A homeless woman shows Yu a pamphlet she's been reading
A homeless woman shows Yu a pamphlet she's been reading. "It isn't about the stuff we give out," he says. "It's about the relationships we develop."

Rolling into Santa Ana’s Civic Center, a group of UC Irvine students stop and get off their bikes. They approach a cluster of people clearly down on their luck, and it’s apparent that the two parties come from very different walks of life. But everyone greets each other by name, and the bicyclists hand out homemade burritos and bottles of water amid expressions of gratitude.

Every other Sunday, as they have since April 2009, Anthony Singhavong and his friends make this ride. They are the Burrito Banditos.

A fourth-year business economics and sociology major, Singhavong was
inspired by the original Burrito Project – which won a 2006 MySpace
Impact Award
for its efforts to “bridge a gap between the fed and the
hungry.” He recruited fellow students interested in “mashing up” their
passion for cycling, love of food and desire to make a difference.

“The main mission is for us to see what’s going on outside the Irvine bubble, outside our own lives,” says Singhavong. “There’s so much we could be doing; this is just one thing.”

He acknowledges the project’s limitations: “We don’t expect that a single burrito is going to fill up a grown man’s belly. But we do what we can. The beauty happens when we converse. We offer human interaction, which most homeless people don’t get on a day-to-day basis.”

Besides him, the core members are Michael Fukuda, a fourth-year political science major; Steven Wang, a biological sciences major; and fourth-year psychology majors Andrew Yang and Josh Yu. They live together near campus and attend the same Irvine church, Newsong.

“We changed our name to ‘Burrito Banditos’ because our church has a Burrito Project of its own,” Singhavong says. “We wanted to make sure there wasn’t a religious affiliation to our group. Everyone is welcome.”

Each trip involves four stages: securing donations, buying the ingredients, preparing the burritos the night before, and delivering them by bike. Shopping at Costco helps keep costs to about $70 per outing.

“A lot of weeks, we’re using our own money,” Singhavong says. “But it’s totally worth it. I feel like people will hear about it if it’s a good cause – by word of mouth.”

Word has traveled, in a variety of ways. Cal State Fullerton film student Jon Chou shot a video of the Burrito Banditos in action that won the first UCI Kindness Month video contest in May.

“We didn’t interview or photograph the people we serve,” notes Singhavong. “They need their personal space – sometimes that’s the only thing they have.”

The award helped reassure the self-described “social justice guy” that he was on the right path.

“The first couple of times we went out for the project, someone would always be skeptical about the burritos,” Singhavong recalls. “But over time, they’ve really come to trust us and know us by name. And they’re ready to receive those burritos.”

Designated chef Yu, who’s considering culinary school after graduating, claims the recipe is “nothing special.” “It’s basically rice and beans,” he says. “We don’t include meat or cheese because they’d spoil too quickly.”

The recipients aren’t the only ones nourished. The Burrito Banditos themselves are enriched by the experience.

“The more rides out there we make, the more I actually learn about community,” Singhavong says. “Sometimes, when people aren’t hungry or know someone else needs it more, they won’t take a burrito. They’ll point and say, ‘Oh, there’s a family over there that’s hungry.’

“That really opened my eyes. They have nothing, and yet they’re so giving. That kind of blows my mind.”

Donations to the Burrito Banditos may be sent to:
Yu Lin Yu
126 Rockview Drive
Irvine, CA 92612