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.” 

Parenting in the Pandemic

April 25, 2022

For many in our community, March 2020 is when “the village collapsed.” Over two years later, this is still the reality for countless parents across our counties. Financial hardship and food insecurity, among other things, have made it hard to get back on their feet – much less return to the “normal” others may be experiencing.  

Sarah is a single mom of two, who lost her job as a civil engineer shortly after shelter-in-place went into effect. She soon began coming to Rosa Parks Pop-up Pantry for groceries to feed her then 4- and 6-year-olds. When we met with her a few weeks ago, she carefully loaded groceries into a stroller before stopping to talk about her experiences parenting during the last two years. “It’s very difficult to juggle a career, especially when there’s instability. You’re just on your own. My own family was too afraid to help.” 

Challenges of Pandemic-era Schooling  

A lack of support characterized the last year and a half of online school for both kids and parents. Caretakers across the globe can empathize with the constant balancing act Sarah describes: “It was very challenging to have two very young kids at home. I spent all my time figuring out remote schooling and food and taking the kids out to grassy fields to play.”  

Luckily, the recently passed Universal School Meals (USM) Program, which targets school children K-12, is already making a difference for Sarah’s children since they returned to in-person school in late 2021.  “It’s very helpful. It can cover breakfast and lunch for the kids, so it’s huge.” 

However, preschoolers are not covered by USM, so parents like Arlesia are left to pick up the slack and pack lunches. Arlesia and her 3-year-old daughter Juliana have been coming to Rosa Parks Pop-up Pantry for about 3 months, following a rough 2021 for the entire family. Arlesia, her husband, and Juliana all dealt with serious health scares last year, and Arlesia has been unable to find work since losing her job as a restaurant server and event planner in 2020. Preschool tuition is a financial strain while the family relies on her husband’s income, but for Arlesia, the impact school has had on Juliana is priceless. Her face glows with pride when describing Juliana’s progress in the last 10 months. 

“Tuition is rough, but it’s for my daughter. Especially in the past few years when kids haven’t had that much interaction with other kids, it’s really affecting their development. Just from August to now, I can’t believe how much she grew and developed.” 

Father and son pose with toy car and groceries on playground.Other parents are more hesitant to let go of remote or homeschooling. Farzad is the single dad of 3-year-old Mehdi, as well as a musician, small business-owner, and participant at Cesar Chavez Pop-up Pantry. Farzad watches his son drive a toy car around the playground and sighs, shaking his head when asked about in-person preschool. He doesn’t “want Mehdi to go until COVID is over,” citing health concerns like maskless and unvaccinated children.  

Self-Care and Systemic Change 

Despite the struggles and uncertainty of the past two years, parents seem generally hopeful about the future – and a chance to tend to their own needs and wants, as well as their children’s.  

Arlesia pauses when asked what she would do with some free time. “I haven’t focused on my health because I’m making sure the rest of the family is taken care of. I love doing crafts and photography, things with my hands. It drowns out all the concerns because you’re focused on making something beautiful.” She smiles. “I try to keep it positive because at the end of the day, we’re going to make it.”  

Farzad is similarly optimistic, and excited for the revival of live music. “I play guitar, and I’m known for Persian flamenco — I pioneered it. I’ve been playing in the Bay Area since ‘85. I’ll be starting to gig again soon, hopefully. Things are changing. I’m seeing it already.”  

For Sarah, hope lies in systemic change and providing safety nets for caretakers.  

“COVID took more mothers out of the workforce than has ever happened since World War II. It really opened my eyes as to how the US doesn’t support caretakers. And if we can’t feed our kids, what kind of society are we, right?” 

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.”  

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.

Booker T. Washington Community Center Transforms for Good

January 26, 2022

You notice Booker T. Washington Community Center as soon as you round the corner of Presidio Avenue near the Fillmore – amongst the classical Victorian architecture of San Francisco, Booker T. is a modern structure of sleek steel and glass. Its left side stands a little taller than its right to accommodate the community center’s fifty Affordable Housing Units, and a pop of cheerful poppy-red marks the entrance to the building.

Booker T. serves the Fillmore and Western Addition neighborhoods in many critical ways. Among those fifty Affordable Housing Units are twenty-four apartments specifically designated for youth transitioning out of foster care, and the community center is also home to after-school programs for kids, classes for families, COVID-19 testing and vaccination sites, services for seniors, and a food pantry program that the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank helps supply.

Pandemic Response

COVID-19 has changed not only how the Food Bank operates, but also how our partners like Booker T. Washington distribute food to their communities. “Our food pantry program, we’ve been doing it for a while,” said Ryan Babbitt, Director of Programs at Booker T. Prior to the pandemic, their pantry operated very differently. “We had it in person – we had it more personal.”

When shelter-in-place was instituted, Booker T. had to transform their food pantry program. Shutting down during the pandemic or only offering in-person service would have severely impacted the seniors that depend on their services. Seniors make up a significant portion of participants at the Food Bank and our partner pantries. That’s a trend we see at the state and national level, too – in 2019, 12% of seniors in California are food insecure. What’s equally concerning is that 63% of those hungry seniors have had to make the choice between paying for food and paying for their medications. according to a study by Feeding America. These statistics are from 2019, before COVID reared its head.

We don’t have data on senior hunger in the time of the coronavirus yet, but a look at how the virus changed daily life gives some clues. Those over 65 are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, which made going to a neighborhood food pantry a very risky option. That’s why Booker T. adapted their program. With help from the Food Bank and Project Open Hand, another food security nonprofit in San Francisco, seniors and other homebound neighbors in Western Addition and the Fillmore have access to either home-delivered groceries or a healthy frozen meal every day of the week.

“You receive food, and you also help out. It’s amazing,” confirmed an elderly participant/volunteer at Booker T. named Phillip.

Looking Forward

Though new coronavirus variants have complicated the reopening many of us hoped for in the summer of 2021 – and seniors have remained cautious about coming to the Booker T. pantry – vaccines and routine masking mean that a few seniors have begun to trickle back through the community center’s doors. “We had one elderly lady come in yesterday. Her name is Ms. Blanchard, and she’s been a staple at Booker T. for over 30 years. And yesterday was the first time we’ve seen her and got to give her a hug, you know?” one staffer said with a smile. “She runs our bingo programs too. She’s so important to the neighborhood.”

Senior Stories: Patricia at Grace Fellowship

December 28, 2021

Every Saturday morning, Patricia, a longtime resident of San Francisco, walks or busses with her Chihuahua to our partner food pantry at Grace Fellowship Community Church. Sometimes her friend Lester joins her, but when we met her last month, it was just her and her dog. Patricia has been receiving food from Grace Fellowship for four years now, and the pandemic made her situation even more challenging. “When I couldn’t come to the pantry, oh, I was heartbroken. We [in my senior facility] were sharing food… I had to look in my cabinets for things that my dog could eat. It saves me so much, because I can’t afford things. I have to pay for my electricity and things, so there’s a lot of expenses.”  

The Senior Hunger Landscape

Everyone needs a little bit of help as they grow older, whether by asking a grandkid or a neighbor to mow your lawn or having a friend pick up a few things at the store. But as everyone in the Bay Area knows, living in San Francisco or Marin is expensive. High housing prices and a steep cost of living mean that balancing expenses can be challenging, especially if you’re living on a fixed income such as Social Security disbursements like many seniors are. The unfortunate reality is that seniors are at a high risk of being forced to choose between food, bills, and medical expenses. Feeding America recently reported that California’s senior hunger rate has hovered at 8.4% in 2018 and 2019. We don’t have official data yet on the impact of COVID-19 on senior hunger rates, but we can infer that affording food hasn’t gotten any easier. We recently surveyed over 7,000 participants and learned that more than 80% of them have yet to recover from the economic impacts of COVID-19, and recent problems in the global supply chain have made the prices of food rise in recent months.  

By getting food assistance, Patricia can pay her expenses while also improving her health. She, like many seniors, has a few health issues that poor nutrition makes more complicated. It’s the variety and type of food Patricia gets from Grace Fellowship that Patricia really appreciates. “I make smoothies out of the fruit and juice the celery. It’s really good for your intestines. And out of the rice, I make congee [rice pudding], or I make rice and I put whatever vegetables and chicken I got from the pantry in there. So you can make a lot of different things.” 

Our Partners Serving Seniors

Patricia is one of a community of seniors that the Food Bank, and our partner Grace Fellowship, serve. “We have quite a span of ages, though I think it probably leans towards seniors,” said Karen Seth, a pantry coordinator at Grace Fellowship. “One thing I think that we have really treasured is the relationships that we build with our guests and that they see us week in and week out. They’ll tell us what we’re going through. Some people have struggled with cancer, some people have struggled with losing their jobs, some people have been in and out of the hospital. And so, they tell us those things and we can be here and hear them and see them and receive them, and this can be a safe place for them.” 

It’s thanks to our supporters that we’re able to help our community and provide them with food that nourishes them and makes their lives better. This benefit extends beyond our participants. Rashmi, a volunteer at Grace Fellowship, told us, she loves coming to our partner pantry every Saturday. “I look forward to coming here,” she said. “I like giving food to the elderly and I feel happy when I give them extra food because I know them, and I know they are using the food.” 

Raising a Glass to Pandemic Volunteers

October 25, 2021

With the closings and shutdowns starting in the early spring of 2020, everyone’s lives changed, some dramatically. This was especially true for people working in service industries, many of whom found themselves suddenly out of work and isolated at home. For people who like socializing and being with other people, being cooped up at home was especially challenging. 

Vince Toscano is a San Francisco-based Whiskey Guardian at Angel’s Envy so, naturally, he knows a lot of Bay Area bartenders. Even before the start of the pandemic, Vince periodically organized small groups of 5 or 6 bartenders to volunteer on various projects, such as beach cleaning, as a way of socializing and giving back to the community. Once shelter-in-place began, many more of his bartender friends suddenly had time on their hands. 

After talking with a friend who volunteers at the Food Bank on Thanksgiving, Vince put the word out to his bartender friends. Instead of the usual crew of 6 who would sign up for other volunteer gigs, 30 signed up, and they’ve been volunteering at the Food Bank ever since. 

For the last 15 months, Vince and his crew have continued regularly packing food at our warehouses on Pennsylvania and Illinois Streets, as well as distributing groceries at a Pop-Up in the Mission in San Francisco. They’ve enjoyed being together again and doing something meaningful for the community at the same time. 

A Sense of Belonging and a Drive to Help Others

For Vince and his bartenders, volunteering for the Food Bank has helped dispel some myths and misconceptions about San Francisco. “There’s this general belief about San Francisco that it’s all tech and homeless people and there’s really no middle class of any sort. I think what the Food Bank reintroduced me to was that there’s a lot of people that you don’t see.” Vince found himself working side by side with people from all kinds of backgrounds, ordinary people drawn together by a sense of belonging to this community and the desire to help their neighbors in need. 

“It was refreshing to see other people take the time and effort to help someone they didn’t even know.” 

He was impressed that so many came to volunteer even at the height of the pandemic. The Food Bank maintained very strict social distancing safety protocols, and Vince says, “everybody who volunteered knew the risk, but they did it anyway. You know the risk and you know what you’re doing, but at the end of the day people need to eat.” 

For these bartenders, helping at the Food Bank has felt immediate, tangible, and important. “There’s an instant impact. You know that the food we bagged at 10 this morning will be on somebody’s table tonight.” 

What’s Next?

Now that the Bay Area and the country is slowly coming back to normal, these bartenders are back at their jobs, but they plan to keep on volunteering. They’re already confirmed for next week! 

We count on volunteers and organizers like Vince to make a difference by volunteering in our warehouse or in the community. It only takes a few hours of your day to make a big difference. Sign up for your shift today at sfmfoodbank.org/volunteer, and if you aren’t able, please consider making a donation to support our efforts. 

The First 100 Days | Q&A With Executive Director Tanis Crosby

May 27, 2021

100 days into her tenure at the Food Bank, Executive Director Tanis Crosby reflects on her experience, her gratitude, and on the enormity of the imperative work ahead.

Tanis CrosbyWhat’s your overall pulse, 100 days in?

I feel incredibly grateful and humbled and… at home.

What’s one memory from your first 100 days that will stick with you?

One Wednesday evening, I volunteered packing boxes of food for seniors. Music was playing through the speakers—whoever curates our playlists is just magical—and next to me was this lovely man named John, who had been volunteering with us on Wednesdays for 21 years, wearing his food bank sweatshirt as a badge of pride. Next to John were a couple of women who were having a blast working together, just completely welcoming, and some families who came to volunteer as a unit. It was this beautiful community within a community that had sprung up.

At the end of the shift, the Food Bank project leader Robert announced how many pounds we had collectively packaged, and I looked around and felt such pride and celebration of taking action to fight hunger together. It was such a clear image of our vital service and the wholly unique way in which we bring the community together for a great cause. It was a moment.

Your second 100 days may look very different from your first as vaccines roll out. How is that changing the way you think about our priorities?

The pandemic is revealing that which we already knew to be true: Poverty and racism are inextricably linked to food insecurity. That is not going to go away when the masks go away. We’re going to focus on advancing our mission with the analysis and the framework that this team’s wisdom created, which is understanding that we are addressing not only the consequences of hunger, but also the causes. We will work on upstream and lasting solutions and are steadfast in our commitment to ensure we are making meals possible for our neighbors right now.

As we look forward, we also need to determine what it means to sustainably serve all of those who need us – those we are currently reaching and those we hope to reach. After more than a year spent responding to this crisis, how do we return to solutions we know work, but weren’t possible during the pandemic – like a farmer’s market style distribution to enable choice – and what innovations from our crisis response do we maintain – like the grocery delivery. This will be hard work, but it is essential work. The Food Bank is part of a critical safety net that is made up of grassroots, well-established, and new community-led organizations as well as government programs. Together we will find the solutions. Because we are all working collectively to fulfill our purpose of ending hunger.

This isn’t just a vision, it will be a future, with partners, donors and volunteers making it real.

Do you think there are ways in which the pandemic has changed our community for the better?

The pandemic was a stark reminder that you can work hard, get a job, and still find yourself at risk of homelessness or relying on the Food Bank to make sure that you’re not choosing between your PG&E bill and feeding your family. You can have good job and not be able to make ends meet in San Francisco or Marin.

That’s not going to go away anytime soon. And what it has created is empathy and a deep-seated understanding that food is a human right. The community wants to be part of taking care of each other. Whether they are a 10 year-old donating their small proceeds from a lemonade stand, or a Foundation giving millions, donors of all ages, of all means are recognizing that we’ve got to take care of each other. And that has been completely inspiring.

The Food Bank just announced its Capital Campaign to expand warehouse facilities. How do you envision that helping to chart our way forward?

In this coming year, we have a tall order. Delivering on these expansion plans is really about delivering on current community need; we started this project 5 years ago with the goal of building for the future, but it turns out we are building for right now.

We are renovating not to expand, but to sustain. Because it’s not about a building and it’s not about the number of pounds of food, it’s about having the space to feed our neighbors who are making real and practical choices every day about where they’re spending scarce dollars. Our community is hurting. People are making choices–choices that weigh on families, choices that are hard and hurt.

Our job is to relieve that hurt, to make it less stressful and more hopeful. It is not about a building. It’s about what happens as a result of having that capacity to deliver on this critical need, person, by person, by person, in all of the neighborhoods in which we serve.

What has surprised you most during your first 100 days?

What surprised me was what it means to see that sheer scope upfront, to see it come alive in the field. What surprised me was how excited I would feel to see the orders being built, knowing that they would be landing in a neighborhood pantry, a pop-up or a drive-thru and put into the hands of people in our community, our neighbors. Just the magnitude of what this scale feels like, to see it and to know what it means, not just hear about it or read about it, but to see it. And just the enormous sense of… I can’t think of another word other than pride. I feel so proud to be part of this team – staff, donors, and volunteers – that is delivering food and hope to every corner of our community.

Food Bankers Tell Their Stories

March 16, 2021

365 Days of Unprecedented Need

The time before COVID-19 fully entered our collective consciousness feels so far away, so unrecognizable it isn’t fair to say they feel like 10 years ago – it is of a different place and time entirely.

It’s almost as if we all celebrated the New Year prematurely, ignoring a much more consequential marker of time: March 17, the day the Bay Area shelter-in-place order officially went into effect. The eve of which was not spent watching fireworks or drinking something bubbly, but panic shopping and hoarding toilet paper and hand sanitizer.

After a very long and very challenging year that has forever changed the fabric of our community, we do not celebrate but we acknowledge this occasion. Between March 2020 and March 2021 more than 529,300 (as of 3/15/21) people died of the coronavirus, tens of millions of people lost their jobs, hundreds of thousands of businesses shut down, and in the process, 45 million people nationwide – including 15 million children – were thrust into food insecurity.

Food pantry line

“I was naïve.”

Food Bank staff packs bags

“I’m pretty sure I was at the office,” said Michael Braude, thinking back to when he first heard about the shelter-in-place order. “We already had been meeting to address our response efforts, but I don’t think anyone expected a complete shut-down to come from out of the blue as it did.”

Looking back none of us expected to be here a year later.

“I was naïve. I thought it would be over when the order was lifted – three weeks later,” remembers Gunilla Bergensten.

Food Bank staff and volunteers

“A devastating blow.”

As the months wore on, we all saw the images of food bank lines nationwide and the heart-breaking portraits of those in them. For the Food Bank staff, this need was not distant. Day in and day out we saw our community hurting, we saw our neighbors, our friends, and our family in need.

Cars wait for food pantry

“COVID has magnified the existing health and income disparities in the community I support,” said Lucia Ruiz. “This has been a devastating blow, which often causes me to feel both sadness and anger.”

Lucia Ruiz

Almost overnight we saw the need in our community double. In just 2 months we went from serving 32,000 households a week to 62,000 (we are now steadily seeing about 55,000 households weekly).

“Seeing the surge in people who needed food, oftentimes for the first time in their lives, kept me going,” said Joseph Hampton.

Food Bank warehouse

Keeping up with that level of demand was no small feat.

“The biggest challenge I think was getting food quickly while the retail market crashed. And operating at such a high UOS (Food Bank term for households) without increasing our physical working space,” said Angela Wirch. “With everyone panic shopping there was no getting rice…there were so many challenges. The money and infrastructure were gradual, but the need was immediate. We filled that second warehouse so fast.”

Angela Wirch

Two tractor-trailers, 10 bobtails, two new warehouses, and one giant tent to cover our parking lot later, we somehow found the space for 77 million pounds of food to meet the tremendous need.

Food Bank warehouse

Finding the People Power

“Never in my career have I experienced a more profound threat of not having a safe work environment for workers or enough workers available to run the operations,” said Nadia Chargualaf.

Nadia Chargualaf

“Half of our team was incapacitated because of COVID, so we were short-staffed for a long period,” said Johnny Lee, remembering how many staff members needed to stay home because of their health. “Many of our sites were closed at the beginning, and a few remain closed to this day. We used some PPE before COVID, but now we follow all the guidelines given to us by the CDC and strictly try to enforce distancing between participants.”

Johnny Lee

Cody Jang remembers, “I was at work when the news came in. Within hours we had lost close to 3,000 volunteer reservations. We were worried about how we would complete the work without volunteers.”

Cody Jang

But the community not only stepped up, they stepped up in droves. Within a matter of months, if not weeks, we were seeing twice as many volunteers as we welcomed pre-pandemic – that’ more than 157,000 volunteer hours since March 2020. Not to mention the support of Disaster Service Workers, corporate partners and community groups.

United Playaz

Challenges: Emotional and Physical

“The biggest challenge has been trying to stay safe during the days that I physically need to be at the office. Even after all this time, I still get a bit of anxiety when working in the office due to the extra layers of planning and endurance (mask-wearing, sanitation, etc.) that go into working within close proximity to others during the pandemic,” said Joseph Hampton.

Joseph Hampton

“The biggest challenge is really the emotional toll that COVID is taking,” said Ken Levin. “Both in people we may know that have been directly affected, or those affected tangentially. This past Saturday, I brought food to a friend who had just lost a family member. I left it at her doorstep. Then on Monday, I attended an online memorial for another friend’s husband. Not being able to see, hug, and be with these people in their time of need has been particularly difficult.”

Ken Levin

“There were multiple types of challenges to face. But one that I really wasn’t ready for was the isolation and loneliness of being separated from my loved ones,” reflects Lauren Cassell. “A lot of things in my life changed because of the pandemic, and I wish I had been more kind to myself. Having hard, unproductive days in the midst of a pandemic is okay.”

Lauren Cassell

Policy Makers Rise to the Occasion

As the need rose, so did the public consciousness around food insecurity. Even before the pandemic 1 in 5 San Francisco and Marin residents was at risk of hunger. Food Banks can’t meet the need alone.

“Before COVID, getting movement from elected officials on policies that impacted low-income people was much more of an uphill battle. By thrusting millions more Americans into hardship, COVID forced politicians to listen to anti-poverty and anti-hunger advocates much more seriously and take immediate action,” reflects Meg Davidson. “Things we’d been told were impossible for years we were able to make happen in a matter of weeks. Turns out, we were onto something when we’ve been repeating that making it easier for people to get the help they need when they fall on hard times is good for everyone.”

Meg Davidson

“We adjusted, pivoted and made the necessary changes to help more in our community to reduce food insecurity during the pandemic. I’m proud of some of our legislative victories, such as, improvements to CalFresh, like waivers, increases in benefits, the P-EBT rollout, online EBT purchase ability, etc.,” said Marchon Tatmon.

Mayor London Breed with Food Bank staff and volunteers

Perseverance Despite the Weight of the World

“I feel very lucky to work at the Food Bank. As challenging as this year has been, I am grateful for my colleagues. I’m heartened by the generosity of our supporters,” said Iris Fluellen.

Iris Fluellen

“There have been challenging moments, and breaking points, and everything in between, but we’ve kept the work going for our communities and for ourselves,” said Claudia Wallen. “My mom always says, ‘You must have a plan B, and if possible, a plan C.’  Never before has she been more right.”

Claudia Wallen

“Being able to help so many new people get CalFresh benefits – and getting to know my staff’s pets – has kept me going,” shared Liliana Sandoval.

Liliana Sandoval

“Although I haven’t sat in my pod or met everyone internally or externally, I’m humbled to be a part of the team,” shared Denise Chen. “The dedication and commitment we have in serving our community is truly amazing.”

Denise and Donna

“Growth is messy, even when you plan it. We definitely haven’t felt like the most organized bunch on some days, but we did the work that needed to get done clear-eyed and together. My heart is so full of respect and love for each and every team member,” said Kera Jewett. “We may have been tired, sore, in PJs, short-staffed, and completely overwhelmed, but I know for a fact everyone did their level best every single day. I couldn’t ask for a better group of people to go into battle with.”

Kera Jewett

“Looking back I would tell myself, this looks really bad, but there are many, many good people doing amazing things to turn this situation and this world around, politically, scientifically, and morally, so keep your eye on the prize and don’t give up,” said Bob Brenneman.

Bob Brenneman

 

Phillis & Lee: ‘Boring’ Until You Know Them

January 14, 2021

COVID-19 has brought tremendous attention to Food Banks. Newspapers nationwide included images of long lines of cars or people standing six feet apart waiting for food at food pantries in their top images of 2020. But something is lost in those images of people waiting for hours – the people.

Participants at our pantries are more than their circumstances.  They are people with families and friends, with jobs and hobbies, with hopes and fears, with sorrows and joys. And many of them – like Phillis and Lee – are full of surprises.

We first met Phillis (89) and Lee (81) in a line of cars waiting for groceries at the San Geronimo Valley Community Center’s Pop-up Pantry. They started coming to San Geronimo by way of the Community Center’s weekly senior lunch held on the same day as the pantry.

“We were friends with someone else who comes here. For weeks she kept saying you’ve got to come to the lunch, it’s great, you’ve got to come. Well finally we came,” explained Phillis. “We had lunch with her, and next door was the food pantry.”

Since coming to the pantry, they no longer need to spend money on groceries – a huge advantage considering almost half their income from Social Security goes to rent. Without it, Lee says, “we could survive.” Phillis pipes in, “but it would be very difficult.”

Despite their financial situation, they both say the real benefit of coming to the pantry has been the community.

“We are just so grateful for the San Geronimo Valley Community Center,” said Phillis. “We’ve met so many wonderful people, you can’t imagine.”

The Neighborhood Pantry: A Community Gathering

Food pantry coordinator greets participant

Before the events of 2020 neighborhood food pantries weren’t just the primary way the Food Bank gets food to those who need it—they were bustling, thriving communities. Regardless of if you were a volunteer or participant or both the pantry was a chance each week to catch up with friends. The farmer’s market-style meant not only that people chose the food they wanted, but that they were encouraged to mingle with their friends and neighbors before and after picking up their food.

“When you start talking to people, they may look old or they may look funny to you, but once you start talking to them, you just can’t imagine how much background there is, and just the lives they’ve led,” said Phillis. “When people say they are retired, you never hear their story.”

Lee agrees, “that’s so true. You think ‘boring’ until you know them.”

Lee and Phillis certainly were not boring, but they did have stories to tell—stories that went far beyond the pantry.

After talking to Phillis and Lee about why and how they started coming to the food pantry they mentioned they’ve only been married for three years. The two finish each other’s sentences constantly and have the banter of an old married couple, so you’d never guess it had only been three years.

Phillis said she was living in a veterans home in Yountville and “I needed a walking partner, and I heard him say he likes to walk.” Before she could say more, he chimed in, “it just grew.”

These are the kinds of stories you hear when you spend time at a pantry. At the Food Bank, our hope is food pantries will continue to foster this sense of community, and the food people receive will help to support the lives they want to lead—because everyone deserves to do more than just survive.