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.” 

Paying a High Price: Inflation Impacts

June 2, 2022

On a hot Wednesday afternoon in May, Victoria arrived at Rosa Parks Pop-up Pantry to pick up groceries like a gallon of milk, white mushrooms, and green onions for the older gentleman she provides home care for. She carried the bags out to the sidewalk and then paused to chat for a few minutes, shielding her face from the sun and setting down her heavy groceries. We learned she’s lived in San Francisco for Victoria holds up her milk and grocery bagthe past 40 years, and understandably, she’s seen the city change a lot in her time here. “When I came here [in the 80s], you could buy a thousand wonders for $50. You could fill the refrigerator for at least a month [for $50]. Now, everything is so expensive. There are times when there’s not enough to buy food. It’s terrible.”  

Working as a gardener and caretaker for seniors, San Francisco has been her home – the place where she says, with a twinkle in her eye, she has lived her “most beautiful life.” But while Victoria has seen SF through its fair share of economic ups and downs over the decades, including high inflation in the 80s, the current climate is unlike anything she’s seen before. These days, she’s trying to focus on the fact that “I’m okay, and the gentleman I take care of is okay – that’s what gives me peace.” 

With grocery prices up 10% in the SF metro area, and gas prices soaring alongside them (up 43% compared to this time last year), the Food Bank is a lifeline for our community in this particularly challenging time.  

Shrinking Savings 

Like Victoria, many folks are worried. Every week we speak with community members like Arnoldo, who echo this feeling of constantly falling behind. Arnoldo has been coming to Cesar Chavez Pop-up Pantry ever since his small package delivery business in the Mission was forced to close during the pandemic. Without the income from his business, Arnoldo is left looking for work as a painter and scraping together what he can. He rents a room from a friend, but even sharing a space is expensive.  

“Right now I don’t have a job, and all my bills are so high. The little savings I had, went straight to rent,” he said, shaking his head.  

Impossible Choices 

Sharon lives just a short walk from Rosa Parks Pop-up Pantry, and the groceries she picks up have been a huge help – she even told her friend Clifton about it, and now they come to the pantry together. But that doesn’t mean it’s erased the rest of her worries, especially operating on a fixed budget due to her disability income.  

“We’re forced to make choices, you know? I literally don’t go grocery shopping. I can’t afford to. I’m caught, stuck between the choice of paying my housing and utility costs and purchasing food. So, I literally gave up on purchasing food, and without the Food Bank…” she trailed off, but the implication is obvious.  

“Really Rough Right Now” 

For Anna, sticker shock is just another worry on top of caregiving and supporting her parents, who are both disabled. Her dad needs 24/7 care, but hiring a full-time caregiver is financially out of reach. “My parents only get Social Security, and it isn’t enough, so I have to help them with rent,” she said. RightAnna holds her groceries in front of the park now, Anna is working anywhere from six to seven days a week as a nurse at Highland Hospital, and teaching UCSF nursing students as well. She stops by Cesar Chavez Pop-up Pantry to pick up food for her parents on her one day off.  

She leaned against the fence for a little support, watching kids play in the park next to the pantry while telling us about her situation. “It’s really rough right now. Everything is going up in price. It’s affecting me too, because I have to pay my own rent, my own food, the car and insurance – everything is going up in price now. I went to the store and the prices are crazy.”  

Take Action  

If you’re wondering why we’re still seeing so many folks at our pantries, two years into the pandemic – this is your answer. The pandemic has exacerbated issues that were already present – a housing/homelessness crisis, a cost of living that outpaces wages, the highest income inequality in the nation – and introduced new ones, like lingering isolation and mental health impacts from shelter-in-place. 

That’s why we must keep pushing for comprehensive social safety nets that ensure the safety, dignity, and health and well-being of all in our community.  

Reality Check 

Over the course of our conversation, Anna grew reflective. She explained that growing up in Ukraine, she held an idealized image of life in the US – one that dissolved almost immediately when she moved to San Francisco in ‘95.  

“I think before [my family] moved here, we thought a little differently about this country. Once we got here….it’s not as easy to live here as people think it is. When they show the US back home, it [seems] so glamorous, like money comes from the trees. When people move here, it’s a very different story.” 

We owe it to our neighbors and ourselves to contend with that reality. Volunteer. Advocate. Donate.

A New Kind of Pantry: Kain Na Community Food Hub

June 1, 2022

If you’ve ever walked through San Francisco’s Mission Bay, you know the district is new and modern, home to Bay views, public parks, and the iconic Chase Center. Much of the neighborhood is recently developed, and adding to the spirit of transformation in the district is a new kind of food pantry: Kain Na Community Food Hub, which opened its doors on February 4 this year. 

Kain Na was informed by the Mission Bay community and is operated by the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation (TNDC) to provide free nutritious and culturally relevant food in an open market space. Food is provided by the SF-Marin Food Bank and the Deep Medicine Circle. 

Local artist ChiChai included an acknowledgement of the Ohlone land Kain Na occupies in her mural for the space.

“TNDC has a successful and powerful legacy of engaging the community and taking direct action to meet people’s needs,” said Maurilio León, TNDC CEO. “Kain Na is an example of our values and the impact we can make in advancing food and health justice.”

Walking into Kain Na, which means “Let’s Eat” in Tagalog, it’s clear that the space was designed to welcome people inside. The name itself pays homage to the Filipino community of San Francisco and celebrates the universal language of food. Local artist ChiChai covered the walls with murals, including a prominent acknowledgment of the Ohlone land the building occupies. Paintings show people coming together and sharing platters of food, mirroring the abundant selection of fresh produce, meat and eggs, and pantry staples filling the food hub’s aisles.

Kain Na is a multifunctional space, and the rows filled with produce during market hours can be reworked into tables where food and nutrition classes are held. Cookbooks and pamphlets fill some of the shelf space. The space is bright, clean, and welcoming – much like the Mission Bay neighborhood it occupies. Located on the ground floor of TNDC’s supportive housing 626 Mission Bay Boulevard, Kain Na serves many building residents and is part of a holistic approach to addressing the root causes of food insecurity. 

A Shift to Empowerment 

Kain Na builds on the concept of a food pantry to offer even more choice and flexibility. Many food pantries are open for only a few hours once a week. For many participants, having a set appointment time is convenient – parents know they can grab groceries when they pick up their kids from school, or people who work during the week can depend on their Saturday time slot without needing to wait in line while doing their weekend errands. Kain Na, on the other hand, takes a flexible approach by staying open all day for several days a week, a better option for someone who has a more unpredictable schedule.  

“If a participant can’t make it one day to get their weekly food, they can visit the hub on the other days it’s open,” said Tina Gonzales, the Food Bank’s Director of Community Partnerships. “This reduces anxiety and fear of scarcity, making the food hub a positive shopping experience.” 

Participants are free to select their own food items.

The food pantries run by our partners like TNDC are committed to serving people with dignity, and one of the key elements of that is offering choice. Before the pandemic, all our pantries were set up like farmers’ markets, where participants were free to select the amount and type of food they received. For the last two years, we’ve had to pivot to pre-bagging groceries for our participants – but we’re working to bring back the empowerment inherent in folks choosing their own food in a farmers’ market setting. Kain Na is a great example of how to offer food options safely going forward. 

“It gives participants the choice to pick the food they need to feed themselves and their families,” said Tina. “Participants grab a watermelon when they are in season because their kids like the fruit. If they want to skip receiving 10 potatoes one week, they can choose the four potatoes they need instead.” This allows pantries and hubs to adjust their offerings to include foods they see their community wants.  

Kain Na also serves as an information center with free food and nutrition workshops. “It offers other community resources to improve participant wellbeing,” said Tina. “Things like CalFresh (food stamps) outreach, eviction defense resources, tax assistance, and summer programming for kids make Kain Na a community resource as much as it is a food program.”  

At the Food Bank, we’re looking to Kain Na Community Food Hub as an example of what some food pantries could look like in the future. It is offering yet another kind of service to help meet people where they are at. The food hub’s insight into what strategies work best to solve food insecurity in a post-COVID world will be invaluable. We’re proud to support TNDC and Kain Na in trailblazing solutions to hunger in San Francisco. 

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?” 

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.”  

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.

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.”