Neighbors Helping Neighbors

January 4, 2024

Ask a regular volunteer at our Pop-up Pantries, or any Food Bank Pop-up staffer, and they’ll smile at the mention of Stephanie Chin and her dad, George. Stephanie and George started volunteering in the early days of the pandemic, and their friendly and fun presence has been a fixture at multiple weekly pantry sites ever since.  

But it’s not only other volunteers and staffers who look forward to seeing them. Through their consistent dedication to volunteering, Stephanie and George also get to know many participants – and on top of social connection, these friendships can help build a stronger safety net, too. Case in point: Stephanie shared the story of how she became friends with “Grandpa,”* a participant she first met at Roosevelt Pop-up Pantry over a year and a half ago.  

Tell us a little about how you first met Grandpa and his family.  

Stephanie and George volunteering at a Pop-up Pantry

Grandpa stood out because he was accompanied by a young girl, who I later came to find out was his granddaughter. I struck up a conversation with them both his granddaughter is one of the sweetest, most polite, and mature kids you’d ever meet. I watched as she helped Grandpa push his cart and get his food. Grandpa, who’s quite independent himself, just seemed very kind and had a gentle demeanor. Seeing the two together reminded me a lot of the times when I would help and spend time with my Grandpa when he was alive. 

How did volunteering help you get to know them better? 

 In subsequent weeks, I kept seeing the duo. I would greet them, and then check in with Grandpa to make sure he was doing okay, and with his granddaughter to see how school was going. His granddaughter and I bonded over “girly things” and our love for stickers (something I used to collect when I was her age), so one day I brought her a few to share.  

She was so gracious, and the following week, she brought me a lovely handmade and handwritten card. It was also at this point that I met the rest of the family (Grandpa’s son and daughter-in-law, aka the granddaughter’s parents). We chatted and from then on, we saw each other on the regular and became friends. 

In late 2022, you stopped seeing Grandpa and his family for several weeks. What happened? 

There was one week when his daughter-in-law and granddaughter showed up at the pantry just to come see me. That’s when I found out that Grandpa had an accident at home he had fallen in the kitchen and broken his leg. He underwent surgery, and was in the hospital with quite a long recovery road ahead.  

Dealing with a family health issue like that isn’t easy – and often comes with medical bills that can put a strain on budgeting for other necessities like food. How did your relationship with the family support them through this difficult time? 

About two months went by, and I still hadn’t seen Grandpa return to the Pop-up Pantry. I was worried about his health and also wanted to make sure that he didn’t lose access to the pantry’s services if he was still in need of the food. That’s when I remembered that included in the handwritten card that his granddaughter had given me, was her mom’s contact info.  

So, I reached out to see how Grandpa was progressing and to support them in finding ways to help Grandpa get back on his feet (including maintaining his access to food from the pantries). That’s where the whole community pitched in his kind neighbors picked up his groceries for him, while his daughter-in-law became the primary caretaker to look after him at home.

Have you been able to speak with Grandpa since his accident? 

After about nine months, I finally saw Grandpa return to the pantry with his daughter-in-law. It brought my dad and I so much joy to see Grandpa up and about, walking, and looking healthy and strong. We chatted for a bit, and both thanked us for just always sending good thoughts and checking in on them. For me personally, this was honestly one of the most rewarding days at the pantry. Not to mention, it was the first time that Grandpa got to see for himself the farmer’s market-style in action!

Double cause for celebration there! That’s amazing. We’re glad that Grandpa made a strong recovery, and that he got to see the switch from pre-bagging groceries to a farmer’s market-style pantry! Thank you for sharing this story with us  and thanks to you and your dad for being such superstar volunteers, neighbors and advocates.  

A Familiar Face

August 24, 2023

Ring twice. Leave it at the door if there’s a note. Knock once, but loudly, he’s hard of hearing. She’ll get the door; it just takes her a while to get up.

By now, Home-Delivered Groceries volunteer Gideon has these quirks down pat. A freelance journalist by trade, he had just started remote work when the pandemic hit. Three weeks into lockdown, his friend posted on Facebook about a volunteering opportunity with the Food Bank, delivering groceries to homebound neighbors. Gideon was in: “There are things you miss doing, being work from home the whole time. This kind of fills in some of those gaps,” he told us.

Volunteering: A Social Exercise

Gideon loads grocery bags into his car for delivery.

After trying different routes, Gideon eventually chose to “Adopt a Building” or make regular deliveries to the same apartment complex each week. For three years, Gideon’s Saturday mornings have looked very similar: roll up to the Food Bank warehouse, pack his sedan with 20 grocery bags, knock on his neighbors’ doors, and deliver fresh produce, proteins, and grains from the Food Bank wagon in tow.

It’s at this apartment complex where he first met Victoria, who we met in the previous story, along with 19 other neighbors he’s come to know in the years since. For Gideon, volunteering is equal parts exercise – “a trainer once told me the best workouts are the ones that are repeatable!” – and socializing. At one apartment, he goes in to chat with a 94-year-old woman and her daughter offers him a taste-test of the noodles they’re cooking. At another, he shares that they gifted him caramel popcorn after the Warriors were in the finals last year. Even in these passing interactions, it’s clear how food and care go hand in hand.

Showing Up, Every Week

Gideon waves hello to one of the participants along his route.

“It creates a sense of membership,” Gideon said of delivering groceries each week. “You know you’re part of a community, and seeing familiar faces, there’s a type of connection. It’s made [this time] a lot less grim and lonely, without a doubt.”

As we head to make the last delivery of the day – Victoria’s apartment – Gideon shares he’s excited to sit in on the interview and learn more about her life. With 20 deliveries to make, it’s not every day he gets to sit down for a conversation with one of his neighbors. “I look forward to this,” he told us. “I have a stressful job where I don’t interact with people, and volunteering is kind of the opposite. We don’t really have that much time to talk to any [neighbors] individually, but we want to be there for them. We want to show up.”

Gideon (left) and Victoria (right) in Victoria’s building lobby

Growing Food Sovereignty in the Bayview

May 24, 2023

Earth Day at Florence Fang Community Farm (FFCF) was a feast for the senses: blue skies and verdant greens offset by blooming wildflowers, the smell of soil, and the conversation of food pantry participants and farm volunteers mixing with bird calls and Chinese folk songs. 

Nestled in the heart of the Bayview, FFCF is a “community center, outdoors,” in the words of Director Ted Fang. In addition to cultivating the land, FFCF runs a farmer’s market-style food pantry that opens at 9 a.m. each Saturday to serve the community with fresh fruits, leafy green vegetables, and proteins, provided by the Food Bank. The farm also provides the harvests of the season to pantry participants! 

“A Community Center”  

As one of the most productive urban farms in the Bay Area, we’re not surprised to see swaths of volunteers showing up throughout the morning in response to FFCF’s call for an Earth Day volunteer workday. Many of the longtime volunteers arrived earlier in the day, some stopping to pick up groceries at FFCF’s food pantry, and others heading directly over to the farm to begin tending to the land.  Woman in face mask standing in front of garden plots

Some regular volunteers like Ms. Chang, who we met after picking up her groceries, have a multifaceted relationship with the farm. As a retiree, she first came to the farm in search of socialization and something to do with her free time. Since then, she’s brought her sister, daughter, and grandchildren into the fold: “I enjoy volunteering at the farm because it is a community center, but for growing food! I get my exercise through this endeavor, bring home delicious harvests, and have a lot of fun along the way. You’ll have to come visit us when we put on talent shows. We love to sing and dance.” 

Another of FFCF’s longtime volunteers, Mrs. Li, offers to take us on a tour of the farm. As we draw closer to the community plots, scattered groups of elders are hard at work watering, thinning out crops to provide adequate space for growth, and weeding the beds. True to Ms. Chang’s word, several women working on the same plot join in singing Chinese folk songs, their harmonies joyfully carrying across the farm. One volunteer is nonchalantly placing some of FFCF’s bees on the flowering pea shoots with his bare hands, so they can pollinate the crop. 

Unifying Roots  

FFCF was originally founded as a gathering space for Chinese immigrants moving into the Bayview neighborhood – a historically Black neighborhood in San Francisco. Over the years, it morphed into a space to serve the broader Bayview community. In 2020, it was renamed from the “Asian Community Garden” to “Florence Fang Community Farm” to reflect that intention, while honoring Ted’s mother and her history of civic contribution.  

Additionally, FFCF houses a Black Organic Farmers program, started by Bayview born and raised Farmer in Charge Faheem Carter. Through this model of self-directed organizing and programming of different Bayview communities, volunteers at FFCF cultivate crops native to their culture and heritage. As Ted says, “It’s important for everyone to be comfortable with the food they want to eat and have control over their food. Food sovereignty gives people control of their food, and that’s what we’re doing.” 

Food sovereignty is a radical shift for this neighborhood, as the Bayview has historically been subject to food apartheid due to racism, redlining, city neglect and disinvestment. That’s why the farm is such a critical resource for neighbors – and why the Food Bank is honored to support FFCF’s mission of bringing in even more healthy, fresh foods to the neighborhood via their food pantry.  

The Farm, Beyond Food 

The impacts of the farm go well beyond fresh vegetables to take home at the end of a workday. For many at FFCF, including many of the Chinese elders present at the Earth Day workday, volunteering has led to fruitful friendships. Some volunteers were even inspired to buy smartphones for the first time and download WeChat [a Chinese messaging app] to stay in touch after leaving the farm.  

Farming is networking: you put green onions in one plot, napa cabbage in the other, and the byproducts make the soil richer for the other crops, building networks of nutrients. And this is also reflective of communities above the ground. At its heart, this is the definition of community building. You might come to volunteer or harvest vegetables and end up also reaping the rewards of a thriving network of relationships.  

Like Mrs. Li explained to us of the abundant plant tong ho [chrysanthemum greens], “you’ll see it everywhere in the plots, because it keeps volunteering itself,” or self-seeding. In this same way, the volunteers who continue showing up, tending to the land, and making connections are creating their own abundance.