she loved and the socialization she longed for. In April 2020, Hoppes invited Paige and her mother to their house in Escondido to pick as much as they wanted from the orange, lemon and grapefruit trees in their garden.

“So with masks, a plastic tub that I found in my garage, gloves and a pair of secateurs, we met up with Paige’s teacher and started picking the fruit. Holy smoke… I knew Paige loved a task, but she was overwhelmed by the hectic pace, ”said Dalton-Cook.

Paige typed in a letter with ideas and recipes for the citrus fruit, and mother and daughter delivered the fruit to the porches of 10 country school staff members. Week after week, mother and daughter picked fruit and delivered it to a growing number of recipients, including a church that provides meals to the hungry and the elderly.

When the local fruit trees ran out, Dalton-Cook reached out to new groups who could donate surplus produce, including backyard gardeners, Escondido’s More than Apples zero waste group, which collects and distributes surplus food, and local commercial growers like Yasukochi Farms in Oceanside, which donates boxes of vegetables to the cause every week.

Last July, Dalton-Cook filed the paperwork to turn their weekly hobby into a business, Paige’s Pantry, and in January the organization was granted nonprofit status. The program now serves about 30 families. That number will soon grow to 40 and the goal is to reach 100 families by the end of the year, Dalton-Cook said.

Every Thursday afternoon, Dalton-Cook and Paige go out to pick fruit or raise funds and bring them home. On Friday morning, four more volunteers with an autism spectrum will come into the house to help sort and pack the items. On Friday evening, mother and daughter drop program recipients who cannot drive. And on Saturday morning, Dalton-Cook is organizing a drive-through pick-up service in front of their home for the rest of the families.

In addition to employing Paige and caring for those in need, Paige’s Pantry also provides professional skills to volunteers with autism aged 17 to 24. They all have different skills, said Dalton-Cook, but everyone contributes to it.

“Part of the plan is to help them develop professional skills,” she said. “Even if you can just open a bag and hold it open while someone else is putting things in, that’s great. Even if they can only move products from A to B, that’s great. We can work with anyone. “

Dalton-Cook, who self-funded the launch of Paige’s Pantry, said she hoped the fledgling business can become her daughter’s full-time career.

“It’s so new and growing so fast that I take it one week at a time. Paige and I study every day, “she said. “It’s definitely a learning curve, but so is every start-up.”

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