Garrett Dunbar is Saving The World, One Burrito at a Time

Garrett Dunbar of OC Burrito Project
is making a difference...
one burrito at a time

OC Burrito Project founder Garrett Dunbar has a mission: to improve the lives of Santa Ana’s homeless community, one burrito at a time. Like many things in life, it was not one single event that led to the entire existence of another, but rather all the dots connecting to create something wonderful. For Garrett Dunbar, a passion for helping others, a law education, and an internship at the Orange County Office of County Counsel all led to the start of the OC Burrito Project.

A Passion For Service
Throughout his education, Garrett committed himself to numerous community service opportunities. As a high schooler in Palos Verdes, he volunteered with Los Hermanos, a group that took on many community-oriented projects, including helping meal assistance programs. Later, when Garrett was an undergraduate Political Science student at UCLA, he participated in the “Swipes for the Homeless” program, where leftover meal “swipes” were donated to the homeless so they could have a meal in the university’s dining hall. It was always Garrett’s plan to go to law school and work at his father’s law firm, however, once he started school at Whittier Law School in Costa Mesa, he quickly realized he needed to be doing something more fulfilling – something beyond himself.

A Call to Something Greater
When Garrett found himself feeling unfulfilled at law school, he wasn’t sure where to go next. He had invested so much time and money into a career he thought he was supposed to be doing. Garrett notes “I didn't feel comfortable simply leaving it all together, so I started looking for ways to incorporate the law into things I enjoyed.” Having grown up in Southern California with a passion for the environment, he pursued legal internships at Orange County Coastkeepers and the Surfrider Foundation. These internships inspired Garrett to use his background in law to bring justice to low-income communities which are disproportionately affected by pollution.

It was in his final year at law school, when Garrett began an County Counsel internship at the Civic Center in Santa Ana that inspiration for what would later become the OC Burrito Project struck. “I walked past around 500 homeless people that had encampments throughout the area and I was absolutely in shock.” When Garrett asked his supervisors and authorities what was being done about the problem, he kept finding himself at a dead end. Between broken links for homelessness support and public officials that didn’t seem to care, it seemed like nothing was being done about the problem. Rather than give up on the issue, Garrett found inspiration for the project he’d been looking for: helping the homeless.

The Project

When his inspiration struck, Garrett was also working at his school’s law library. He started reading about how to form a nonprofit in California and get 501(c)(3) status. He says he could finally “use [his] passion for helping people and knowledge of the law to start doing something tangible” for those who had been ignored. The idea to use burritos as the vehicle to help the homeless came from Garrett’s finacé, who previously had been involved with the South Pasadena Burrito Project and suggested he volunteer with them and see how they function. After learning about this, and other burrito projects in the LA and Orange County area, he realized none of them had the wraparound support that the homeless community needed in terms of food, mental health services, job training, legal aid, and substance abuse counseling, and so he established the OC Burrito Project with these services in mind.

When the project first began in November 2015, Garrett, his fiancé, and six friends assembled 150 burritos in his apartment to pass out to the people living in the encampments surrounding the Civic Center. Through the event, Garrett learned more about the complexity of issues that accompany homelessness and knew if he wanted to serve the homeless like he set out to do, he was going to need to get the community involved. Through GoFundMe pages and social media, they were able to scale up the number of burritos they wrapped and attract more volunteers. In the project’s first year, they rolled over 4,000 burritos, put together 2,500 goodie bags with toiletries and snacks, handed out thousands of articles of clothing and pairs of shoes, and introduced more than 100 different volunteers from the community to their homeless neighbors. If they were to continue this kind of growth, however, Garrett needed to find a commercial kitchen and fast.  

4th Street Market’s East End Incubator Kitchen (EEK)

After struggling to find the kitchen he was looking for, Garrett reached out to 4th Street Market. to use their commercial kitchen, EEK. They almost immediately responded and asked Garrett about his project and his future plans for it. Since October 2016, the OC Burrito Project has been rolling burritos in either the EEK itself or Foodbeast Kitchen Studio. On his first day in the kitchen, he says he was “so awestruck by the equipment and working alongside actual chefs and catering companies I almost didn’t know what to do with myself.” Garrett says EEK has allowed them to decrease their cooking time, meet their storage needs, and cook a lot more beans and rice than they ever could in his apartment. What’s more, they are able to walk straight from the kitchen to distribution. His favorite part of the kitchen, though, is how easy the three-stage sink has made cleanup!

Garrett Dunbar started the OC Burrito Project by making 150 burritos in his apartment with ingredients bought using his financial aid money and now serves the homeless community of Santa Ana in ways he never imagined. Looking to the future of the OC Burrito Project, Garrett is excited about using the program to educate and inspire the community to break down the stigma surrounding homelessness, as well as focus on advocacy, outreach, and developing services full time.