Pauline’s Story | Librarian to Food Banker

August 10, 2020

Before the pandemic, Pauline Harris was working as a children’s librarian at the Richmond District Branch of the San Francisco Public Library. Now, she works at the Food Bank as Disaster Service Worker.

“I miss being at the library, but I recognize that it’s important for me to be here,” said Pauline.

Disaster Service Workers are City and County employees who are not able to perform their typical day-to-day work right nowPauline is just one of many who have been activated to support COVID-19 response efforts – such as contact tracing, staffing hotels where unhoused individuals are isolating, or helping at the Food Bank. 

During her first deployment at the Food Bank in mid-May, Pauline worked alongside volunteers packing fresh fruits, vegetables, grains, and proteins into bags for our temporary Pantry at Home program assembly line.  

“I remember I was told that we packed around 2,800 bags that day,” she said, recalling her first day. “It was a killer shift since I wasn’t used to it yet.”  

From Packing Bags to Curbside Assistance  

That shift didn’t stop Pauline from wanting to do the work for the Food Bank. 

Now on her second deployment, she is assisting volunteers who are delivering groceries through Pantry at Home to over 12,000 seniors each week. At the curb on Pennsylvania Ave, outside of the Food Bank, the volunteers pick up the packed grocery bags that are ready for delivery. Here, Pauline greets them and helps pack about 15 grocery bags into their car, and at times hears stories about the people they deliver to. 

“Sometimes, I feel like the folks that are bagging the groceries should come down and meet the drivers just to see what it’s like,” said Pauline. “Hearing where these bags go and interacting with the drivers has been a cool experience.” 

A Community Sentiment 

Pauline enjoys working with the volunteers. “The volunteers [drivers] are amazing people and always seem positive,” she said. 

“Seeing this many people that want to help makes me feel great about what I’m doing. It’s amazing how enormous the need isAt first, I knew the need was dire, but not at this level. That’s why, in my opinion, it makes the most sense for me to come and help. We should not be letting anyone fall through the cracks and become needlessly hungry.” 

Irene’s Story | We’re All In This Together

August 4, 2020

Growing up in San Francisco, my grandmother was everything to me. She had migrated from Nicaragua, re-married into a food family, and helped run a restaurant. So, she knew how to cook, and prepared meals for us regularly. Her kitchen was the epicenter of our family.

Today, I work at the Food Bank, supporting many of our Marin pantries. I see the space we created with our partners, and just like my grandmother’s kitchen, it’s at the center of our community, with food hitting the bullseye.

Pre-pandemic, it was a real family atmosphere—with music, food samples, and information about services. The pantry coordinator and volunteers knew every participant by name and often gave hugs. You’d hear them ask, “How are you feeling?” “How’s your daughter?” or “Are you coming to the event tonight?”

You’d feel the warmth and see that participants were comfortable with not only getting help but helping each other.

Since COVID-19 struck, the music and hugs have taken a pause, but the welcoming atmosphere has not. In Marin, we’ve changed many of our operations to drive-thru pantries. Folks drive up, open up their trunks, and a volunteer puts their groceries in. It’s a “no-touch” experience, but you can still see everyone smiling beneath their masks.

At a San Rafael drive-thru pantry, a woman got out of the car to open the trunk, and you could just see the appreciation in her eyes. She said, “You have no idea how much this means to me.” A group of us standing there all gave her an “air hug” from six feet away.

In Marin, there’s more space to have a line of cars, but it requires a lot more coordination. Our partner organizations, volunteers, and county worker support has turned everything upside down to make the food distribution work. For some pantries, we need anywhere from 30-50 volunteers. Folks get there early and set up assembly lines to prepare up to 600 bags of food.

Working six feet apart but alongside each other, we all feel a sense of unity: unity with volunteers and participants. We’re all in this together. When all is said and done, the new normal can be distressing. But I’m certain between the Food Bank, our partners, volunteers, and community supporters, we will get through this together.

Masks and Food for Good: Q&A with Cobaltix 

July 16, 2020

As the founder of an IT company, Steve Walker is doing his best to give back to the community, but never thought about the issue behind hunger until recently. Located in SOMA, a microcosm for poverty and income inequality, his company Cobaltix is right around the corner from the Bessie Carmichael Elementary School Pop-up pantry. Steve knew he needed to find creative ways to help the community, which sparked the idea of making and donating handmade cloth masks in his neighborhood.

So, one day in April, after seeing the line at the Pop-up pantry extending around the block, Steve Walker decided to follow the line to the entrance and pass out face masks to staff and volunteers. Soon he extended it to participants who didn’t have one on their faces. Not long after, he donated so many that we were even able to share them with the Food Bank’s pantry network, including pantries that serve the unhoused population and need clean masks. 

But Steve knew he could be doing so much more. Once he started familiarizing himself with the growing need and engaging with the community, he decided that there were other items he could be giving out. One week, he donated two hand carts and coffee. Since then, he and his staff also started bringing coffee and breakfast items such as pastries, bagels, granola bars, and fruit each week for staff and volunteers. 

We spoke with Steve about his firm’s contribution and how they’re expanding their help to other pop-ups. 

Food Bank: As an IT company, why did you start making masks in the first place? 

Steve Walker: Cobaltix is currently doing well, and we started thinking about how we could give back to the community. One of the things we decided on was hiring a bunch of people that weren’t doing so well during this pandemic and putting them on payroll for at least eight weeks. One person we hired was a seamstress, and we asked her to make us masks and bought a bunch of fabric. 

At first, I’d never really thought about food as something we needed to worry about in the Bay Area. But after seeing the line outside of Bessie Carmichael, it dawned on me that I needed to do something. We’re not a food company or anything of that sort, but we have this surplus of masks and started giving them out. We’re also bringing these over to Rosa Parks Elementary School since we want to keep doing more in other areas.

FB: What has been your experience coming out to these Pop-ups?  

SWFor starters, the neighborhood representative Isabel is amazing. She’s managing all these people and leading them. I look at all the people in there—the volunteersand they’re also amazing. The Food Bank is literally changing their lives. We also partnered with United Playaza youth-led violence prevention organization that’s supporting the Pop-up. We have hired a chef that’s making lunches for them during their volunteer shifts. I can tell that they’re so happy to be there.

It’s fulfilling to see all these families walk in, especially mothers, and open the food bags to see what’s inside, with a look of relief on their faces. People who are going to this Pop-up pantry don’t have jobs and can’t afford to buy groceries each week.  

FB: So far, what have you learned after finding out about the growing need? 

SW: Living in California, this is the breadbasket of the world, and food is primarily grown here. I’ve always known that there’s income inequality and it’s expensive to live in the Bay Area. At the same time, seeing the number of people who are close to the edge due to economic downturn and lining up for food has been eye-opening and kind of scary. It’s something we need to fix as a society. 

FB: What would you say to those that are thinking of making a difference for those in need? 

SW: Another reason why we’re doing this is we’d like to set an example for companies to do more for the world. It doesn’t take all that much to make a difference for the people who need it most. I think there’s a bunch of other companies like ours that are just as small that can get a bit creative on how to give back. I also found that the more you ask about what others need, the more likely you’ll be able to give back to the community. I hope that companies, whether big or small, can start or continue to make a huge difference in many ways.  

Tina’s Story | Food is Family

July 7, 2020

Growing up, there was a time our kitchen cabinets were filled with blue and white generic brand food. I didn’t know my family was going through a hard time and that generic was the cheaper option. All I knew was that we had plenty.

Food was comfort. Food was family. And that’s the feeling of security the Food Bank is providing right now for over 60,000 families in this pandemic—especially for the kids who come to the pantries with their parents or grandparents. They aren’t aware of hardships, needs, or financial worries. They just see it as a fun outing.

This week, I was at a pantry in North Beach, San Francisco. The line was over 10 blocks long, weaving through the streets, nearly all the way to Fisherman’s Wharf. I saw a woman with her five-year-old grandson get in line. I knew they had a long 90-minute wait ahead of them and instantly felt bad.  

I kept my eye on them and saw the woman give her grandson snacks. He held her hand as he enjoyed his food and juice box. Thirty minutes later, they had only moved two blocks. They started doing leg exercises and stretches, and then piggyback rides. The boy was cheerful, laughing, and enjoying himself. 

After an hour and thirty minutes, I finally saw them coming around the corner to enter the distribution area. They were both smiling under their masks and still holding hands as they seemed to cross the finish line together. It warmed my heart, and I couldn’t help but clap and say, ‘You made it! Good job!” The little boy gave me a thumbs up. It was a beautiful thing to see him unaware of the long line he waited in for the food they needed.

The smiles on the faces of the woman and her grandson are the Food Bank’s goal. Our priority is to provide not only food, but also a welcoming, positive experience.

For all of us, there’s an uneasy feeling with everything changing in the pandemic. The Food Bank is a consistent beacon of care, compassion, and community. We’ve been here for over 30 years; we’re here in this crisis, and we will be here in the future. And we’ll always have a smile, so folks know we’re here to help each other. 

Ruthanne’s Story | No One Should Go Hungry

June 29, 2020

Every Tuesday, volunteer Ruthanne McCunn arrives around 8 a.m. in the morning at Mission High School. She packs grains like rice or pasta, proteinand produce like carrots, apples, onions, and potatoes into bags before the Pop-up Pantry opens. Once 9 a.m. hits, a few volunteers including Ruthanne position themselves to pass out food bags to participants while the rest of the volunteers continue packing. 

As participants arrive at the front of the line, Ruthanne greets each person with a smile and recommends, in both English and Cantonese, to be mindful of the eggs that are inside each bag.

Since the beginning of shelter-in-place, Ruthanne has volunteered at a few Pop-up pantries, including Mission High School and Gordon J. Lau Elementary School, each week.  

“It’s been therapeutic to do something purposeful,” she said. “It’s an opportunity and a gift to be able to actually do something positive for the community.”  

Prior to the Food Bank, she volunteered with Martin de Porres House of Hospitality for 27 years. However, they can no longer allow volunteers in their building and Ruthanne wanted to help. 

Serving Communities for Years 

“I’ve known about the Food Bank for many years,” said Ruthanne. “[Martin de Porres House of Hospitality] gets a ton of their food from the Food Bank and works with the unhoused population. Because of this pandemic, I decided to go the source of the food, the Food Bank, and signed up to volunteer.

What surprised her the most from this experience is the number of participants that arrive at these pop-up pantries. She recalls an instance at the Gordan J. Lau Elementary School pop-up.  

“I remember this one time, the line went around the block and stretched all the way towards the Fairmont HotelI arrived there at 7:30 a.m., and the line was already two blocks long. I asked a participant that was standing at the very beginning of the line, ‘What time did you get here?’ She said she got there at 4:30 a.m., which is mind-boggling to me. 

A Continuing Effort 

 Since her first shiftRuthanne has witnessed the many changes the Food Bank is making to accommodate everyone at the pop-ups, including, for example, introducing timeslots to make sure people don’t have to wait in line for hours. Ruthanne has also seen the growing need firsthand. But her many years of experience on the frontlines of addressing food insecurity has taught her that this issue is not new.  

“People don’t have enough food, even though this is purportedly a rich nation,” said Ruthanne. “Because of that, no one should go hungry, especially here in San Francisco.

The Perfect Storm: Increased Need & Higher Food Prices

June 18, 2020

Most of us try to limit our trips to the grocery store – trying to make it in and out as quickly as possible to protect everyone’s health. But when we venture out, it’s hard to miss the shortages and increased prices – it can seem like the bill keeps going up even as we can never get everything on the list.

At the Food Bank, we’re feeling it too, as Barbara Abbott, Vice President of Supply Chain can tell you. “The pandemic has been like a giant wrecking ball through our food supply chain.”

Barbara is something of an air traffic controller here at the Food Bank, overseeing the sourcing and moving of food from the growers and packers to our warehouse before it heads out to the community.

Grocery Prices Spike

“The general public has seen many of the same things we have at the Food Bank – like a spike in the price of eggs – a whopping 16%. There has been a shortage of meat. And the cost for pre-packaged rice, beans, and other pantry staples has gone up, and grocery shelves are often bare as folks stock up.”

According to the latest report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, we’ve had the largest one-month price spike for food in nearly fifty years. Overall, food prices climbed an average of 2.6%, the highest increase since February 1974. Two-point-six percent might not seem like a lot, but when your family is stretching the dollar to put food on the table, every penny is accounted for.

Decreased in Supply & Increased Demand

To make matters worse, the Food Bank has moved away from buying grain and other items in bulk. Since the virus is airborne, we simply can’t have staff and volunteers working side-by-side in small sorting rooms. This means not only are we spending more on pre-packed goods, but we are now competing with grocery stores and everyday consumers for family-sized portions of many staples.

These operational challenges have collided with a huge spike in the need we are seeing in our community – we are now serving 62,000 households each week, up from 32,000 pre-pandemic.

“We’ve had to re-engineer our operations in so many ways,” Barbara said. “But the biggest change is that we’re serving nearly double the number of families with so many of our neighbors out of work.”

To meet the need, we not only need more food, but we must find additional storage space, hire more warehouse staff, procure more trucks, and hire more drivers.

As Barbara explained, “the increased need plus higher food prices is really the perfect storm to create shortages.”

However, thanks to the outpouring of generosity from donors, the Food Bank has been able to rise to the challenge. We are ensuring every family receives fresh produce, healthy grains and beans, and high-quality protein.

“We can’t predict when this pandemic will end,” Barbara reflected. “Right now, we are sprinting–but we know this crisis will be a marathon. We are counting on our supporters to make sure the Food Bank can respond to our community’s needs.”