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.

Sandy’s Story | Grocery Delivery Makes the Difference

July 30, 2020

Before the pandemic, Sandy performed as a fiddler at festivals. And before that, as a young woman, she was an activist. She’s a mother and a grandmother with a zest for life.

She also knows what it’s like to experience hunger.

When she was a child living in Northern Ireland, there were times she and her brother would have to split what little food they had.

“I remember a time we split one scrambled egg,” she recalls. “Hunger has always been something. Not ‘I missed lunch,’ but true hunger.”

And now after 48 years in San Francisco, living through so much of this city’s rich and vibrant history, she is experiencing the challenges of living on a fixed income amidst the rising cost of living in the Richmond District.

“I’m living on my savings and I also get retirement. The rent here is $840 a month. I thank God it is only that. And my check is about 800 and…,” she pauses to think. “It’s close, I mean they are right next to each other.”

COVID-19: A Challenge for Seniors

Even before the pandemicone in seven adults between the ages of 50 and 80 nationwide were food insecure. For many low-income seniors, the Food Bank was a lifeline, helping ensure they weren’t choosing between affording food and paying rent.

COVID-19 suddenly threw a new impossible choice into the mix: choosing between risking your health to pick up much-needed food or go without it. To guarantee they wouldn’t have to make that choice, we started grocery delivery to 12,000 low-income seniors in our community every week.

To aid in these efforts, the USDA also granted a waiver that allowed Amazon to deliver senior boxes from the Supplemental Food Program (SFP), which provides a monthly box of mostly shelf-stable food to seniors living at or below 130% of the Federal Poverty Income Guidelines.

While we look forward to bringing seniors back to the community centers, churches, and other weekly pantries locations, the recent spike in COVID-19 cases makes it clear: seniors like Sandy are still vulnerable.

Grocery Delivery Makes All the Difference

When Sandy’s husband was still alive, the couple relied on the monthly SFP food boxes. But her health challenges made picking up the SFP box difficult, and after her husband was killed, she stopped coming.

Even after she stopped picking up her SFP box, she kept in touch with Shirley Chen, senior program manager at the Food Bank. And in March, Shirley was able to connect her with our CalFresh team who signed her up for benefits, enroll in our Pantry at Home program, and even help her get her SFP box delivered straight to her door.

Unfortunately, the USDA ended the waiver allowing us to deliver SFP boxes for seniors shelter at home in June, making her Pantry at Home deliveries and CalFresh benefits even more crucial.

Thanks to the Food Bank, and the help of its caring staff members and volunteers, Sandy said she hasn’t been so well fed in a long time. “Do you know how long it has been since I could buy a rolled pork roast? My family came over and shared it with me. It fed 5 of us.”

In a time when we just don’t know what tomorrow will bring, the generosity of the Food Bank staff and her neighbors who make these deliveries means a lot. “I’m terribly grateful.”

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.

Partner Spotlight: Q&A With The Richmond Neighborhood Center

June 18, 2020

With three neighborhood food pantries serving more than 800 Richmond District residents each week, a home delivered grocery program that reaches 150 seniors, and a CalFresh application assistance program, The Richmond Neighborhood Center is one of our largest Community Partners.

Before COVID-19, The Richmond Neighborhood Center created a thriving community around its food programs. Pantry volunteer shifts created an atmosphere similar to a family gathering. Even among the participants, weekly pantries were a place to gather and catch up with one another. And with Home Delivered Groceries, the volunteers and seniors were paired individually to have a chance to get to know each other and build a long-term relationship.

COVID-19 changed all of that. While The Richmond Neighborhood Center remained open and continues to serve their community, they had to shift the way they operate. We caught up with Program Manager Yves Xavier, to hear more about how things are going now.

(This conversation was edited for length and clarity.)

Food Bank: How have the last few months been for The Richmond Neighborhood Center?

Yves Xavier: They’ve been going well. The first three weeks of the shelter in place ordinance were pretty zany for lots of reasons. I think we were all a little nervous for our own health. We had to quickly redesign our programs to meet these constantly changing guidelines. Every day it seemed like there was either a new guideline or fear of what this pandemic could bring. So, those first three weeks were tough, but we adjusted and reshaped all our programs.

Specifically, for the pantry, we made quick changes that we wish we didn’t have to make but certainly were better for health. For example, one of the coolest pantry experiences, or at least what we really love about our pantry, is that people from the neighborhood gather together. You make friends or you come over with your friends to sit and talk and wait for your group to line up. Unfortunately, with the pandemic, we had to get rid of all of that.

FB: How is volunteer recruitment?

YX: It was a really cool, unexpected shift – for both home delivered groceries and the pantry, we lost probably half of our regular volunteers. But within a day or two, we had a huge influx of new people from the neighborhood. So, our volunteer corps has been strong since the pandemic began. There just seems to be an outpouring of people who want to help, even though there was a large loss at the same time.

FB: One of your pantries was at George Peabody Elementary. Do you still have access to the school?

YX: Unfortunately, no. We don’t have access to the school, so we moved our pantry operations to The Neighborhood Center. We still run three pantries, but we saw a decrease in participation from participants who lived in the Inner Richmond for lots of reasons – including the fear of getting on a bus, buses not running etc. – who couldn’t make it out to our 30th Avenue Outer Richmond headquarters to get their food. But the Food Bank has helped us deliver to many of them through Pantry at Home.

We’ve also been slowly recruiting volunteers to take over those deliveries. We’re up to making 105 deliveries on our own and we’re hoping to take over all the deliveries to free your staff up to serve more people in the city who need it.

FB: Are you serving more people now?  

YX: We’ve definitely seen an increase in participants, but it was similar to the way that the volunteer corps worked. There were some folks in our pantries who stopped attending. And then we also saw an influx of new people. We didn’t talk to everyone about the reasons for coming, but we took a general poll of those in line and heard from many new people who lost jobs their recently.

FB: Aside from the pantries, how has the rest of your programming been going?

YX: Our grocery delivery programs that we do in partnership with the Food Bank and the Richmond Senior Center have carried on. We took about 25 people off our waitlist and served them. It stretches us a bit thin, but it is doable. So that program hasn’t been impacted in a negative way.

But changes had to be made. One of the things that made our home delivery so unique is we did a one to one volunteer match – one volunteer goes to one senior and it’s the same senior and the same volunteer each week. We have seen really cool relationships grow out of that where people get connected and just go over for other things like helping their senior change light bulbs, shop for them, or take them to a doctor’s appointment. There are endless stories like that. But COVID-19 has made people get creative in the way they connect. We stopped asking volunteers to connect in person. Instead, we’re asking people leave bags in front of doors, ring the doorbell, stand six feet away, and wave.

That hasn’t felt great because that social connection is such an important piece of the program. But the bottom line is people are continuing to get their groceries every week. And that’s what we really wanted to make sure is continuing to happen. We’ve encouraged our volunteers to make calls to their seniors, or teach them how to use Zoom, or write emails and pen pal letters. So, folks have been creative, but it’s definitely been a change.

We also saw a huge increase in CalFresh application assistance – more than any other time in my five years working with the food programs at The Neighborhood Center. Now we are taking as many as six appointments a day, which is pretty significant.

FB: How are you planning to adapt programming as the city reopens? Do you anticipate new challenges?

YX: It’s a really good question. I can’t say we’ve thought about it as much as would probably be helpful, but that’s partly because we’re pretty much set on keeping things the way they are for the foreseeable future. Even as things start to reopen throughout the city, we’re not expecting to change much. We’re going to keep people lining up, disallowing congregating, ensuring that everyone is wearing masks, pre-packing bags for participants, etc., until phase four, when mass gatherings are allowed again by the city.

FB: That makes a lot of sense. Was there anything else that you wanted to share about how you’ve adapted to COVID-19?

YX: I’m just really impressed by everybody who helps make these partnerships happen. Our staff and volunteers have been incredible with all their flexibility and dedication. Same goes for the Food Bank staff. Gary, our point person for the pantry, is always professional and friendly. During a difficult time, he was great – always keeping us up to date, helping make sure that we had what we needed, and just overall supportive; as was Jillian who supported us with Home Delivered Groceries.

I’m also impressed with how everything shifted for everyone across the city who does these programs and how people can keep a positive attitude, keep the collaboration going, and work really hard to serve more people and get creative. It’s been really cool to see all that happen.

Partner Spotlight: Visitacion Valley Strong Families

June 12, 2020

Expanding in the Face of COVID-19

Day in and day out – rain or shine – the Food Bank’s network of neighborhood food pantries helps us provide food to the community. They are the cornerstone of our outreach. While nearly a third of our pantries had to close due to a variety of COVID-19 related challenges, many remain open and are also serving more people than ever before.

One of them is the pantry at Sunnydale Housing. Here, a committed group of long-time volunteers made extended service to their community possible. The pantry is run by Visitacion Valley Strong Families (VVSF), a collaborative lead by APA Family Support Services with three other community-based organizations: Edgewood Center for Children and Family, Samoan Community Development Center (SCDC), and the Asian Pacific American Community Center (APACC).

COVID-19 Brings Added Challenges

Before COVID-19, the pantry served approximately 200 households, mostly locals from the neighborhood. Now, according to Program Director Jack Siu they are serving more than 300 people from all over San Francisco. They work hard to ensure no one gets turned away.

“We always try to have extra bags if people come late, or if they didn’t know about the pantry,” said Mary Ann Pikes, who is one of the volunteer leaders who has come since 2012. “It’s amazing how many people who live here never knew about the pantry. But I can understand, it’s because they were working every day.”

As she points down the street to show where the line used to end compared to where it ends now, she predicts that they will soon need to start ordering more food to meet the growing need.

Sunnydale is a historically neglected public housing area with a particularly high rate of poverty – the average annual household income is only $13,487. Prior to COVID-19, VVSF was running several programs for families in the neighborhood. But now those can’t operate. “Right now, we are focused on basic needs: food, diapers, and clothing,” said Jack.

For local residents who were already struggling, COVID-19 is making things that much harder. Mindy, who has come to this pantry since 2014, explained that with a husband and two teenage sons at home, she goes through food quickly. “They eat a lot as they are getting older.” The pantry always helped her save money and made sure the family got enough to eat.

Now, with the virus, members of Mindy’s family are unemployed, so the fact that her neighborhood pantry could remain open is a huge help. “Beyond just the unemployment, we don’t want to go out to expose ourselves, so coming here is close and easy.” Only half-joking she adds, “but if we could do it twice a week that would be the best.”

Meeting People Where They Are

Long before COVID-19 brought the vulnerability of seniors into our collective consciousness, this pantry started a grassroots effort to deliver food to disabled seniors in their neighborhood.

“About seven or eight years ago, I said ‘if we are going to do this food pantry, let’s get food to the people who need it most,’” said Tim Gras, who works for Edgewood Center and spearheaded the delivery project. He explains, “there was a need and we had a vehicle.”

They now deliver to about 70 people a week and have a long waiting list. “It’s a challenge in this neighborhood because many people qualify for disability and we can’t take this to the hundreds and hundreds of people who we’d like to,” said Tim. “You’ll see at the end of the day our truck will be teetering.”

While the team does have concerns about their health and safety, they are committed to serving their community despite the pandemic. Reflecting,

Tim acknowledges, “in these neighborhoods, just day to day living can be really challenging. Folks are trying to follow guidelines, but it is kind of a different reality in a lot of these public housing neighborhoods.”

For him, if there is an opportunity to help, he is ready to do it. “We are going to keep trying. It is a really critical and necessary service, so we keep trying”

Helping Neighbors

Prior to the pandemic, the pantry was a chance to socialize and catch up with neighbors. Local organizations used to bring coffee and do small cooking demos for volunteers and participants.  Now, it’s a different story. While everyone misses that, it isn’t going to keep them home.

Jack sees this commitment with all the volunteers. “They are more motivated than ever. They are still here, and they come so early. They want to help others,” said Jack.

Pop-up Pantry Co-Leads Find Community

May 28, 2020

On a warm, borderline hot, Wednesday morning, Sara Cruz stands on the blacktop of Rosa Parks Elementary School directing volunteers. Everyone is hard at work. It’s nearly 9 a.m., and it’s almost time for the Pop-up Food Pantry to open.

However, Sara wants to check in on the line before the Pop-up Pantry opens. While the school is tucked away in a shady enclave, it sits at the nexus of Western Addition, the Filmore District and

Japantown – meaning even with shelter-in-place traffic levels, the majority of the line snakes along some busy streets.

As she moves at a fast clip, she reminds participants to maintain a six-foot distance from one another and to keep the sidewalk clear for passersby. Sara is also using this opportunity to touch base with volunteers and disaster service workers stationed to manage the line. She makes sure they have enough water and an understanding of their role for the day.

Sara and her husband Edison are co-leads of the Pop-up Pantry at Rose Parks Elementary School. Every Wednesday, they welcome the Food Bank delivery truck, instruct the volunteers, pack food bags, greet participants, and hand out food. Sara is part of the Food Bank’s Young Professionals Council (YPC), where she first heard about the opportunity to co-lead a pantry. Since Rosa Parks is walking distance from Sara and Edison’s apartment, it was a convenient way to engage with their community during this time.

10 Weeks in and the Growing Need

Rosa Parks was one of the first emergency Pop-up Pantries the Food Bank opened after shelter-in-place went into effect. With the help of countless community volunteers, it now serves around 1,200 households every week.

At the end of what turned out to be a half-mile long line, Sara told one patient participant who lined up early, “we start around nine, things will start moving soon.”

Rosa Parks is just one of 25 pop-ups and 217 neighborhood pantries that remained open after shelter-in-place. Overall, the Food Bank is serving nearly twice as many households as it was before the pandemic.

Stepping Up with Their Community

This is only possible because community members like Sara and Edison saw a need and stepped in. “I am so surprised by how proactive and supportive the community has been,” said Sara. “The volunteers we’ve seen on-site are extremely willing and able; they just want to help out and support as best as they can.”

For the couple, doing this work feels personal – both Sara and Edison were laid off at the end of last year. “Neither of us is working right now, so we understand that the pandemic is affecting a lot of people in adverse ways,” explained Edison. “This was an easy opportunity to give back to the community.”

Sara echoed that sentiment. “When we look back and ask ourselves: ‘What was I doing to help during this time?’ I can say we were doing this,” she said. “We’ve met some really interesting people through this experience – many of them have become our friends.”

Delivering Food to Seniors: Q&A with Esther Honda

May 21, 2020

Food insecurity hits seniors particularly hard, especially when they are trying to balance a fixed income with the rising cost of living. Even before the pandemic, one in seven adults between the ages of 50 and 80 nationwide were already food insecure. Those who had recently experienced food insecurity were twice as likely to say their diet was fair or poor.

For many low-income seniors, COVID-19 only exacerbates these challenges by layering on the health risks now associated with meeting their basic needs like going out to get food.

Our temporary Pantry at Home program supports the health of seniors by ensuring they are getting a bag of fresh groceries – including fruit, vegetables, grains, and high-quality protein – delivered to them every week. Because of the generous support of our volunteers and partners, close to 12,000 seniors do not need to risk their health to pick up groceries each week.

We spoke with volunteer Esther Honda about her family’s experience delivering groceries to some of our community’s most vulnerable.

Food Bank: When did you start volunteering with us and why?

Esther Honda: We started volunteering once shelter-in-place started. I knew I wanted our family to volunteer at the Food Bank, and it just worked out well for us to deliver groceries. I have to confess that it seemed like a good excuse to get out of the house but also felt really necessary to help others who could not safely leave home.

FB: Can you describe the experience?

EH: We drive over to the Food Bank warehouse on Pennsylvania Street, back in, and are greeted by friendly volunteers who check us in and offer to help us load up our bags of groceries. There are 3 of us in the family so we manage fine, though. Then we turn on the delivery app and head out to a well-organized list of clients.

FB: You are volunteering with your family?

EH: We volunteer as a family, and we all agree that it’s a great thing to do together! As soon as I signed us up, the family was totally on board.

FB: Are you at all concerned about your health and safety while volunteering?

EH: We wear gloves that the Food Bank hands out, plus our own masks, and we try our best to make as little physical contact as we can.

There has not been one time when we felt unsafe, though, in any neighborhood. I will say that people in all the neighborhoods we have delivered to have been really kind and helpful. It seems like folks can tell you are out there to help others and often offer to hold a door open for you, show you where an elevator or particular house or apartment number is, and to help you get food to the recipients.

FB: Have you learned anything new or surprising during your volunteer experience?

EH: My husband and I have lived in San Francisco for over 30 years, and until we started delivering, there were some neighborhoods in our city we had never been to. It’s expanded our own sense of our city.

FB: How has the volunteer experience impacted you?

EH: Volunteering has made us feel more useful and less like we’re spinning our wheels during this time. We feel like we’re doing something positive and worthwhile. We’ve done lots of things as a family that were community-oriented, but usually, these things have been about the public schools our kids have gone to. This is the first time we’ve gone out to volunteer our support to others as a family. Our teenage daughter has done this on her own, though, so this is actually a bigger step for us, the parents.

FB: What would you say to other people who may be considering volunteering but are on the fence?

EH: Do it! Especially if you are bilingual or have even a tiny bit of language ability in Russian, Spanish, Cantonese, or Mandarin! You are needed, and you will feel appreciated. I have personally been so grateful for the opportunity to get out and volunteer, and the Food Bank makes it easy to sign up for shifts that fit our schedules.

We strongly recommend volunteering with a family member or roommate. It makes dropping off easier and more fun.

FB: What is your favorite part of volunteering?

volunteers in masks

EH: Our daughter says her favorite part is the cute old people and how appreciative they are when we drop off. They smile and often thank you repeatedly, even when they speak little or no English. It’s very rewarding.

FB: Is there anything else you want to share about your experience?

EH: Some people might feel hesitant driving and dropping off in neighborhoods they are not familiar with or in housing projects that they might have thought to avoid for safety reasons in the past. I have had to confront my own privilege and biases while delivering somewhere unfamiliar for me and have learned the simple truth that it’s ok… These are people, just living their lives! And they’re very appreciative. If nothing else, I hope that the public health reality has shown that we are all, as San Franciscans and as humans, facing this challenge together. We need to support one another, and food is a very basic need that brings joy and togetherness, even when we have to be apart.