Our Community Cookbook: Holiday Recipes and Stories

November 15, 2022

How many of our favorite holiday memories revolve around food? Spanning different cultures, regions and families, food is at the center of our tables and our traditions, especially during this time of year. So, inspired by the season, we set out to ask Food Bank staff, volunteers, and our community what some of their favorite holiday recipes and food-related memories are. Please enjoy this collection of stories and tasty treats – and let us know if you make any!

Hui Yu’s Soy Sauce Turkey and Potatoes

We met Hui Yu at her neighborhood pantry in the SOMA district, where she volunteers regularly and picks up groceries for her and her husband as well. Prior to retirement, Hui Yu worked in a restaurant kitchen, so she’s no stranger to feeding others. Now, she often cooks meals for friends in her senior living facility who can’t make it out to the pantry. Poultry was at the top of Hui Yu’s list as a holiday main: “With chicken, sometimes I’ll roast or fry it. Or, we’ll have the whole family over and then celebrate together with a turkey. On the outside, I’ll use Chinese soy sauce, put it all over the skin, massage it, and then inside, put some potatoes.” Sounds delicious!

Katherine’s Pfeffernüsse

Katherine, Donor Database Coordinator at the Food Bank, shared a Pfeffernüsse recipe (German spiced cookies) that brings back the memories of a winter trip with friends years ago. “One of the joys of food for me is that it can so easily evoke memories and sensations from good times with those I love, or on adventures in places I love. Pfeffernüsse will always remind me of the Christmas I spent in Berlin visiting friends. One bite and I’m suddenly coming in from the biting cold to have a small treat of the spiced cookie and a cup of hot tea after my daily ritual of wandering through the neighborhood Weihnachtsmarkt. The glazed version is common, but I also like them with a dusting of powdered sugar or just plain.” Keep scrolling for her full recipe!

Barbara’s Okra, Cornbread, and Sweets

Barbara, a senior living in the Fillmore who picks up groceries at her neighborhood pantry, sees the holidays as an opportunity. “My favorite recipes for the holidays are things you don’t make on a regular basis, traditional recipes that comes down from your family. My favorite recipe that was passed down to me is my mother’s okra.” At first thoughtfully pondering what else makes up her usual holiday table, Barbara began quickly listing other favorites: “I’m a dessert person, so I make lemon pies, coconut pineapple cake, peach cobblers and banana puddings. Oh, and cornbread dressing! Because there’s no recipe for that – it has the basics, the trinity: onion, pepper, celery. But it’s more of a feeling. So, the trick to that is to make a scratch cornbread.” We agree. Often, the best recipes aren’t written down or in a cookbook – they’re a feeling, or a memory.  

Steve’s Turkey Dinner

“I think holiday meals are always a way of coming together with family,” Steve told us at his neighborhood pantry. He’s a military retiree and a volunteer at his local pantry, where he also picks up groceries for him and his wife. For his family, the holidays are about the joining of different traditions. “I have a traditional turkey dinner, where I usually go up to my sister’s house for Thanksgiving. And then I host a turkey dinner for my wife’s family. My wife’s Chinese, so we tend to do Chinese vegetables, mashed potatoes and cranberries [on the side].”

Kim’s Naw Mai Fan

As Program Manager at the Food Bank, Kim is around good food quite a bit! But nothing quite compares to her family recipe for naw mai fan. “This is my mom’s recipe. She learned how to make this from my grandmother, an immigrant from the Toisan region of China in Guandong province. My grandmother came to San Francisco’s Chinatown right after World War II, where she raised my mother. We make naw mai fan every Thanksgiving and Christmas and it is my all-time favorite food.” Full recipe is included below, so please let us know if you give it a try!

María’s Ponche con Piquete

Sharing is caring! María is a mom, volunteer, and pantry participant in San Rafael. She told us that her family embraces potlucks during the holidays, but also for camping trips and other gatherings throughout the year. “Our tradition for Christmas is to get the whole family together, and everyone brings a little something. Someone brings the pozole, someone else the tamales, the champurrado, the ponche. We make ponche con piquete, like we call it back home – it’s made from fruit, and you add wine to your liking.” 

 

 

This is just a small sampling of the wide variety of food traditions in our community – a huge thank you to all who shared with us! To neighbors across San Francisco and Marin, we wish you a happy holiday season. We hope some of these recipes and stories inspire your next culinary adventure!

Detailed Recipes

Thank you to Katherine for sharing her Pfeffernüsse recipe. Here it is, in full: 

 

Thank you to Kim for sharing her family’s naw mai fan recipe. Here it is, in full:

 

Employment Plus: More than Job Opportunities

November 15, 2022

Samedi and Annette tying bags together

On the stage of Stern Grove, a historic natural amphitheater in the Sunset District, iconic R&B/funk band Tower of Power opened the 2022 concert series to a crowd of thousands this past June. The hills were blanketed in eucalyptus trees and nasturtium, and the vibe was electric. Dancing and grooving along in the crowd were three unlikely acquaintances: Samedi, an artist; Annette, a retired fundraiser for KALW radio; and Tiffany, a job coach. What brought this group together, you might ask? 

Employment Plus: Emphasis on the “Plus” 

Employment Plus (E+) connects adults with developmental disabilities with career and job training, as well as community engagement opportunities. Clients can opt-in to volunteer at Pop-up Pantries, where many of the activities – customer service, community interaction, bagging groceries, and breaking down boxes – offer just that.  

Javon poses while breaking down cardboard

E+ client Javon, a longtime Bayview resident and Food Bank volunteer since 2015, uses his volunteer experience while “mopping, sweeping, and double bagging” at Whole Foods Market. 

Samedi is another familiar face at Pop-up Pantry shifts: “Sometime I’m here so early, it’s even before the staff are here. I come and help them unload the truck.” E+ connected him to the Food Bank, and he’s since built several close relationships including his fellow concertgoers: Annette, who volunteers at pantries six days a week, and Tiffany, a job coach at E+. 

Pop-up Pantries Create Connection 

Lupita, Javon, Robin and Tiffany pose in front of a Food Bank truck after a Pop-up shift

Isolation and loneliness marked much of the past three years for many of us. But even in times of unprecedented separation, people will always discover ways to find companionship and to help others around them.

That’s certainly the case with the E+ volunteers. For three years, they’ve shared groceries with neighbors every week at our Pop-up Pantries, making connections along the way – but many were volunteering even before the pandemic. As a group they’ve dedicated more than 1852 hours of volunteer time since 2021 alone.  

Packing Bags in Partnership 

Robin heard about E+ through friends and has been a consistent Food Bank volunteer for a few years. Pre-pandemic, she was bagging rice in the warehouse, but now her “favorite part is tying the bags. And talking with people…I’ve met a lot of people through this,” she told us. 

Dana fills up grocery bags with fresh produce

It’s clear that beyond transferable skills, hundreds of hours of volunteerism, and the physical workout, the biggest benefit for all is the chance to connect.  

Marcel, a Community Support Coordinator who has worked closely with volunteers from E+ for more than a year, said “we often share laughs while working very hard. They’re very flexible when it comes to an assignment shift, always ready to help out with any task. Having the Employment Plus team onsite equates to a happy day at our Pop-up Pantries.” 

Straight-faced, Samedi told us: “They love me here,” as if to underscore Marcel’s point. Then he broke into a bout of laughter and headed back to continue sharing groceries and a smile with his neighbors.  

 

Farmer’s Market Style…Is Always In Style

November 15, 2022

On a warm Tuesday morning in August, hundreds of our neighbors in the Canal District of San Rafael shopped for groceries. To an outsider, it might look like a farmer’s market, teeming with activity and brimming with bright produce. Birds chirped, kids shouted and laughed at the nearby Pickleweed Park play structure, and people stood around chatting.

This Marin food pantry looked much different than Tuesdays past. In late August, Bahía Vista was the first to switch from pre-bagged groceries back to farmer’s market style pantries – the way our pantries operated for years, prior to COVID.

COVID Pantry Pivots

Farmer’s market style means people choose what they want (and leave what they don’t), rather than taking home grocery bags packed by volunteers. Pre-COVID, all food pantries run by our neighborhood partners operated this way. But due to social distancing guidance, pre-packed bags became the norm.

Now, nearly three years later, we are slowly working our way towards re-opening farmer’s market style at all food pantries.

“What you’ll eat, you take”

At Bahía Vista, community members voiced their support for the transition.

“I thought this was kind of cool. There were times [before] where you might get something that you don’t necessarily need,” said Aaron, a dad of three and private security worker. “For us, six onions is a lot – I don’t know what to do with so much onion.”

Other neighbors like Mirsa agreed. “I love this. What you’ll eat, you take; and what you won’t, you can just leave, so it doesn’t go to waste.”

Picking what you like, what you know how to cook, taking as many ingredients as your family can use and leaving the rest are all meaningful decisions. And an essential part of offering services in a dignified way means ensuring our neighbors can say no to items they don’t want, or can’t use. As Community Support Coordinator Angela notes, “participants are more relaxed as they shop.”

Farmer’s Market Style Forecast

“For me, this pantry style is perfect.” – María, mom, volunteer and participant at Bahía Vista

The Food Bank is hoping to pivot all Pop-up Pantries back to this model in the future. Our second Pop-up Pantry, Golden Gate, just made another successful transition to farmer’s market in late October. And though it will take time and careful planning to pivot the remaining pantries, given that some see thousands of neighbors in a day, the positive reception and seamless transition at Bahía Vista and Golden Gate bodes well for farmer’s market style at other Pop-ups.

“Participants love the fact that they don’t have to take all the food items, and the children like helping the adults shop. And one of our favorite things, as staff, is seeing our participants interact with volunteers, as they now meet face to face while shopping for their desired options,” shared Mikey, Site Supervisor at Bahía Vista. “It’s been a great success.”

 

A Gift that Makes an Impact

June 28, 2022

Pauline Le and her husband Kiet Lam believe the best way to make a positive impact in their community is to commit themselves fully. That commitment includes supporting vital community resources with their time, sweat, and financial support. 

In living up to their commitment to helping their neighbors, Pauline and Kiet volunteer two to three times a week at several pop-up pantries in San Francisco. When asked how she and her husband feel about committing so much of themselves to help their neighbors, Pauline said “we found an extended family through volunteering with the Food Bank. We feel as if we are invested in the success of the community with our fellow volunteers and Food Bank staff.” 

Details Really Matter

For Pauline and Kiet, this calling to make an investment in their community doesn’t end at volunteering. Pauline explained that being a consultant has honed her skill at focusing on the details that are so important to a successful nonprofit program. Details like how an individual communities’ needs should be the central focus of the work a nonprofit does. No less important is the impact that is being made in the community, and how effectively that organization is using the resources and support they receive. The Food Bank’s success in meeting these measurements was vital in her and her husband’s decision-making process when choosing to commit their time and resources to the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank. When considering Legacy Giving, Pauline made it clear that they wanted to feel that any dollar they chose to leave behind in their estate would significantly impact the community. “This is why we decided to make a Legacy commitment a long time ago. The Food Bank is run so well, and it is an easy answer for us to support with a Legacy gift. We are confident that our gift will have a real impact.” 

Helping People Beyond Today  

“It is clear to see that there continues to be a great need for food security and working with the Food Bank is an efficient way to help the community. The city has so much need for food security, and together we can make a huge impact.” Pauline went on to say “it’s powerful to know that we will be helping people after we pass. It’s a strong trust that we have in the Food Bank. We know that our gift will be in the right hands and that gives us comfort and peace of mind.” 

A Lasting Legacy 

By including the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank in your estate plan, you’ll create a legacy that will build a hunger-free future for our communities. We are partnering with FreeWill to make it easy for you to write a legally valid will or trust in 20 minutes or less. Begin your lasting legacy with the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank today by visiting freewill.com/sfmfoodbank or contact Kera Jewett at kjewett@ sfmfoodbank.org to learn more. 

A Coalition of Trust

April 28, 2022

When COVID hit, many folks looked to their place of worship for resources and guidance. This came as no surprise to Guillermo Reece, Lead Liaison for the San Francisco African American Faith-Based Coalition (SFAAFBC). The reason? As a faith-based advocate for his parish, he’s seen firsthand the trust and responsibility that community members place in their churches.  

“Instead of calling their social worker, or contacting the city, they’ll contact the liaison in the church: ‘I have this issue going on. Where do you suggest I can go to get help?’”  

Addressing Existing – and Worsening – Food Insecurity 

The SFAAFBC is a coalition of 22 churches that works to end health inequity in San Francisco’s African American community. Founded in 2015, their mission — addressing “Health, Hunger, and Homelessness” in San Francisco — became even more urgent as the pandemic began affecting all three.  

As research continues to point out, health gaps and food insecurity rates have increased for many of our Black/African American neighbors over the past two years. And as Guillermo says, “there was always food insecurity” in the parish, even before COVID began. 

Luckily, SFAAFBC isn’t an organization that waits for a solution. When they recognized the rising need in their community during the early stages of the pandemic, SFAAFBC leadership approached the Food Bank.  

“Through that conversation, we developed a relationship with them centered on responding to what their community needs,” said Irene Garcia, Program Manager at the Food Bank. “SFAAFBC has been critical in reaching San Francisco’s African American community and we’re constantly learning from them.”  

It’s More Than Just Food 

To better reach their parish, SFAAFBC and the Food Bank use a food hub model to get groceries out to the community. First, the coalition splits into two groups of 11 churches, so each church receives groceries every other week. Every Saturday, the Food Bank drops off pre-packaged boxes of food at SFAAFBC’s joint site with TogetherSF. Each church sends volunteers and support staff to the site to bring back their allotted number of boxes for their parish. Families can then swing by their respective churches and pick up their groceries. The rest of the food boxes are home-delivered to parishioners, often seniors, who can’t come by in person. 

Currently, SFAAFBC serves 840 families every Saturday through this mix of home delivery and distribution from different church locations. Over the past two years, food has become a vehicle for delivering more than nutrition to their parish. SFAAFBC’s holistic approach allows them to target the root causes of food insecurity by caring for the whole person. 

“During the pandemic, the food we were receiving from the Food Bank was very important to deliver to people who were positive for COVID. It’s developed into such a wonderful program to reach the community. When they come to the church, they can get food help, spiritual help, referrals to housing, mental health, education, and other agencies. It’s a one stop shop,” said Guillermo.   

Beyond Crisis Support: What the Community Needs 

 As Guillermo notes, food can open the door to other services. So, both SFAAFBC and the Food Bank are looking for ways to build and expand the scope of the program as the partnership continues growing.  

“This has evolved into a very pivotal and important part of our service to the community. It’s also created a conversation of what the community needs,” said Guillermo. He is quick to point out that certain dietary needs and preferences, health conditions, and medications can affect the foods folks can eat.   

“When I think of SFAAFBC, I think of a group of people who are committed to advocating on behalf of their community and sharing what is and isn’t working. This feedback loop helps us partner to provide better access for parishioners who may have trouble attending a pantry. I’m excited to be a part of the next phase of our partnership,” said Irene.  

Irene is also looking forward to the potential of creating similar programs with other community partners: “Providing home deliveries, or implementing a food hub model that’s super flexible, are on the horizon for more food pantries.”  

Guillermo is hopeful for what the upcoming year will bring, in part due to ongoing conversations with the Food Bank about making the program healthier and more equitable for the community.  

“With more communication and more partnering, I believe we will be able to continue this successful program in the future.” 

Volunteering is a Family Matter

April 20, 2022

Walking through their new neighborhood in early January, 19-year-old Jiakuang and his mother Cui Wei noticed a group of volunteers busily preparing bags of food in the parking lot of Cornerstone Missionary Baptist Church in Bayview. Salsa, rap, and pop music blared from a speaker, and the sun beamed down on volunteers as they packed bags, broke down boxes, and handed out groceries. The pace was quick, and the bags were heavy, but the mood was decidedly upbeat. 

“We live near here, and we saw them delivering the food. And we saw the [volunteers] were very tired because many people need to come here to get their food. So, we came to volunteer and help them,” said Jiakuang.  

They soon came to realize that this busy bustle of activity is routine for Cornerstone on Thursday mornings; Food Bankers and volunteers start to gather at 11am, chatting while waiting for the trucks. Once the trucks arrive, everyone springs into action: staffers expertly unload pallets from the trucks and volunteers coordinate assembly lines amongst themselves, quickly sorting rice before filling bags to the brim with fresh produce like broccoli, sweet potatoes, and oranges, and proteins like chicken breast. 

Meeting Their Neighbors 

This Pop-up Pantry, which is hosted by Cornerstone in partnership with the Food Bank, recently began inviting participants who had time to volunteer. Every Thursday, Jiakuang, Cui Wei, and often his father Mother and son duo volunteer at a food pantry.Wei Zong join other participant-volunteers in providing healthy groceries to their neighbors while also receiving food assistance themselves. For Jiakuang and his family, Thursday mornings at Cornerstone have been a time not only to receive and distribute food, but to mingle, talk, and laugh with other volunteers and food bankers.  

“We come here to make friends with others, and we tell our neighbors to come here and volunteer as well.” 

Thanks to other volunteers, Jiakuang was introduced to a non-credit course at the City College of San Francisco, which he is now enrolled in. He and his family have also been learning more about their new neighborhood by chatting with other neighbors, both volunteers and food bankers. “I’m new here, so I didn’t know too much about the US. I came to the pantry, and they told me about the City College. And when we talk with each other, I can practice my English, which is the most important [to me].” 

Rising Costs and Supply Chain Challenges  

Jiakuang and his parents first applied to come to the US in 2008. Just as they were making plans to finally secure visas in 2020, COVID-19 hit and caused the U.S. Consulate in Guangzhou, China to close, forcing Jiakuang and his parents to delay their plans to immigrate to the US for two more years. In January 2022 they made the long-awaited trek from Guangzhou to San Francisco. While Jiakuang and his family continue looking for new jobs, the pantry has helped offset high food prices caused by inflation and supply chain issues.  

“We get food here, so we don’t have to get too much from the market. This [food pantry] reduces the burden because we are new here, and food is expensive.”  

Grocery prices in the Bay have increased by nearly 4% since December 2021, and the USDA predicts that prices will continue to rise throughout 2022. The chicken that Jiakuang looks forward to has been especially impacted by inflation – the price consumers are paying for poultry is predicted to rise another 4-7% in 2022. “My favorite meal is [chicken] drumsticks – my mom can make them really delicious with soy sauce and Coke.”  

You Can’t Learn When You’re Hungry 

For Jiakuang, an aspiring IT engineer whose current focus is preparing for the credit course in the fall, receiving food from Cornerstone gives him more time to dedicate to his studies. And he isn’t alone; as he notes, “many students are in the same situation as me.” 

Evidence backs this up: a recent study found that college students were 6 times more likely to experience food insecurity during the pandemic than their fully employed counterparts.  

It Takes a Community 

We know that healthy food is essential to student success, both in and outside of school. But we can’t underestimate the value of a healthy community. The participants, volunteers, and pop-up staff at Cornerstone all play a critical role in communicating, listening to, and meeting the needs of the neighborhood; it’s this kind of collaboration that is so vital towards building a hunger-free community.  

For Jiakuang, volunteering alongside his new neighbors means being part of the solution. 

“I think it’s meaningful. I wish more people would come here to volunteer because many people need to get food, and they can also contribute to the Food Bank.”  

Why She Keeps Coming Back: Volunteering in the Marin Warehouse

April 19, 2022

In January 2021, longtime Marin resident Michelle Griffin learned that many of her neighbors were still struggling to put food on the table—and the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank was running low on volunteers. It was the perfect fit for the hands-on opportunity she had been looking for. 

One year later, Michelle is still a regular volunteer with the Food Bank. It’s one of many ways she likes to be involved with her community, along with serving on local and state boards. The two things that keep her coming back to her local Marin warehouse are clear: the staff, and the mission.  

“I just love working with Randy at the Marin warehouse. He makes the shifts fun, and he always reports back on the impact of our volunteer work. He makes us feel like we are truly making a difference,” said Michelle.   

A Hidden Community Issue 

Randy Rollman is the Volunteer Coordinator at the Marin Warehouse, and as Michelle typically picks up two or three shifts per week, they see each other often. Randy relies on a committed group of volunteers like Michelle who show up week after week to pack and sort food for distribution. With food costs on the rise, many of our neighbors are at an even greater risk of going hungry. The work of community partners, warehouse staff, and volunteers is essential to keep up with the increased need. 

Food insecurity is such a hidden issue in Marin, and the Food Bank is really tackling that head-on. I see how efficiently [the warehouse] is run. I also enjoy seeing so many local partners and companies giving back, like Mollie Stones,” Michelle shared.   

Making Connections One Shift At A Time  

Michelle looks forward to Fridays at the warehouse when she will pack grocery bags for home delivery to seniors using the conveyor belt. And when she gets a spot for the popular Saturday morning shift, Michelle enjoys building boxes of groceries for the drive-through pantry and working alongside fellow volunteers.  

“We get a chance to meet and connect with our neighbors and let them know we are all in this together,” said Michelle. “We are all working together to provide food for all.”  

More Than a Food Pantry

April 19, 2022

Sharon Murphy looks forward to her weekly visit to the North Marin Community Services in Novato (NMCS). She knows that’s where she and her son, Rob, can get healthy, nutritious food, feel part of a welcoming community, and see friends.  

The North Marin Community Services in Novato is one of the Food Bank’s partners that exemplifies a holistic approach to caring for their community. They realize that many issues in our lives are interconnected, and that when we need help, it can be for several reasons. That’s why they offer assistance for food, financial aid, health and childcare. Every Tuesday they offer nutritious food through their Food Pantry and Childcare Healthy Food Program. They’ve been a life-saver for Sharon. 

Redefining Independence  

Sharon had lived an independent life and worked at a brokerage firm until she was 71. She also struggled with vascular difficulties. Sharon has had numerous surgeries for her medical condition, one of which required that her leg be amputated. Her life changed drastically, and tasks like shopping for groceries became very difficult. “I can’t do much with the loss of my leg, but I’m learning,” said Sharon. 

One of Sharon’s friends who volunteers at NCMS, recommended the pantry for food assistance for herself and Rob, who is now her caregiver. They had never gone to a food pantry before, yet from their very first visit, they felt welcomed by everyone there. “I think this place has really helped me in so many ways. The volunteers have made my experience enjoyable because they’ve all been friendly. I’ve made friends over the last six months–good friends. My son has made friends there too. 

When life brings unaccustomed changes, Sharon and Rob know that they can count on NMCS for food, friendship, and a bright spot in their week. As Sharon expressed, “The pantry has enhanced my life. Tuesdays are my pick-me-up days.” 

Building a Participant Volunteer Community One Bag at a Time

April 19, 2022

Mei has been picking up weekly groceries at our Martin Luther King Jr. pop-up pantry in the Portola neighborhood of San Francisco every week. After she retired as a seamstress, she took care of her grandchildren after they were born until they grew up. 

One day, Food Bank staffers passed out flyers asking participants if they’d be interested in volunteering. When Mei was approached, she immediately offered to volunteer and was eager to jump right in. 

“I enjoy coming here and wanted to help out,” said Mei, who smiled behind her mask while packing some carrots and winter squash into a food bag at the Martin Luther King Jr. pop-up pantry. “I always took my grandchildren to this park to play,” says Mei, “so this is my neighborhood.” 

Since then, Mei has been coming every week to pack food bags. Every Monday morning, the closed-off street next to Palega Playground and Recreation Center in the Portola neighborhood and just over a mile away from John McLaren Park turns into a food pantry. It’s a well-orchestrated symphony that participants have seen every week but are now helping to conduct. 

From Participant to Volunteer 

Louisa Cantwell, who supervises the pop-up, was looking for an opportunity to engage more with the community and decided to ask if the participants wanted to volunteer at this pantry with the Food Bank.  

“Even though the participants all speak different languages, there’s a genuine sense of community here. A participant volunteer said to me that she’s not able to donate food or money to the Food Bank. But she’s able to give her time, and she didn’t know she was able to do it before. She feels very empowered by that.” 

It’s also been easier for Louisa to fill up volunteer shifts. 

“What we found was by removing the barrier of having to sign up for a shift through our website, we were easily able to get people to come down and volunteer two to three hours of their time every Monday morning.” 

Annette, who’s a longtime volunteer, enjoyed seeing the change of pace since she started. “This is already a community-building experience,” she said. “To have participants volunteer with us too is incredible.” 

Preparing for 2022 and Beyond 

Louisa is planning to invite participants to volunteer at several other pantries. Because the community stepped up at the Martin Luther King Jr. pop-up, she’s hopeful that other pantries will see similar results 

“It’s really important to put equity at the center of what we do. These opportunities will give participants agency, choice, and power in the food distribution.” 

For Mei, volunteering while also receiving food made an impact on her. 

“I’m grateful to be able to get this food while volunteering because it helps so many people.” 

Meals on Wheels, Supply Chain Challenges, and Home-Delivered Groceries

February 9, 2022

It was 6am on a chilly Wednesday morning. Most people are still asleep in their beds at this hour, but in the parking lot of Meals on Wheels’ San Francisco headquarters in Bayview, the day had already begun. We came to tell the story of one of their main programs, a weekly sendoff of home-delivered groceries to participants across the city. Not only did we learn a lot about Meals on Wheels and the incredible work they do in San Francisco, but we also came away with an understanding of how the supply chain challenges that affected the Food Bank also impacted our partners.

As the black of morning slowly lightened to gray, about a dozen volunteers trickled in and gathered around a table to grab coffee and donuts before their shift. A Food Bank refrigerated truck slowly backed into the parking lot, and with a little direction from a woman in a Meals on Wheels fleece, the volunteers started dragging a few tables out of the warehouse and into the parking lot to form two assembly lines. Soon, pallets of carrots, onions, asparagus, and rice made their way to the assembly lines.

The last pallet unloaded off the truck had a surprise delivery of frozen high-grade fish. When we approached the woman directing the volunteers, she introduced herself as Stephanie Galinson, Volunteer Programs Manager at Meals on Wheels SF. “We pretty much know there’s going to be onions, apples, and carrots all winter long and we’re used to that,” she told me. But in the last two years, there’s been a lot of changes to what type of food we receive for our clients. “At the beginning of COVID, I guess the Food Bank had a sudden spurt of donations from restaurants that had to close down. So, we received some crazy wonderful stuff – the Food Bank called us one day and said, ‘Guess what you’re getting? Wagyu steaks.’ We said, ‘You’re joking, right?’ That Wednesday we carefully bagged up the gourmet steaks,” she laughed.

Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes for Home Delivered-Groceries and More

The pandemic threw Food Banking into chaos as we scrambled to find innovative solutions to unusual problems. But nearly two years in, we’re able to get enough context on how COVID impacts programs like home-delivered groceries that we can make some generalizations about how our work will be affected in the short-term future. The same goes for our partners like Meals on Wheels, who are starting to expect the unexpected. “We get unusual stuff – we’re getting more non-animal proteins, which is great. For example, we’ll get plant-based tuna substitute, or a lentil and rice package meal. We even had Impossible Burgers a couple weeks ago. The volunteers are excited about the increased variety, and it’s always interesting to get feedback from clients and learn whether they enjoy the new items. Some folks are excited to see something that’s not chicken or eggs, because it’s something different.”

Partners like Meals on Wheels, as well as our own food pantries, have seen such a change in the type of food they distribute for a few reasons. During the early days of COVID-19, we saw a spike in the number and type of donations we received. Our community has been incredibly generous during these hard times, whether it be through monetary donations that let us turn $1 into two meals or through the giving of food. In the first few months of the pandemic, we even saw some donated caviar pass through our warehouse on its way to participants.

But as the months of COVID have turned to years, we’re starting to see the effects of long-term disruption to industry, especially the global supply chain. “We’ve worked hard to overcome the barriers caused by supply chain challenges to meet the increased need for food assistance since the pandemic, but it puts tremendous strain on our financial resources,” Barbara Abbott, our Food Bank’s Vice President of Supply Chain, told me. Writ large, this means that we have to pay a lot more money for the food our neighbors need.

Not only are the Food Bank and our participants spending more money on food, but much of the available product is being bought out first by retailers. We’ve had to buy food from unusual places to replace what we lost due to cancelled or delayed shipments, like the frozen fish and Impossible Meat that partners like Meals on Wheels receive from us instead of the more typical seasonal food. The same goes for fruits and vegetables. Stephanie at Meals on Wheels, as well as many other partners, are seeing less-common produce like asparagus and pears replace the now harder-to-find regulars of onions, apples, carrots, and more for their home-delivered groceries.

The more things change, the more they stay the same

Just as we’ve had to change the way we work at the Food Bank, Meals on Wheels had to transform their program to adjust to the realities of COVID-19. But the impact our food pantry programs have on the community is still as important as ever.

Volunteer Meals on Wheels driver Michael picks up some bags of home-delivered groceries for his rounds.

“I have a fixed route in the Tenderloin,” a volunteer Meals on Wheels driver named Michael told us while loading packed grocery bags into his car. “I bring the groceries to my clients, and we look forward to seeing each other. It’s much more than just the food delivery – it’s talking with my clients, and respecting them, and empathizing with them.”

It takes a community to meet the challenges posed by food insecurity, COVID-19, and supply chain uncertainty. The Food Bank is committed to supporting Meals on Wheels and other partners by supplying fresh, nutritious food for home-delivered groceries, and volunteers like Michael are with us every step of the way. “My clients can always depend on me on a Wednesday morning, to come with a bag of groceries and a good word,” he said.