With three neighborhood food pantries serving more than 800 Richmond District residents each week, a home delivered grocery program that reaches 150 seniors, and a CalFresh application assistance program, The Richmond Neighborhood Center is one of our largest Community Partners.
Before COVID-19, The Richmond Neighborhood Center created a thriving community around its food programs. Pantry volunteer shifts created an atmosphere similar to a family gathering. Even among the participants, weekly pantries were a place to gather and catch up with one another. And with Home Delivered Groceries, the volunteers and seniors were paired individually to have a chance to get to know each other and build a long-term relationship.
COVID-19 changed all of that. While The Richmond Neighborhood Center remained open and continues to serve their community, they had to shift the way they operate. We caught up with Program Manager Yves Xavier, to hear more about how things are going now.
(This conversation was edited for length and clarity.)
Food Bank: How have the last few months been for The Richmond Neighborhood Center?
Yves Xavier: They’ve been going well. The first three weeks of the shelter in place ordinance were pretty zany for lots of reasons. I think we were all a little nervous for our own health. We had to quickly redesign our programs to meet these constantly changing guidelines. Every day it seemed like there was either a new guideline or fear of what this pandemic could bring. So, those first three weeks were tough, but we adjusted and reshaped all our programs.
Specifically, for the pantry, we made quick changes that we wish we didn’t have to make but certainly were better for health. For example, one of the coolest pantry experiences, or at least what we really love about our pantry, is that people from the neighborhood gather together. You make friends or you come over with your friends to sit and talk and wait for your group to line up. Unfortunately, with the pandemic, we had to get rid of all of that.
FB: How is volunteer recruitment?
YX: It was a really cool, unexpected shift – for both home delivered groceries and the pantry, we lost probably half of our regular volunteers. But within a day or two, we had a huge influx of new people from the neighborhood. So, our volunteer corps has been strong since the pandemic began. There just seems to be an outpouring of people who want to help, even though there was a large loss at the same time.
FB: One of your pantries was at George Peabody Elementary. Do you still have access to the school?
YX: Unfortunately, no. We don’t have access to the school, so we moved our pantry operations to The Neighborhood Center. We still run three pantries, but we saw a decrease in participation from participants who lived in the Inner Richmond for lots of reasons – including the fear of getting on a bus, buses not running etc. – who couldn’t make it out to our 30th Avenue Outer Richmond headquarters to get their food. But the Food Bank has helped us deliver to many of them through Pantry at Home.
We’ve also been slowly recruiting volunteers to take over those deliveries. We’re up to making 105 deliveries on our own and we’re hoping to take over all the deliveries to free your staff up to serve more people in the city who need it.
FB: Are you serving more people now?
YX: We’ve definitely seen an increase in participants, but it was similar to the way that the volunteer corps worked. There were some folks in our pantries who stopped attending. And then we also saw an influx of new people. We didn’t talk to everyone about the reasons for coming, but we took a general poll of those in line and heard from many new people who lost jobs their recently.
FB: Aside from the pantries, how has the rest of your programming been going?
YX: Our grocery delivery programs that we do in partnership with the Food Bank and the Richmond Senior Center have carried on. We took about 25 people off our waitlist and served them. It stretches us a bit thin, but it is doable. So that program hasn’t been impacted in a negative way.
But changes had to be made. One of the things that made our home delivery so unique is we did a one to one volunteer match – one volunteer goes to one senior and it’s the same senior and the same volunteer each week. We have seen really cool relationships grow out of that where people get connected and just go over for other things like helping their senior change light bulbs, shop for them, or take them to a doctor’s appointment. There are endless stories like that. But COVID-19 has made people get creative in the way they connect. We stopped asking volunteers to connect in person. Instead, we’re asking people leave bags in front of doors, ring the doorbell, stand six feet away, and wave.
That hasn’t felt great because that social connection is such an important piece of the program. But the bottom line is people are continuing to get their groceries every week. And that’s what we really wanted to make sure is continuing to happen. We’ve encouraged our volunteers to make calls to their seniors, or teach them how to use Zoom, or write emails and pen pal letters. So, folks have been creative, but it’s definitely been a change.
We also saw a huge increase in CalFresh application assistance – more than any other time in my five years working with the food programs at The Neighborhood Center. Now we are taking as many as six appointments a day, which is pretty significant.
FB: How are you planning to adapt programming as the city reopens? Do you anticipate new challenges?
YX: It’s a really good question. I can’t say we’ve thought about it as much as would probably be helpful, but that’s partly because we’re pretty much set on keeping things the way they are for the foreseeable future. Even as things start to reopen throughout the city, we’re not expecting to change much. We’re going to keep people lining up, disallowing congregating, ensuring that everyone is wearing masks, pre-packing bags for participants, etc., until phase four, when mass gatherings are allowed again by the city.
FB: That makes a lot of sense. Was there anything else that you wanted to share about how you’ve adapted to COVID-19?
YX: I’m just really impressed by everybody who helps make these partnerships happen. Our staff and volunteers have been incredible with all their flexibility and dedication. Same goes for the Food Bank staff. Gary, our point person for the pantry, is always professional and friendly. During a difficult time, he was great – always keeping us up to date, helping make sure that we had what we needed, and just overall supportive; as was Jillian who supported us with Home Delivered Groceries.
I’m also impressed with how everything shifted for everyone across the city who does these programs and how people can keep a positive attitude, keep the collaboration going, and work really hard to serve more people and get creative. It’s been really cool to see all that happen.
In the weeks since we first learned of the region-wide shelter in place order, the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank has rapidly adjusted the way we operate to meet the ever-increasing need in our community. Last week, we served 18K more households than we did four weeks ago, and this number is only growing.
None of this would be possible without the support of countless Food Bank partners, donors, and community volunteers.
We recently had the opportunity to see one of these dedicated partners, United Playaz, in action. Every week, United Playaz, a youth-led violence prevention organization, helps staff the pop-up food pantry at Bessie Carmichael Elementary school. Members of the group not only help pack up and distribute food at the pantry, but they proactively stepped up to deliver groceries to 100+ seniors in their community. These are all seniors 65 and over who used to pick up groceries at our weekly pantries.
We spoke with United Playaz Executive Director, Rudy Corpuz Jr about the group’s support of the Food Bank.
Rudy Corpuz Jr.: We are here because this is our community, we were doing this before the crisis started. We want to make sure we play our part and help out in the community for the most vulnerable population and just provide some support and help to make sure everybody is eating.
FB: Has it been hard to recruit your members during these times?
RC: Absolutely not. You know we want to give back. Our motto is: It takes the hood to save the hood. It’s our way of giving back. We’ve got different community-based organizations that have come together in solidarity under one umbrella, with no pride, no ego, just to make sure we take care of the community and the people.
And all walks of life, you know what I mean. We’ve got ex-convicts, we’ve got college students, we’ve got developers, we’ve got tech people, people who went to school, who didn’t go to school – everybody who wants to help out and put their life on the line for others.
FB: Are you concerned about your health being out here during COVID-19?
RC: Absolutely, of course, I am. I have kids. I want to make sure I’m safe, and my kids are safe, and my community is safe. But I know there is a bigger need. Somebody’s got to do it. And so, what better way…I don’t want to die, or even get sick…but what better way to put your life on the line for others in this way.
FB; Can you tell me a little about how you’ve been helping get food delivered to those who can’t come to the pantry?
RC: During this crisis, everybody knows that the most vulnerable population is the senior citizens. You have a lot of seniors in this neighborhood – South of Market District 6 – who live in their apartments and live in the hotels, the SROs, and they are scared to come out. So, what we do as service providers for the community is to find out what their need is and what they want. We go out there and ask them if they need groceries, which they do, and boom, we deliver it to them.
FB: How are you in touch with these individuals?
RC: In our community, there are already organizations that are working with seniors. We are youth-led and there are senior groups. So what I did, I brought us all together and said, “hey look here, we’re in this crisis together. You know, service providers that serve seniors, we serve kids, some people serve reentries, the Food Bank gives food, let’s all work together in solidarity to make sure we are hitting the most vulnerable population.”
So, the senior organizations will tell us who needs what. We provide the muscle and the leg power and energy, and we go out and do it.
It’s like a basketball team, everybody has to play their part on the basketball court. You have the center who is in the middle and gets the rebounds, you have the guards who bring the basketball up. And so, if everybody plays their part, we’re successful, we win.
During this crisis, these are the times that you have to stand for something that is greater than you. What a greater way to work with the food bank who provides those services. We don’t do it, they do it.
FB: But you are out here making it possible – being the arms and the legs.
RC: But I think that’s what I’m saying. You guys are like bringing up the ball. We get the ball, we put it in the hoop.
Food Bank partners and volunteers like United Playaz are making it possible for us to continue our mission. Sign up to volunteer here.
It’s a chilly Thursday evening when Samantha and her 7-year-old son, Taye, are climbing the stairs in a multi-story apartment building in San Francisco’s Richmond District. They’re here to deliver a bounty of fresh food to the Pham family – part of the Food Bank’s Home-Delivered Groceries program. And yet, the food is just part of the equation. Their knock on the front door is followed by a warm greeting, smiles, and hugs all around.
Longtime San Francisco residents, Mr. and Mrs. Pham have come to think of Samantha and Taye like family. The Phams grew up in China and Vietnam and moved to the United States after the Vietnam War. The couple settled in San Francisco, and Mrs. Pham says she has always enjoyed how welcoming and accessible the city has been for them.
Long retired, Mr. Pham has limited mobility and rarely leaves their second-floor apartment. Mrs. Pham also has trouble moving around, after suffering a debilitating back injury during the war. Despite these hardships, the Phams stay positive, and appreciate the friendly conversations and nutritious food that Samantha and Taye bring to their doorstep every week.
“For me, it’s very hard to get outside and go to the store, so we are very thankful that this food is brought to us. And, we always look forward to seeing Taye and Samantha every week,” said Mrs. Pham, beaming at Taye, who during this evening’s visit had joined Mr. Pham in his favorite chair.
Major Milestone for Home-Delivered Groceries Program
In December, the Food Bank’s Home-Delivered Groceries Program made its 250,000th delivery. To mark this milestone, San Francisco Supervisor Sandra Fewer joined us and our partners from Richmond Neighborhood Center and Richmond Senior Center to pack groceries for the Pham family and many other HDG recipients.
“Food security is a critical part of what makes and sustains a healthy neighborhood,” says Supervisor Fewer. “This dynamic Home-Delivered Groceries program allows seniors, the fastest growing population in the Richmond District, to age-in-place with community support.”
Founded in 2011, the Home-Delivered Groceries (HDG) Program serves 1,998 homebound seniors and 467 adults with disabilities in San Francisco every week. The program aims to provide nutritious food to vulnerable neighbors, as well as reduce loneliness and foster connections among community members.
“For thousands of homebound residents in San Francisco, a weekly knock on the door brings not only a delivery of fresh groceries but a friendly visit and some human contact with people who don’t get outdoors very much,” says Jillian Tse, Program Coordinator for the Food Bank.
The Power of Partnerships
The HDG program is funded by San Francisco’s Department of Aging and Adult Services (DAAS). Fourteen faith-based and community-based organizations coordinate volunteers and staff to make weekly deliveries. The Food Bank provides nearly 25 pounds of food (on average) for every recipient weekly, including chicken, pasta or rice, and fresh, seasonal produce. The food is tailored to the nutritional needs of seniors and people who are less active because of mobility challenges.
This program is needed now, more than ever, as the population of seniors in San Francisco continues to grow. In 2016, older adults comprised 20% of that population but are projected to rise to 26% by 2030.
For many of our most vulnerable neighbors, food is more than the difference between an empty plate and a full stomach. It is also a lifeline – especially for neighbors who participate in the Food Bank’s Home-Delivered Groceries (HDG) Program.
For a closer look at the Home-Delivered Groceries program “in motion”, check out this video, taken at City Hope Community Center in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood, featuring a beloved participant by the name of Susan who is visually impaired.
Then there’s the story of Marianne, who says the weekly delivery of fresh groceries she receives from the Food Bank is a life saver. She lives in a single-room-occupancy (SRO) hotel in San Francisco’s SOMA neighborhood and struggles with many health challenges.
“I’m disabled and have a hard time getting around, so being able to get my hands on this food at home is literally saving my life,” she said.
Before enrolling, Marianne recalls it was a constant battle to get enough food to eat. “I couldn’t feed myself. Thankfully neighbors would offer me meals every once in a while. But there were days when it was really scary just how hungry I was.”
Marianne is one of 1,400 people enrolled in the Food Bank’s Home-Delivered Groceries Program, which assists low-income seniors and adults with disabilities who are unable to get out to pick up groceries, but still able to prepare meals for themselves.
The goals of the program are to provide supplemental nutrition to neighbors in need, to reduce loneliness, and to check on the well-being of our homebound residents.
HDG Program Director Andy Burns recalls one volunteer who had been delivering groceries to a senior for more than a year. “Of course she’s performing a check in with this gentleman each week to make sure he’s doing okay. At one point, the volunteer became ill, and had to be hospitalized. While she was recuperating, the participant became so concerned for her that he started calling her to check on how she was doing!”
On this particular Tuesday afternoon, the knock on Marianne’s door comes right on time, as she is busy preparing a crockpot stew and needs fresh carrots to make the meal sing. In addition to carrots, this particular delivery included apples, chicken, rice and other staples that will nourish Marianne until her next weekly delivery.
Home-Delivered groceries are also a treat for the volunteers on Marianne’s route – a team of developmentally disabled adults who are enrolled at the Pomeroy Recreation and Rehabilitation Center, where they learn work and life skills. On Tuesday mornings, the volunteers work together to pack these grocery bags, then they head out in the afternoon to make deliveries to 13 neighbors.
Pomeroy’s LouBee Zielinski coordinates the program and says the volunteers are thrilled to help. “They love the looks on peoples’ faces when the groceries arrive. And, to be empowered with something like providing food for others – that’s huge. It’s like Christmas every week, and we get to be Santa Claus!”
In addition to the Pomeroy Center, there are eight other nonprofits which partner with the Food Bank’s HDG Program, but more partners are needed. For more information on our Home-Delivered Groceries program, how it operates, and how you can get involved, click here.