If you take a walk down 16th Street in the Mission on a Saturday morning, chances are you’ll see a steady stream of people going into an unassuming terra cotta-colored building and leaving with a full bag of groceries – and often a smile as well. That building is Grace Fellowship Community Church, and every Saturday, a rotating duo of coordinators lead a group of volunteers to pack seventy-plus bags of groceries. This week, Karen Seth and Cindy Peterson are spearheading the food pantry.
The church has been doing this every week for over five years, and the Food Bank has been proud to be their source of groceries throughout. The half-dozen volunteers that showed up to help this particular Saturday unloaded, packed, and distributed enough food for about seventy grocery bags. “We love when we get all the produce,” said Cindy. Eggs and bags of onions and green beans were stacked, rice was apportioned, bread was sorted, and music played from someone’s portable speaker. The energy in the room was clearly upbeat.
But it’s not just food that Grace Fellowship is passing out – they also provide a community, even in the time of COVID. “One thing that we have really treasured through the five years is the relationships that we build with our participants and that they see us week in and week out, and they’ll tell us what they’re going through,” said Karen. “Some people have struggled with cancer, some people have struggled with losing their jobs, some people have been in and out of the hospital. And so, they tell us these things, and we can be here and hear them and see them and receive them, and this can be a safe place for them.”
It’s Not Just Food
At the backbone of Grace Fellowship’s food pantry is its volunteers. Though it takes just a few hours per shift, the work volunteers do at Grace and beyond is vital to food pantries staying in operation. They lift heavy bags of produce, protein, and grains after they’re dropped off by the Food Bank truck, sort produce into assembly lines to make sure a soft pear doesn’t end up crushed in a grocery bag below a heavier squash or melon, and hand out full bags to participants as they come down the line – which lots of volunteers say is the most rewarding part of their work. Many come week after week to serve their community. There’s no one-size-fits-all description for volunteers at the Food Bank and at our partner pantries; they are young and elderly, regulars and non-regulars, from all walks of life. Some are exclusively volunteers, but others both receive food assistance and volunteer. Take Rashmi, a future nursing student who first came to Grace Fellowship in 2017.
When Rashmi moved from Nepal to San Francisco, she was a high schooler with parents that each worked two jobs. Her neighbor used to share the food she received from Grace Fellowship with Rashmi and her family, and eventually Rashmi tagged along: “She took me here one day, and I signed up that day. It was my way of kind of being responsible for the household, since my parents both worked full time, two jobs.”
The food and community Rashmi received from Grace Fellowship not only allowed her to help provide for her family, but also freed up her time and mental space to concentrate on her studies. “It’s just kind of like, ‘oh, one burden off my shoulders,’ in a way,” she said. “I can go about my week without having to worry about what to get for lunch or think about how much to spend, because budgeting is one of my big challenges right now.” Giving back to Grace Fellowship is important to her, too. “I look forward to coming here, then giving food to elderlies and I feel happy when I give them extra food because I know them, and they are using the food.”
One of the other volunteers helps an elderly participant, Patricia, load a bag of groceries onto her walker as her small white dog jumps down to give space.
“This place, it’s so nice,” said Patricia with a big smile on her face. “They’re so kind to you. They always have extra food and offer it. And they remember your name, and you just feel blessed.”