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.

Support Your Community During the Holidays

December 2, 2020

As COVID-19 continues to spread, so does the rise in food insecurityThis holiday is a holiday like no otheras families struggle to afford rent, utilities, medication, or food.

Since the start of the pandemic, many more people have stepped into our pantry lines for the first time. In October alone, almost four times as many people than before the pandemic used our Food Locator to find resources, pantries, and CalFresh (food stamps) assistance.

That’s why this holiday season, it’s important now more than ever to make a difference however you canHere are several ways you can support your local community so that no one goes hungry. 

Volunteer

While it’ll be hard to have a safe gathering during the holidays, you can still volunteer at our Pop-up food pantries and warehouses in San Francisco and Marin by packing grocery bags for participants or deliver groceries to homebound seniors and adults with disabilities. We especially need help during the weekAnd remember the need for volunteers doesn’t end in December, so please consider volunteering throughout 2021.

If you’re bilingual, your language skills are also imperative to make these distributions more inclusive and effective for all participants. Currently, Cantonese and Spanish support are our most urgent needs.

Learn more about volunteer opportunities here.

Fundraise for Us

Due to COVID-19, we are temporarily halting the delivery. Host a virtual fund drive instead, which can be done easily to raise money. Plus, participants will receive even more food. We are able to turn every dollar into two healthy meals! Learn more about food and fund drives here.

Donate 

We need sustained financial support to continue to respond to the dramatic need we are seeing in the community right now. Your donations are what keep us going, and we hope you’ll consider signing up for our Monthly Giving Circle to help support us year-round. Your gift will go a long way to feed those in need. Learn more here.

Support Our Partners

Our community partners will also need your support to fight hunger. If our volunteer shifts are filled, support our partners by volunteering with them instead.

Take Action Today

It will take systemic change to end hunger. That’s why our actions extend beyond food distribution and CalFresh assistance. You can influence change by: 

  • Calling and emailing your members of Congressto demand they pass comprehensive COVID relief to keep our communities fed.  
  • Speak up on social media and tag your members of Congress by using the hashtag #BoostSNAPNow. You can find their Twitter handles  here. 
  • Write a letter to the editor to highlight why boosting SNAP will help your community. You can submit one to the San Francisco Chronicle here.

So, whether you decide to volunteer, donate, or take action, your support will provide more food for the community during the holidays and beyond. We can’t do any of this without you. We hope you will join us to end hunger. 

Food Policy Spotlight | Protect CalFresh/SNAP

February 13, 2019

Thousands of CalFresh (food stamp) recipients in our community are at risk of losing their benefits and going hungry. We need your help to protest proposed changes for SNAP/food stamp eligibility.

YOUR VOICE MATTERS

Will you take a moment right now to join us and voice your opposition to this harmful proposal?  We only have until April 2nd to step up and protect our neighbors before the rule can be considered final. By adding your opposition to the Federal Register, you’re letting the government know that you won’t support a rule that will increase hunger and poverty in your community.

This proposal would punish workers who are struggling to find steady employment by taking away their food assistance, which won’t help them find a better job or find work faster. Imagine your last job search.  Now imagine doing it on an empty stomach and no idea how you will pay for your next meal.

UNEMPLOYED AND UNDER-EMPLOYED NEIGHBORS AT RISK

The USDA recently announced a proposed rule that would cut off SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits for people who are struggling to find steady work. Regardless of how hard they are looking for work or how few jobs that match their skill sets exist in their area, they could become ineligible for SNAP- after just three months – if they are deemed “able-bodied working adults.”

The proposed rule could also hurt people who have jobs, like this CalFresh client from San Francisco:

“I have a job, but my boss cut my hours and I barely had enough money to make my rent. CalFresh allowed me to eat regularly over the past six months, and I wouldn’t have been able to survive without it.”

CalFresh can often be part of the solution to helping people who are in between jobs by helping them take care of a basic need like food while they are looking for work.  In fact, more than 80 percent of participants are working in the year before or after receiving the benefit, which suggests that it’s helping them stay afloat when they hit hard times.

 

Rosetta’s Story | Thanksgiving with the Family

October 25, 2017

When Rosetta was growing up in San Francisco, she was one of five children. She always looked forward to Sunday dinner because that’s when her daddy cooked. “He was the best cook in the neighborhood,” she said.

At Thanksgiving, Rosetta’s father would cook up a storm, somehow squeezing dozens of family members and friends into their small home for a festive holiday meal.

When Rosetta got older and had three sons of her own, she always felt that providing healthy, nutritious food was critical. Buying enough food was no big deal while she was married and working as a nurse.

However, when she was 40, Rosetta divorced and became disabled. Overnight, her monthly income was slashed in half, and she struggled to feed her sons.

“I worked so hard to keep my boys out of trouble,” said Rosetta. “The best way to do that was football. But they really did eat me out of house and home.”

Rosetta started attending the food pantry at her local church, where she picked up fresh produce and other groceries to nourish her children. Today, the church is one of the Food Bank’s 253 neighborhood pantries.

“Financially, the Food Bank saved me,” said Rosetta. “It allowed me to give my children the nutrition they needed to play sports. It’s those sports that kept them out of trouble.”

Today, Rosetta’s sons are all grown up and working hard to support their own families. At Thanksgiving, they’ll all come together. Rosetta will bring steamed greens she’s harvested from her small garden. Saving the ends of vegetables she receives from the Food Bank, she roots them in water, and then plants them in a tidy plot outside her apartment.

“This Thanksgiving, when I’m feeling gratitude for my family, I’ll also be feeling gratitude for the Food Bank for helping me feed my family healthy food,” said Rosetta. “The people who give to the Food Bank are like guardian angels.”

You can be a guardian angel for Rosetta and other neighbors in need by making a donation today.