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
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.
For many, Thanksgiving is synonymous with three important things: family, gratitude, and food. Unfortunately, COVID-19 is forcing many of us to rethink what those things mean this year.
For one family, the global pandemic is a time to establish new Thanksgiving traditions and cook familiar dishes, even if they can’t gather everyone around the same table.
Irie lives with his wife in San Francisco’s Bayview District. A few years ago, he and his wife were in a motorcycle accident – she broke her spine. After the accident, neither of them were able to work their construction jobs, so they rely on disability and they are regularly coming to the Pop-up Food Pantry at Cornerstone Church. Since Irie was a little kid, Thanksgiving has always involved turkey and dressing, plenty of cakes and pies, cans of cranberry sauce, and greens. This year is no different. He has a special baster that will inject the marinade right into the turkey he is planning to fry. For dessert, he is making a couple of sour cream pound cakes plus, “my mother and my wife want me to make a German chocolate cake, and I want to make some banana pudding blend.”
It’s an ambitious menu for a small Thanksgiving, but Irie inherited his mom’s love of cooking, and whatever they don’t eat they are planning to share.
Keeping Traditions Going
Last year, with more leftover food at the end of their Thanksgiving dinner than they knew what to do with, Irie and his family said, “Let’s just go and just make a bunch of plates and just take it out to the hungry while the food is still warm.”
They ended up giving away 10 plates of food to unhoused folks in their neighborhood.
“It just felt so good. We thought, ‘let’s try to feed 20 people this year’. So that’s what we’re gonna do,” said Irie. Even though they’ll have fewer family members around the Thanksgiving table this year, “we’re going to cook the food up, make 20 plates, and go feed 20 people.”
One of those plates will go to his mom so he’ll at least be able to see her from a distance. By the sound of it, Irie’s mom and anyone else getting a Thanksgiving meal from him this year are in for a treat.
A Food Bank Thanksgiving
Food and community are at the heart of what we do here at the Food Bank, making this is an extra special time of year for us. Despite family gatherings being scaled back or canceled altogether this year, we are still planning to distribute extra food this month to help our community make Thanksgiving as special as possible.
In fact, we will give away enough food for 1.4 million Thanksgiving meals, up from 880,000 last year. That includes more than 232,000 pounds of chicken and 1 million pounds of produce.
Finding Gratitude in 2020
Even if this will be a holiday like no other, we want to ensure our community can still enjoy a celebratory family meal next week, no matter what form it takes.
“I’m just really thankful to have this Food Bank because I’m sure it helps a lot of people, including me,” said Irie. “At the same time, it helps me to help others, and that’s what I really want.”
Volunteer after volunteer has stepped up during the COVID-19 pandemic. Prior to the pandemic, it took 1,200 volunteers each week to run our operations. Now, with new COVID-19 programming, it takes 2,000. That is an unprecedented number of new volunteers.
One of the volunteers is Leo, who is 11 years old and starting middle school this year. Leo’s mom, Amber, works at the San Geronimo Valley Community Center, and at the beginning of the pandemic, he started tagging along with her every week to volunteer at the Center’s Thursday Pop-up Food Pantry.
“I’ve just been coming along because I know that they need volunteers,” he said, adding jokingly: “and because she makes me.”
Leo and his mom have a good laugh over that. But despite any extra encouragement from Amber, Leo always has a good time when he volunteers.
“It’s pretty fun. I mean, it can get kind of exhausting because it’s really hot outside sometimes. But yeah, it’s pretty fun.”
A Strange School Year
For Leo, the Pop-up food pantry is not the only thing new in his life, he is starting middle school this year. And if middle school was not hard enough, he is doing it amid the pandemic.
“I’m excited, but I’m also not excited,” explained Leo. “I wish that I could actually start in the classroom in Middle School, but I’m going to have to be at home.”
Like many of his peers, Leo is navigating remote learning while trying to stay in touch with friends – a challenge many teenagers are currently facing.
At least he is not the only teen who volunteers at the pantry; there are several other students who regularly joined him on Thursdays in the summer. Though they aren’t his school friends, Leo says he likes meeting new people while helping out.
A Family Affair
The Food Bank has always encouraged young volunteers to join us, and we often see families volunteering together to give back while spending time together. This includes families delivering to seniors, families in our warehouses, and families like Leo and his mom, who volunteer at Pop-ups.
For other youths who are up for the hard work, it takes to pack bags and load trunks for several hours, “It helps a lot of people for the food pantry to have extra volunteers,” said Leo. “And even if you don’t like it, you can bring extra food home.”
Ways to Give