Partner Spotlight: Perspectives on Food Justice with TNDC

September 6, 2022

Four masked people smiling at the camera, holding a pre-made meal, a fresh pineapple and eggs - all available at the food pantry.
Pantry staff and participants take a moment to smile.

The Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation (TNDC) has provided affordable housing and promoted equitable access to resources in San Francisco since its founding in 1981. Part of their mission is food justice – and that’s where our five-year partnership comes in.

Food programs span all sections of the organization. “There’s Tenderloin After School Program, Healthy Corner Stores, and Health and Wellness, which includes Healthy Aging, Food & Nutrition, and Urban Agriculture. Then there are our food pantries at our supported housing buildings. Food touches a lot of the work we do,” said Rebecca Barajas, Food & Nutrition Supervisor, TNDC.

Join us on a tour of three of TNDC’s programs to see how food justice means so much more than just providing food – and why community partners are integral to our mission to provide food for all.

Food Pantry

A participant and a pantry staff member hugging and smiling.
“What I like is that everything’s convenient, and they have everything I need,” said a participant named Tony, grocery bag in hand.

Our first stop is the food pantry on the bottom floor of TNDC’s Kelly Cullen Community, which provides supported living to seniors and people who were unhoused. We arrived to a frenzy of activity. Staff and volunteers packed grocery bags with cauliflower, milk, eggs, ravioli, and more for participants living in multiple TNDC buildings on the block.

“We open our doors to distribution at 9:15. We’ll set up tables and pack bags from heaviest to lightest – so chicken or rice would go on the bottom and something like a pear would go on top,” Rebecca told us.

“What I like is that everything’s convenient, and they have everything I need,” said a participant named Tony, grocery bag in hand.

Healthy Corner Stores

Fresh produce like cantaloupes, mangoes, bell peppers, and pears line refrigerated shelving in Dalda's Community Market.
TNDC’s Healthy Corner Stores incentivizes businesses like Dalda’s Community Market to stock unprocessed, nutritious food at affordable prices.

We made our way deeper into the Tenderloin to visit Dalda’s Community Market, a store that’s part of TNDC’s Healthy Corner Store Coalition. “We provide refrigeration equipment and business consulting services,” said John McCormick, Healthy Corner Store Coalition Program Manager, TNDC. “We ask the locations to limit alcohol and tobacco ads. We also promote the stores through community engagement activities, like tastings of the food.”

“People want healthy food. And we know that because people are buying it in the stores,” John told us. “Stores that aren’t part of our coalition are now selling produce because they know there’s a market for it. It totally changes the food apartheid we see here,” he said, referring to the inequitable access to nutritious food that neighborhoods like the Tenderloin have been subjected to. “Now there’s healthy produce in the neighborhood. There’s not as much of it as other places, but it’s better than it was 10 years ago.”

Urban Agriculture

A 3-story mural depicting the Tenderloin Peoples' Garden.
A mural marks the People’s Garden across from San Francisco’s City Hall.

Finally, we walked a few blocks away to the Tenderloin People’s Garden, one of 14 growing spaces TNDC developed across the city. “They grow a lot – hundreds of pounds of food get distributed to our residents from the food the gardens grow,” Rebecca told us.

A person smiles down at Swiss chard in the People's Garden.
Thomas Abbott, Urban Agriculture Coordinator, picks some chard for our team to take home.

“Part of the cycle of gardens is once you start using them, they keep providing and then you have to keep using them,” said Thomas Abbott, Urban Agriculture Coordinator at TNDC. “There’s an abundance behind it.” The garden grows produce like chard, lemons, bok choy, and more alongside ornamental and aromatic plants like rosemary, jasmine, and nasturtium, which attract pollinators and predator insects that eat pests for a more natural kind of insecticide.

People who come to the gardens find an oasis. “I like when it’s like this, no trucks driving by, no ambulances. Bees and butterflies and bugs are flying around and you can hear birds chirping. Even in the middle of the city, you have some peace and quiet. It’s really a benefit for the mind. See, like that,” said Thomas as a bird broke out into song.

Safety Nets Creating Stability: Lisa’s Story

September 6, 2022

Lisa is a lot of things. She’s a Pisces, a gamer, and a voice in her community. A resident of the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation’s (TNDC) Kelly Cullen Community in San Francisco, she also attends their educational classes and volunteered at their People’s Garden before the pandemic. “I do a little of everything,” she laughed when we spoke to her outside the building’s weekly food pantry.

Right now, she’s living on her own with three small dogs. She has friends on her floor, a computer to game on, and a multifunctional pressure cooker that cooks rice, sautés vegetables, and air-fries meat she gets from the food pantry downstairs. “I like the pantry because I can get my extras here, the things I wouldn’t be able to buy from the store,” she told us. “Right now, I have everything. I’m stable, I’ve got housing. I don’t have any worries, so to speak.”

But it wasn’t always this way. For Lisa, a combination of government-funded safety nets and community support led her to this stability – and now she’s able to offer helping hands to others as well.

Safety Nets Are Necessary

For seniors and folks with disabilities like Lisa, government policies on food assistance have had a checkered history. Originally, people who receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI) were ineligible for SNAP or CalFresh. But that changed in 2019. “Advocates from the SSI and anti-hunger community, including our Food Bank, all worked really hard to overturn that policy. And then activists conducted outreach across the state to connect SSI recipients to the resource,” said Meg Davidson, Director of Policy and Advocacy at the Food Bank.

Lisa felt the effects of policy changes firsthand. “In the beginning, when folks on SSI weren’t allowed to collect food stamps, I found that really stressful. It’s easier now,” she said. She explained that expanded CalFresh benefits during the pandemic were also a boon. “I get a little extra on top of what I usually get, and I can set myself up better. If they stop the extra [food assistance money], I’m still good now because I have my staple foods in my pantry and meat in my freezer.”

Community Support is Integral

Lisa’s current situation wouldn’t be possible without the support she received, both from the government and her community. “A young lady named Lynn turned me on to classes with TNDC [where I live now]. She has helped me grow.” And with that growth came a desire to help others in the Tenderloin: so far, she’s advocated for pedestrian safety and a dog-friendly park in the neighborhood. “I learned a whole lot about myself, and I learned about community organizing,” said Lisa.

She also reaches out a helping hand to folks in the Tenderloin, as others have done for her. “Talking to people is my way of giving back. I can tell them places to go, and if they need my help to sign up for anything I’ll help them,” said Lisa. “It’s hard to change your life when nobody’s helping you, but when you get support, it’s easier. That’s my game plan. I’m gonna bring y’all in.”

On Art, Activism, and Community: A Q&A with Cliffton Hyson

June 15, 2022

Cliffton is a longtime San Francisco resident and artist, with a warm smile and a knack for storytelling. He’s also a participant at our Rosa Parks Pop-up Pantry, which he walks to with his good friend Sharon. They pick up groceries together, go back to one of their homes, and then plan their meals for the upcoming week (“we’re in the kitchen pretty much all the time,” says Cliffton). Though he’s not an SF native – he moved to California by way of Greenville, Mississippi – Cliffton has lived in the Western Addition since 1981. Needless to say – the neighborhood has changed dramatically.  

Cliffton and Sharon with their groceries.

Through art, youth outreach, and food, Cliffton is determined to continue building community and bringing together Black folks in the Western Addition and the Fillmore who have been displaced and neglected by the city. He’s also passionate about making sure Black youth in the community know the storied history of the Fillmore and Western Addition – “we have a lot of Black history right in front of our face.” Most recently, he worked as a sketch artist for a mural that can be found at the Buchanan Street Mall, and we also learned he will also be working on the city’s Juneteenth celebration. Here’s an excerpt from our conversation, condensed and edited for clarity.  

Food Bank: Can you tell us a little more about your advocacy work? 

Cliffton: I’m using my art as an activist in my community to help my people. It’s like I’m reconnecting with something. I want to know about the history of the community that I’m in. I want to bring those stories to life. And by me doing art, I can do that. I can bring those stories to light and bringing those stories to light helps a young black man, a young black lady, a young black girl, a young black boy. 

FB: Right. You mentioned you work with some organizations like Citizen Film doing youth outreach, and you’re working on another art exhibit that’s going to debut in 2023. Can you tell us a little about that? 

Cliffton: So, my art is dealing with trying to help the youth. I want the kids to research the history of the Fillmore during the jazz era, in the ’40s and ’50s. And see, by them researching their own history, they’re educating themselves about their people. It’s educational for the kids that’s doing the research, it’s educational for the community to know about the past, and it’s also educational for the passerby to see that history. We have a rich history. 

FB: That sounds like it’s going to be not only an informative exhibit, but it’s really going to bring to life the history of the Fillmore. 

Portrait of ClifftonCliffton: My biggest thing is for my people to get educated. What you know, they can’t take that away from you. If you want to stay in your community, you’ve got to find a way. Educate yourself on what City Hall is doing for your community, what you can do for your community. I’m helping set up the Juneteenth celebration [for the city]. I have a booth at the Juneteenth celebration, and I’ll be selling my t-shirts and stuff, and I will also bring a good portion of my artwork up there to display.  

FB: That’s awesome, I’m really looking forward to it. What does Juneteenth mean to you? 

Cliffton: Juneteenth means to me, freedom, life, happiness, and loving one another. I really can’t express what the heart feels…. freedom, freedom, freedom, that’s what the heart pumps.  

FB: That’s beautiful. Thank you for sharing that. Now, just to bring it back to food, what are some of your memories associated with food? 

Cliffton: Cooking brings back memories of my mother when I was young, in the kitchen with her and my sisters and brothers and sitting around preparing food. We’re in conversation, communicating, laughing, joking with each other and having fun, learning how to cook, you know? So, when I’m cooking now, that’s what it brings back. When we’re cooking and the kids are all in there, and we’re sitting around, preparing the meal and cooking, everybody got that conversation going, everybody got a memory going. They remember this, they remember that and we’re all laughing. 

FB: Love that. Thank you for painting that picture. My final question – what does food mean to you? 

Cliffton: Food brings you together, you know? And especially when you’re a good-hearted person and you’ve got good people around you, when you’re cooking, and you got people over and everything… take the food away, you got chaos. If you got a group of people together, bring the food. Ain’t nobody fussing. You can’t fuss because you’re eating. It’s something nourishing for the body, and the body won’t allow you to be negative at that moment because it’s food. A good hefty stomach makes you want to kick back, relax, take your shoes off and just be Black.  

Nourish the Neighborhood 

With groceries taken care of, Cliffton invests energy into his community – “we have other important things to put our finances toward, you know?” It’s an important reminder that food is the basis for so much more. Healthy groceries fuel the artists, activists, community organizers, mentors, and others who shape our neighborhoods into the vibrant, dynamic spaces that we know and love. 

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. 

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?” 

More Than a Food Pantry

April 19, 2022

Sharon Murphy looks forward to her weekly visit to the North Marin Community Services in Novato (NMCS). She knows that’s where she and her son, Rob, can get healthy, nutritious food, feel part of a welcoming community, and see friends.  

The North Marin Community Services in Novato is one of the Food Bank’s partners that exemplifies a holistic approach to caring for their community. They realize that many issues in our lives are interconnected, and that when we need help, it can be for several reasons. That’s why they offer assistance for food, financial aid, health and childcare. Every Tuesday they offer nutritious food through their Food Pantry and Childcare Healthy Food Program. They’ve been a life-saver for Sharon. 

Redefining Independence  

Sharon had lived an independent life and worked at a brokerage firm until she was 71. She also struggled with vascular difficulties. Sharon has had numerous surgeries for her medical condition, one of which required that her leg be amputated. Her life changed drastically, and tasks like shopping for groceries became very difficult. “I can’t do much with the loss of my leg, but I’m learning,” said Sharon. 

One of Sharon’s friends who volunteers at NCMS, recommended the pantry for food assistance for herself and Rob, who is now her caregiver. They had never gone to a food pantry before, yet from their very first visit, they felt welcomed by everyone there. “I think this place has really helped me in so many ways. The volunteers have made my experience enjoyable because they’ve all been friendly. I’ve made friends over the last six months–good friends. My son has made friends there too. 

When life brings unaccustomed changes, Sharon and Rob know that they can count on NMCS for food, friendship, and a bright spot in their week. As Sharon expressed, “The pantry has enhanced my life. Tuesdays are my pick-me-up days.” 

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.” 

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.”

Senior Stories: Patricia at Grace Fellowship

December 28, 2021

Every Saturday morning, Patricia, a longtime resident of San Francisco, walks or busses with her Chihuahua to our partner food pantry at Grace Fellowship Community Church. Sometimes her friend Lester joins her, but when we met her last month, it was just her and her dog. Patricia has been receiving food from Grace Fellowship for four years now, and the pandemic made her situation even more challenging. “When I couldn’t come to the pantry, oh, I was heartbroken. We [in my senior facility] were sharing food… I had to look in my cabinets for things that my dog could eat. It saves me so much, because I can’t afford things. I have to pay for my electricity and things, so there’s a lot of expenses.”  

The Senior Hunger Landscape

Everyone needs a little bit of help as they grow older, whether by asking a grandkid or a neighbor to mow your lawn or having a friend pick up a few things at the store. But as everyone in the Bay Area knows, living in San Francisco or Marin is expensive. High housing prices and a steep cost of living mean that balancing expenses can be challenging, especially if you’re living on a fixed income such as Social Security disbursements like many seniors are. The unfortunate reality is that seniors are at a high risk of being forced to choose between food, bills, and medical expenses. Feeding America recently reported that California’s senior hunger rate has hovered at 8.4% in 2018 and 2019. We don’t have official data yet on the impact of COVID-19 on senior hunger rates, but we can infer that affording food hasn’t gotten any easier. We recently surveyed over 7,000 participants and learned that more than 80% of them have yet to recover from the economic impacts of COVID-19, and recent problems in the global supply chain have made the prices of food rise in recent months.  

By getting food assistance, Patricia can pay her expenses while also improving her health. She, like many seniors, has a few health issues that poor nutrition makes more complicated. It’s the variety and type of food Patricia gets from Grace Fellowship that Patricia really appreciates. “I make smoothies out of the fruit and juice the celery. It’s really good for your intestines. And out of the rice, I make congee [rice pudding], or I make rice and I put whatever vegetables and chicken I got from the pantry in there. So you can make a lot of different things.” 

Our Partners Serving Seniors

Patricia is one of a community of seniors that the Food Bank, and our partner Grace Fellowship, serve. “We have quite a span of ages, though I think it probably leans towards seniors,” said Karen Seth, a pantry coordinator at Grace Fellowship. “One thing I think that we have really treasured is the relationships that we build with our guests and that they see us week in and week out. They’ll tell us what we’re going through. Some people have struggled with cancer, some people have struggled with losing their jobs, some people have been in and out of the hospital. And so, they tell us those things and we can be here and hear them and see them and receive them, and this can be a safe place for them.” 

It’s thanks to our supporters that we’re able to help our community and provide them with food that nourishes them and makes their lives better. This benefit extends beyond our participants. Rashmi, a volunteer at Grace Fellowship, told us, she loves coming to our partner pantry every Saturday. “I look forward to coming here,” she said. “I like giving food to the elderly and I feel happy when I give them extra food because I know them, and I know they are using the food.” 

A Place for Food and a Place for Community

December 15, 2021

If you take a walk down 16th Street in the Mission on a Saturday morning, chances are you’ll see a steady stream of people going into an unassuming terra cotta-colored building and leaving with a full bag of groceries – and often a smile as well. That building is Grace Fellowship Community Church, and every Saturday, a rotating duo of coordinators lead a group of volunteers to pack seventy-plus bags of groceries. This week, Karen Seth and Cindy Peterson are spearheading the food pantry. 

The church has been doing this every week for over five years, and the Food Bank has been proud to be their source of groceries throughout. The half-dozen volunteers that showed up to help this particular Saturday unloaded, packed, and distributed enough food for about seventy grocery bags. “We love when we get all the produce,” said Cindy. Eggs and bags of onions and green beans were stacked, rice was apportioned, bread was sorted, and music played from someone’s portable speaker. The energy in the room was clearly upbeat. 

But it’s not just food that Grace Fellowship is passing out – they also provide a community, even in the time of COVID. “One thing that we have really treasured through the five years is the relationships that we build with our participants and that they see us week in and week out, and they’ll tell us what they’re going through,” said Karen. “Some people have struggled with cancer, some people have struggled with losing their jobs, some people have been in and out of the hospital. And so, they tell us these things, and we can be here and hear them and see them and receive them, and this can be a safe place for them.” 

Pantry coordinator Karen Seth opens a box of green beans.

It’s Not Just Food 

At the backbone of Grace Fellowship’s food pantry is its volunteers. Though it takes just a few hours per shift, the work volunteers do at Grace and beyond is vital to food pantries staying in operation. They lift heavy bags of produce, protein, and grains after they’re dropped off by the Food Bank truck, sort produce into assembly lines to make sure a soft pear doesn’t end up crushed in a grocery bag below a heavier squash or melon, and hand out full bags to participants as they come down the line – which lots of volunteers say is the most rewarding part of their work. Many come week after week to serve their community. There’s no one-size-fits-all description for volunteers at the Food Bank and at our partner pantries; they are young and elderly, regulars and non-regulars, from all walks of life. Some are exclusively volunteers, but others both receive food assistance and volunteer. Take Rashmi, a future nursing student who first came to Grace Fellowship in 2017. 

Rashmi packs grocery bags for participants alongside other volunteers.

When Rashmi moved from Nepal to San Francisco, she was a high schooler with parents that each worked two jobs. Her neighbor used to share the food she received from Grace Fellowship with Rashmi and her family, and eventually Rashmi tagged along: “She took me here one day, and I signed up that day. It was my way of kind of being responsible for the household, since my parents both worked full time, two jobs.”  

The food and community Rashmi received from Grace Fellowship not only allowed her to help provide for her family, but also freed up her time and mental space to concentrate on her studies. “It’s just kind of like, ‘oh, one burden off my shoulders,’ in a way,” she said. “I can go about my week without having to worry about what to get for lunch or think about how much to spend, because budgeting is one of my big challenges right now.” Giving back to Grace Fellowship is important to her, too. “I look forward to coming here, then giving food to elderlies and I feel happy when I give them extra food because I know them, and they are using the food.” 

One of the other volunteers helps an elderly participant, Patricia, load a bag of groceries onto her walker as her small white dog jumps down to give space.  

“This place, it’s so nice,” said Patricia with a big smile on her face. “They’re so kind to you. They always have extra food and offer it. And they remember your name, and you just feel blessed.”