Carlsbad teen creates free grocery shopping service for seniors, at-risk groups during pandemic

Nolan Mejia, standing outdoors and holding a bag of groceries
Nolan Mejia, a high school senior, is the founder of Grocery Grab, a free grocery shopping service to help senior citizens and at-risk groups who are in need, both during and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.
(Jarrod Valliere / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Nolan Mejia is the founder and president of Grocery Grab, a free grocery shopping service in parts of San Diego County for seniors and at-risk groups during the pandemic


The COVID-19 pandemic made everyday life more challenging for everyone, but there were specific difficulties for seniors and other groups who are immunocompromised or disabled. Nolan Mejia knew that his own grandparents had family members close by who could do their grocery shopping for them, but what about people who didn’t have anyone?

“My grandparents live in Los Angeles, and they have nearby family members getting them the groceries that they need. When the coronavirus pandemic first began, however, I saw that many senior citizens did not have somebody nearby that they can contact to go to the grocery store for them,” he said. “So, I decided that there must be some organization to help these vulnerable senior citizens, and that inspired me to start this service.”

That service is Grocery Grab, run by Mejia and his classmates at Sage Creek High School in Carlsbad. Their free grocery shopping service is for seniors and other at-risk groups who’ve been advised to remain at home and away from others as much as possible in order to prevent becoming infected by the virus.

Mejia, 17, is the founder and president of Grocery Grab, which largely services the Carlsbad area and also has a Carmel Valley branch servicing Rancho Santa Fe, Carmel Valley, Del Mar, Solana Beach, and Encinitas. He lives in Carlsbad Village with his mother and sister, and has also been actively involved in his school’s volleyball and swim teams, founded his school’s Latinos in STEM club to increase Latino representation in those fields, and is in the National Honor Society. He took some time to talk about Grocery Grab, his commitment to helping his community, and finally learning how to surf.

Q: Tell us about Grocery Grab.

A: Grocery Grab was created in March when stores, schools and workplaces began to shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic. Since senior citizens are encouraged to stay inside during these times, Grocery Grab does the shopping for them. Our goal is to make sure senior citizens stay safe while still getting the groceries they need. The program is completely free, but sometimes senior citizens feel inclined to “tip.” An important aspect of Grocery Grab is that all of the monetary tips we collect are donated to the San Diego COVID-19 Community Response Fund. This is administered by the San Diego Foundation, and they are working to help vulnerable community members at this time. To this date, we have received almost $3,000 in donations and are working toward a goal of $5,000. Not to mention, we have delivered over 5,500 items (over $14,000 in groceries) to various seniors in the community.

Q: Where did this kind of desire to help others come from for you? What inspires this kind of community work?

A: I think of my desire to help others comes from being raised in a family and community where supporting others is strongly emphasized. My mom always brings up the abundance theory. She likes to live by the ideology that there is enough success in the world for everyone, and we should help others in times of need. I take this idea to heart and try to bring it to my everyday life. Additionally, at Sage Creek High School, our motto is “Be Your BEST,” which is an acronym for Be your best, Establish community, Show respect, and Take responsibility. Going to school in an environment where having strong moral character is always promoted has shaped me as a person. I am always reminded to uphold these values and be a role model for others.

What I love about Carlsbad Village ...

I love having such close access to the beach and seeing the sunset on the ocean (it never gets old). I admire how walkable Carlsbad Village is and how much there is to explore. Above all else, I value how close-knit the Carlsbad community is and how much emphasis there is on helping others in the community. I am so grateful that I get to live in a beautiful city with such kind and friendly people.

Q: Can you walk us through the process of how the service works?

A: A senior citizen will email, text, or call us and provide information including their name, list of groceries, address, preferred store and method of payment (we accept cash, check and Venmo). One of our team members goes to the store and purchases the items needed, using their own money. Then they get in contact with the senior citizen and let them know their time of arrival and the total cost of the groceries. The team member then delivers the items right to their door and is reimbursed for the groceries. There aren’t any additional charges, just the groceries themselves.

Q: Last month, you were recognized with the Youth Good Samaritan Award from the American Red Cross of San Diego and Imperial Counties. What has it meant to you to be recognized for your community work in this way?

A: I was honored to be recognized by the Red Cross — the work they do in the community is so important. It meant so much to me that there was so much support for this program in the community. I hope that the award ceremony uplifted and inspired the citizens of San Diego to be Samaritans in their own communities.

Q: Your résumé is impressive: president and founder of your school’s Latinos in STEM club, National Honor Society, wind ensemble, volleyball team, swim team, summer research internships analyzing data from clinical trials, working part-time at a local ice cream shop, and now your Grocery Grab service. I’m wondering when you sleep. What have you learned about how to effectively balance all of your obligations and passions, while also taking care of yourself, especially during this pandemic?

A: I am very busy, to say the least! I have learned that there is a very delicate balance between school, extra-curriculars and personal wellness. I think the key to being on top of everything is staying organized. Planning out when you will dedicate your time to your obligations and carving out times for yourself can make a schedule less overwhelming. Having a fair amount of activities on my plate has strengthened my time-management skills. I find that taking breaks, like walking around the neighborhood, tends to be a relaxing getaway from all my extra-curriculars.

Q: You obviously don’t need to have this figured out yet, but I’m curious about where you might see yourself after high school and college, and into adulthood?

A: After high school and college, I aspire to enter the biotechnology industry. I dream that one day I can lead a company that develops medical technology that helps improve the quality of life of people across the globe. I plan on living in San Diego, or at least California because it is such a beautiful place to live.

Q: Why is your Grocery Grab work important to you?

A: Grocery Grab is really important to me because I was able to make a palpable effect on my community. Carlsbad (and San Diego in general) has done so much for me, so it’s important for me that I give back to my community. The donation aspect of Grocery Grab is important as it continues the cycle of philanthropy and supports the wellbeing of all San Diegans. Aiding the senior citizens and immunocompromised members of my community is important to my personal mission of helping others.

Q: What’s been challenging about your work with Grocery Grab?

A: The most challenging part is outreach. Our goal is to serve as many seniors as possible, so we spread information about our program on apps like Nextdoor (a social networking service for local neighborhoods); however, some seniors do not use apps that much, so it can be difficult to reach them. Despite this, the Grocery Grab team has implemented creative ways to share our service, like advertising at senior centers and senior living communities. Plus, word of mouth has helped us reach new senior citizens.

Q: What’s been rewarding about this work?

A: The most rewarding moments revolve around building a personal connection with different senior citizens and making them happy. Many senior citizens might feel lonely during this time of isolation, but knowing that they have somebody in the neighborhood that they can rely on and talk to is special. The exact moment when you deliver a senior’s groceries, they become so happy. It warms my heart to see them so overjoyed. It’s also amazing to hear all of the stories they have to tell and the wisdom they give.

Q: What has this work taught you about yourself?

A: This work has shown me that you can achieve anything you set your mind to. Just seeing how Grocery Grab started as a mere idea and grew into a fully functioning program taught me that determination and creativity know no bounds. The sky’s the limit! I also have learned that I like combining my love of helping the community and my interest in entrepreneurship.

Q: What is the best advice you’ve ever received?

A: I live by Henry David Thoreau’s quote: “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you’ve imagined.” It reminds me that I make the choices that define my life, and me as a person. It inspires me to dream big and be ambitious to accomplish those goals.

Q: What is one thing people would be surprised to find out about you?

A: Even though I have lived by the ocean my entire life, I have never learned to surf. Whenever I speak to somebody from a different area, they are shocked to hear this since the “stereotypical” San Diegan is a very beach-/ocean-centric person. However, I learned how to surf this past summer, and it is so much fun. Although I am a beginner, it is one of my new favorite hobbies!

Q: Please describe your ideal San Diego weekend.

A: My ideal San Diego weekend involves going to the beach. I would surf, play beach volleyball and Spikeball (think of a mash-up of volleyball and foursquare), sunbathe, and more. It would also involve exploring different parts of San Diego, like La Jolla, Point Loma, and Coronado. I like exercising, so it would include hiking Torrey Pines and Potato Chip Rock. I would explore the variety of food options San Diego has to offer, but without a doubt, it must include the classic, Californian In-N-Out Burger!

— Lisa Deaderick is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune