Emergency Allotments Make A Huge Difference

January 19, 2023

Imagine being 80 years old, retired, and getting by in San Francisco with income from your pension and Social Security – just $1,789 needs to cover $1,000 for rent and utilities, plus other expenses. Now imagine you are also the guardian for your three-year-old granddaughter. How do you cover all the costs?

This is the reality for Mrs. S*, who applied for CalFresh with the help of the Food Bank’s CalFresh Outreach Specialist Crystal Deng. Mrs. S initially applied on her own, but the bureaucracy was confusing, and she missed some steps. Her application was denied.

Mrs. S’s experience is not unique. The CalFresh application process is convoluted and cumbersome – if you forget a piece of verifying information or miss a call from a county official, you can lose out on benefits. That’s where the Food Bank’s CalFresh Outreach Team comes in. Crystal helped Mrs. S, like hundreds of other participants, apply and get approved for benefits. Now Mrs. S can afford more fruit, vegetables and other healthy food for her and her granddaughter.

“CalFresh helps participants alleviate their financial stress,” shared Crystal. “Benefits also help them increase access to healthier food and have extra money to stretch their food budget so they can choose the food they like.”

But our CalFresh Outreach Team is worried. During the pandemic, emergency allotments put even more money in the pockets of those receiving benefits. The average recipient in California was receiving $262 per month as of January 2022, an increase from $141 in 2019. Unfortunately, those allotments will expire in February.

“The cost of living in San Francisco is very high and people are struggling with jobs, housing and food,” shared Crystal. “Right now, with the [pandemic-era] emergency allotment the average person is receiving $262. That makes a huge difference.”

Without the allotments some people qualify for as little as $23 a month. Pre-pandemic, Crystal often heard people tell her the application wasn’t worth it for such a low amount – $23 doesn’t buy much in the Bay Area.

The end of emergency allotments will be a major blow for our community – San Francisco households receiving CalFresh will lose an average of $160 per month. There are 72,000 households in San Francisco that receive CalFresh that will need be seeing the rug pulled out from under them next month. Our Policy and Advocacy team is advocating for greater benefit amounts that better reflect the high cost of living in our community, and stronger safety nets and support for food programs like ours. In the meantime, Crystal and others on our CalFresh Outreach Team will continue assisting our neighbors to ensure they receive the benefits they both deserve and need to support their families.

 

* Name changed for privacy, at request of participant.

What Food Means to Us

December 14, 2022

For many of us, the holidays are a time to gather around a shared meal. Pantries are perused, cookbooks are cracked, and calls are made to relatives for their special recipes (if you missed it, check out our community cookbook with contributions from participants, volunteers, and staff!).

Here’s what we know at the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank: in sharing a meal, we share our humanity. We’ve spent the last 365 days gathering stories from the community and asking: “what does food mean to you?”

“Food means nourishment”

One sunny February morning, we visited our partner Code Tenderloin in San Francisco and heard from volunteer Arielle: “Food means nourishment – of the mind, body, and soul. Food makes you feel good, gives you confidence and courage that maybe you don’t have when you’re hungry. Maybe best of all is you can share it with people – it’s the way to a person’s heart.”

Code Tenderloin’s Executive Director, Donna Hilliard, added: “I think, with our culture, food is everything. When we come together, we eat. When we celebrate, we eat. When we’re sad, we eat. Sharing meals especially means a lot. For the folks at Code Tenderloin, all of us have been on the ground, so we serve our food with love. That’s why so many people are comfortable coming back – we want them to feel like our extended family.”

Arielle, left, is a student, mom, and volunteer at Code Tenderloin. Donna Hilliard, right, is Code Tenderloin’s Executive Director.

CalFresh recipient Yurin told us how a balanced meal means wellness for her family. “It’s something fundamental to health,” she shared. “Having good food, healthy food, is vital to every person every day.”

And at a bustling Pop-up Pantry in San Francisco’s SoMa, participant Russ chatted with us after picking up his groceries. “It means everything,” he said, showing us a watermelon he was excited to slice into. “I’m learning how to eat healthier now that I can get more and better food from this pantry. I turn 65 next August. You can live a lot better as you learn how to cook, what to eat, and what not to eat.”

Yurin is a Marin resident, mom, and CalFresh recipient.

Making Space for Joy

“Food brings us together, you know? If you got a group of people together, bring a meal. Ain’t nobody fussing when you’re eating.” Cliffton is a longtime San Francisco resident and an artist – recently, he painted ‘Spirit of the Fillmore’ in the Buchanan Street Mall. He’s also a participant at our Rosa Parks Pop-up Pantry. “Food is nourishment for the body,” he continued. “Your body won’t allow you to be negative in that moment, because it’s getting good food.”

That’s the not-so-obvious benefit of a full pantry: with no worries about where the next meal will come from, our neighbors can bring a little more sweetness into their lives.

Laura Cedillo, center, is a Program Manager at our partner Native American Health Center. Cliffton, right, is an artist, longtime San Francisco resident, and participant at our Rosa Parks Pop-up Pantry.

Laura Cedillo, Program Manager at our partner Native American Health Center [https://www.nativehealth.org/], told us that “food means someone’s looking out for you and taking care of you.” Laura and her team pack bags of healthy groceries for anyone who needs them in a second-story space that’s part health clinic in the Mission. She views food as memories as much as sustenance. “When I think of food, I think of family, and I think of being cared for. It’s like, hey, how do I love myself? One of my best friends is Mohican from the New York area, and I remember on her birthday she was like, ‘I’m going to make myself some butternut squash.’ And now every time I make butternut squash, I remember my friend. I remember people I love when I cook.”

 

More than Just Calories

We heard loud and clear from almost everyone we spoke to that food is much more than something that fills your stomach for a few hours.

“I believe food means connection to others,” said Maria, who is both a participant and a volunteer at St. Peter’s Catholic Church in the Mission. “You can meet someone at the food pantry and get to know them and also know they care about you. Because all the people volunteering here, they care about all of us – that’s why they’re here.”

Maria, left, is a resident of San Francisco’s Mission district, and is both a participant and a volunteer. Pastor Richard Roberts, right, heads our partner San Francisco Community Fellowship.

“To share food is to get to know people, right?” said Pastor Richard Roberts at San Francisco Community Fellowship  one of our partners in the Excelsior. “It’s not just feeding them physical food, it’s emotional support and understanding, and getting people to a space where they feel comfortable and accepted. That’s what food means to me.”

As he spoke, Pastor Roberts watched volunteers pack grocery bags while photos of churchgoers at weddings and service days smiled down on them. For him, creating a community and holding a food pantry are all part of the same spirit.

The White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health: what it means for San Francisco and Marin

October 5, 2022

Last week, President Biden set an audacious goal: eliminate food insecurity by 2030. His commitment came as he presided over the first White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health in over 50 years. 

“The energy in the room as the President of the United States of America made that commitment was kinetic,” said Tanis Crosby, executive director of the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank, who attended the conference. “To hear the reaction from people who are or have experienced food insecurity, advocates, teachers, academics, and more was profound.” 

This is the commitment anti-hunger advocates and food banks have been demanding from the federal government for decades.  

 

#FoodForAll means support for all

Ending hunger will take collective effort from all of us – including policymakers. Ahead of the White House Conference, we mobilized feedback from our community partners as part of the Feeding America Elevating Voices to End Hunger campaign. Their feedback, along with the voices of thousands of people experiencing food insecurity, other community-based organizations, and food banks nationwide helped formulate policy recommendations to the administration.  

 “Together with Feeding America, we uplifted voices to hear from people experiencing hunger. That, full stop, is our advocacy focus,” said Tanis. “We learn what works and where policy needs to improve from listening to people telling us what they need. That’s how we achieve our goal of ending food insecurity.” 

The responses from the listening sessions were clear: we must address the high cost of housing, rising inflation, low wages, unaffordable healthcare, racism, and other institutionalized discrimination to end hunger. One attendee summed it up: “people need more freedom to enjoy a life where they’re not worried about the basics.” 

The full Feeding America Elevating Voices to End Hunger report outlines the aspirations of our communities and  anti-hunger policy recommendations—informed by people facing hunger prioritize dignity, increasing access, expanding opportunity and improving health. 

 

It’s more than just food

When Tanis arrived at the White House Conference, she and other anti-hunger advocates asked for key policy recommendations grounded in what our communities said they needed. In breakout sessions, the Administration heard directly from advocates about the tangled web that holds people back, as advocates called for removing red tape and streamlining access to benefits people are entitled to.  

We know hunger is not just a COVID-era problem, and it will take all of us to drive the change we need. The San Francisco-Marin Food Bank applauds the Biden-Harris Administration for recognizing the intersectionality of these challenges. “The acknowledgement that there is no single culprit behind food insecurity was heartening,” said Tanis. 

This is our core philosophy: food is a basic human right, and we must address both the causes and consequences of food insecurity to end it. Doing so will require a multifaceted approach.  

 

Looking forward

“The White House Conference was a once-in-a-generation opportunity for the federal government to take concrete action to address hunger and its root causes,” said Tanis. “The impacts of hunger are compounding and pervasive and they do not affect us all equally. This was a powerful opportunity for the Food Bank to speak directly to federal lawmakers and advocate for meaningful policy change.” 

The last White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health resulted in game-changing legislation that introduced key policies like SNAP (food stamps) nationwide. We’re optimistic the same will come from this year’s Conference.  

Specifically, the Food Bank is advocating for: 

  • Protecting and strengthening SNAP (food stamps, called CalFresh in California). By far the most effective federal policy to end hunger, SNAP puts money for food directly into people’s pockets. 
  • Permanently expanding the Child Tax Credit to strengthen social safety nets for families. 
  • Increasing the minimum wage to offset skyrocketing income inequality and cost of living and adjusting eligibility guidelines for federal programs accordingly to avoid a “benefits cliff”. 
  • Protecting and strengthening The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), which is a vital source of food support for food banks across the country. 
  • Improving access to federal food, human services, and health assistance programs such as SNAP, WIC, and Medicaid, so that eligible people aren’t missing out on vital benefits. 

“In the end, it’s not about what happened at the Conference, but what we do next and how,” said Tanis. “Solutions co-created with communities that experience hunger are how we solve food insecurity. I’m looking forward to continuing that within San Francisco and Marin, and I’m excited to see meaningful federal change in the months and years ahead.” 

Farm Bill FAQs: Q&A with Meg Davidson

September 15, 2022

What’s the Farm Bill? How does it impact my neighbors and I? Why should I care? 

Well, as our Policy and Advocacy Director Meg Davidson puts it: “Do you eat? Then you should care.” 

Let’s dive into how the Farm Bill shapes our nationwide food systems, funds essential federal nutrition programs, and how you can get involved in advocating for continued support for the hunger-fighting programs our community relies on. 

Food Bank (FB): So, what exactly is the Farm Bill? 

Meg Davidson: The Farm Bill is a piece of legislation that serves as the federal government’s main tool for making sure the nation’s food system keeps running. It sets the priorities for both farming and the primary nutrition safety net programs for the next five years. The 2024 Farm Bill is being negotiated right now. 

Think about the Farm Bill as a building with three pillars: 

  • The first pillar provides farmers with a safety net against the inherent ups and downs of agriculture. 
  • The second pillar is the nutrition safety net, helping Americans in need put food on the table. 
  • And the third focuses on the environment – protection of the water, air, and earth to ensure that farming isn’t doing more harm than good. 

FB: As the Food Bank, how does the Farm Bill impact our work? 

Meg: The Farm Bill funds federal nutrition programs like SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), TEFAP (The Emergency Food Assistance Program), and CSFP (Commodity Supplemental Food Program), all of which are integral to the work we do. SNAP, aka CalFresh in CA, is a nutrition benefit program that helps one in nine Californians put food on the table. TEFAP is the USDA-supported method through which the Food Bank distributes food to 201k households monthly. And CSFP is a program that helps 10,000 seniors in San Francisco and Marin stretch their budgets and nourish themselves. 

FB: How are we pushing to make SNAP, and other benefits, stronger? 

Meg: We’re looking to improve the adequacy of SNAP benefits by increasing allotment amounts and eliminating barriers for populations who need nutrition support – for example, college students and immigrants. We’re working to expand access to SNAP by removing administrative hurdles, like 3-month limits for working adults and restrictions on how SNAP benefits are spent.  

We’re also pushing to reauthorize CSFP and increase funding for TEFAP, as we continue to see heightened levels of need in our community. For both CSFP and TEFAP, we want the minimum eligibility incomes raised to reflect the high cost of living in the Bay Area. And we’re pushing for continued TEFAP investment in BIPOC farmers and local economies.  

FB: What would happen if SNAP benefits were cut? 

Meg: SNAP benefits are incredible but inadequate. The amount of money that people get is not enough to meet all their needs. Four in 10 people who receive SNAP also go to food banks to supplement their food. So, it’s important that we don’t make SNAP even weaker, because food banks are already completely tapped out. We simply cannot take on more if we were to eliminate certain populations from being deemed eligible for SNAP. There would be millions of Americans who would be excluded from this critical safety net that helps them put food on the table. 

We saw how reducing barriers during the pandemic made it easier for people in need of support to enroll in the program. We know what works, so let’s not go backwards. 

FB: What is the pushback that these programs receive at the federal level? 

Meg: There are a lot of stereotypes that affect lawmaker’s perceptions of programs like SNAP, CSFP, and TEFAP. For instance, there’s always pushback that we need to cut back on the eligibility for SNAP recipients in order to cut costs. But the reality is, SNAP is good for the economy, not just recipients: a recent USDA study estimated that every dollar in new SNAP benefits spent when the economy is weak and unemployment elevated would increase the gross domestic product by $1.54. And 80% of SNAP benefits are spent within the first two weeks of receipt, pumping money quickly back into the economy and generating more jobs. 

FB: How can community members take action? 

Meg: Start out by signing our petition and tell Congress to protect and strengthen SNAP. Adequate safety nets are the most effective way that we can prevent hunger and food insecurity in our community and ensure that our neighbors have a network of support when they fall on hard times. Then, make sure to sign up for our Advocacy Alerts, so you can stay up to date on timely ways to get involved.  

 

It’s up to all of us to take action to end hunger in our community, so stay tuned for more ways to engage with the 2024 Farm Bill. 

Safety Nets Creating Stability: Lisa’s Story

September 6, 2022

Lisa is a lot of things. She’s a Pisces, a gamer, and a voice in her community. A resident of the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation’s (TNDC) Kelly Cullen Community in San Francisco, she also attends their educational classes and volunteered at their People’s Garden before the pandemic. “I do a little of everything,” she laughed when we spoke to her outside the building’s weekly food pantry.

Right now, she’s living on her own with three small dogs. She has friends on her floor, a computer to game on, and a multifunctional pressure cooker that cooks rice, sautés vegetables, and air-fries meat she gets from the food pantry downstairs. “I like the pantry because I can get my extras here, the things I wouldn’t be able to buy from the store,” she told us. “Right now, I have everything. I’m stable, I’ve got housing. I don’t have any worries, so to speak.”

But it wasn’t always this way. For Lisa, a combination of government-funded safety nets and community support led her to this stability – and now she’s able to offer helping hands to others as well.

Safety Nets Are Necessary

For seniors and folks with disabilities like Lisa, government policies on food assistance have had a checkered history. Originally, people who receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI) were ineligible for SNAP or CalFresh. But that changed in 2019. “Advocates from the SSI and anti-hunger community, including our Food Bank, all worked really hard to overturn that policy. And then activists conducted outreach across the state to connect SSI recipients to the resource,” said Meg Davidson, Director of Policy and Advocacy at the Food Bank.

Lisa felt the effects of policy changes firsthand. “In the beginning, when folks on SSI weren’t allowed to collect food stamps, I found that really stressful. It’s easier now,” she said. She explained that expanded CalFresh benefits during the pandemic were also a boon. “I get a little extra on top of what I usually get, and I can set myself up better. If they stop the extra [food assistance money], I’m still good now because I have my staple foods in my pantry and meat in my freezer.”

Community Support is Integral

Lisa’s current situation wouldn’t be possible without the support she received, both from the government and her community. “A young lady named Lynn turned me on to classes with TNDC [where I live now]. She has helped me grow.” And with that growth came a desire to help others in the Tenderloin: so far, she’s advocated for pedestrian safety and a dog-friendly park in the neighborhood. “I learned a whole lot about myself, and I learned about community organizing,” said Lisa.

She also reaches out a helping hand to folks in the Tenderloin, as others have done for her. “Talking to people is my way of giving back. I can tell them places to go, and if they need my help to sign up for anything I’ll help them,” said Lisa. “It’s hard to change your life when nobody’s helping you, but when you get support, it’s easier. That’s my game plan. I’m gonna bring y’all in.”

Pass the EATS Act

June 29, 2022

You can’t learn when you’re hungry. Yet, as many as 1 in 4 college students who struggle with food insecurity can’t receive CalFresh benefits (food stamps). Our Policy and Advocacy team is working to change this by lobbying Congress to pass the Federal EATS Act.  

CalFresh is one of the most important tools for addressing food insecurity and hunger. Recipients can shop for the groceries they want, when they want, by spending their monthly benefits at participating grocery stores and farmers markets. Unfortunately, students from low-income backgrounds are largely unable to access CalFresh because of barriers like a 20 hour/week work requirement. “The work requirement is an archaic rule that requires students to be working hours that they don’t have,” explained Meg Davidson, Director of Policy and Advocacy at the Food Bank.  

Eased Restrictions, Increased Participation

The current “work-for-food” rules are based on assumptions of a “typical” college student – upper middle class, with endless free time and family support. In reality, there is no typical student. Between required labs, rotations, and residencies, working to pay their bills, and even supporting families, many students simply don’t have 20 free hours in their week. School is work. Extra barriers to healthy groceries can spell the difference between obtaining a degree and halting their education. The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 got rid of this “work-for-food” rule – temporarily – and the results were immediate. “During the pandemic, restrictions like the work requirement were lifted, and more college students were able to access CalFresh. So, we’ve seen that it doesn’t have to be so hard to get more students in the program,” said Meg.  

School is Work

However, expanded CalFresh eligibility for students is set to expire just one month after the federal Public Health Emergency is declared over. That’s where the Federal EATS Act – and you – come into the picture. The Federal EATS Act would permanently expand CalFresh access to low-income students by making attendance at an “institution of higher education” count as their work requirement. “The EATS Act recognizes that school is work,” said Marchon Tatmon, Government Affairs Manager at the Food Bank. “This bill will allow students to access the nutrition they need.” We need your help to make sure all students have access to healthy groceries that fuel their learning. You can sign up for Action Alerts and get involved through our email list: sfmfoodbank.org/advocacy. Let’s urge Congress to pass this permanent legislative fix for college hunger, together.  

“Not Part-time Employees”

June 28, 2022

CalFresh is supposed to be the first line of defense against hunger, but that’s often not the case for college students. For Dustin and Anthony, two among thousands of college students facing food insecurity, the Federal EATS Act would make a huge difference. Dustin is an LGBT Studies major and first-generation college student at City College of SF. Like many other students, Dustin turns to the Food Bank to stock his fridge and pantry. CalFresh isn’t an accessible option for him because of the work requirements and red tape in the application process. “I do not have the support of parents sending me through college, so I utilize the Food Bank when I don’t have funds,” Dustin told us at Rosa Parks Pop-up Pantry in March.  

School Comes First 

Anthony is a graduate student at UCSF, currently in his second year of the dentistry program. He’s been a recipient of CalFresh on and off since 2018. When we spoke on the phone, he laid out his simple problem with the work requirement for students. “When you’re in a rigorous academic program, you don’t really have much time to study if you’re working to make ends meet. It puts a lot of stress on students who are now focusing more on working instead of studying. We are full-time students, not part-time employees.”  

Not Enough Time in the Day 

For students who come from low-income backgrounds, a college degree holds the promise of less financial struggle in the future. Getting that degree, however, is not easy. And dedicating 20 hours of precious study time a week to a job, just so that you can buy groceries, doesn’t make it any easier. It’s a vicious cycle that forces students to choose between their studies and their survival. That’s why students like Anthony are such strong supporters of passing the Federal EATS Act. “I know countless friends and family members who are college students and could greatly benefit from CalFresh. With the EATS Act, if we remove these barriers then people will have much easier access to food.” 

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.”

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.