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.
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.”
While COVID-19 put limits on gatherings and in-person church services, Cornerstone Missionary Baptist Church in San Francisco’s Bayview district has found new opportunities for service through its Pop-up Food Pantry during this crisis.
“Although our church can’t fellowship in person and the doors for the church are closed, we like to say that the church is still open and we’re still doing the work,” explained Minister Damonn White, who spends his Thursdays at the Pop-up Pantry Cornerstone now hosts in partnership with the Food Bank.
The Pop-up at Cornerstone opened in May, making it the second Pop-up Pantry the Food Bank opened in the Bayview District after the Bayview Opera House. Each week it serves bags of fresh produce, protein, and shelf-stable items to 600 households from all over San Francisco.
The pantry may be new, but food has always been part of the ministry at Cornerstone Church. Not only do they feed about 250 families each year through their holiday food baskets, but they are also always prepared “if somebody comes to us hungry,” said Minister White. “We have families sometimes say, ‘I’ve been displaced, we need food to eat.’ We always have some food on hand.”
Challenges of COVID-19
Cornerstone Missionary Baptist Church has experienced the grief of this tragedy firsthand. When we spoke with Minister White in July, eight of his parishioners had gotten the virus, and one person had died.
Minister White explained, “the sad part of this is that when transitioning of life happens, that we’re not really able to love on people the way we would like to. But we just have to take the safety precautions, you know. We’re learning on a day to day basis, with gloves, masks, social distancing, and it’s tough. It’s tough.”
Their experience is not unique. The disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on Black and Brown communities is particularly evident in Bayview, where 31% of residents identify as Black compared to just 6% of San Francisco’s population overall. As of July, there were 192.91 cases of COVID-19 per 10,000 residents in the neighborhood – the highest infection rate of any San Francisco neighborhood.
Immediate Food Needs
The risk of the virus itself is not the only challenge for the Bayview community. In July, the Human Services Agency (HSA) conducted a survey of low-income San Francisco residents who receive its services. It found that Bayview had one of the highest percentages of people reporting that they did not have enough food in the last two weeks.
HSA also found that while 34 percent of Black respondents reported food as their most immediate post-shelter in place need, only 26 percent reported visiting a food pantry.
The Food Bank is trying to address this by working with community partners like Cornerstone Baptist Church and the Bayview Opera House to ensure there are food pantries in the neighborhood. But we know simply opening a pantry is not enough. After hearing from local residents that lines were too long, we implemented an improved line management system where individuals registered for timeslots to reduce wait times. And we will continue working with community leaders to improve our outreach to the local community.
In the meantime, Cornerstone is happy to be of service to San Francisco residents far beyond its immediate community. “We want to make sure we meet the masses. We don’t want to be considered a Black church. We’d like to be considered a community church for all.”
And if you visit the pantry Thursdays, you’ll see they’ve achieved this. The Pop-up Pantry at Cornerstone serves a diverse cross-section of people. Thanks to the welcoming environment the Cornerstone community provides, we continue to see strong interest from neighborhood residents in wanting to join.
“For me, this is what it’s really all about. It’s nice to wear a suit and get up and say an elegant speech in front of a room full of people and inspire them to live a greater, a better life,” said Minister White. “But this right here is where the rubber hits the road. For me, I’m a people person. I’m a community person. I like to do whatever I can do to help people. So today and every Thursday, when I’m here, it’s so gratifying, you know, to walk away and know, okay, we actually helped some people today.”
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.
Expanding in the Face of COVID-19
Day in and day out – rain or shine – the Food Bank’s network of neighborhood food pantries helps us provide food to the community. They are the cornerstone of our outreach. While nearly a third of our pantries had to close due to a variety of COVID-19 related challenges, many remain open and are also serving more people than ever before.
One of them is the pantry at Sunnydale Housing. Here, a committed group of long-time volunteers made extended service to their community possible. The pantry is run by Visitacion Valley Strong Families (VVSF), a collaborative lead by APA Family Support Services with three other community-based organizations: Edgewood Center for Children and Family, Samoan Community Development Center (SCDC), and the Asian Pacific American Community Center (APACC).
COVID-19 Brings Added Challenges
Before COVID-19, the pantry served approximately 200 households, mostly locals from the neighborhood. Now, according to Program Director Jack Siu they are serving more than 300 people from all over San Francisco. They work hard to ensure no one gets turned away.
“We always try to have extra bags if people come late, or if they didn’t know about the pantry,” said Mary Ann Pikes, who is one of the volunteer leaders who has come since 2012. “It’s amazing how many people who live here never knew about the pantry. But I can understand, it’s because they were working every day.”
As she points down the street to show where the line used to end compared to where it ends now, she predicts that they will soon need to start ordering more food to meet the growing need.
Sunnydale is a historically neglected public housing area with a particularly high rate of poverty – the average annual household income is only $13,487. Prior to COVID-19, VVSF was running several programs for families in the neighborhood. But now those can’t operate. “Right now, we are focused on basic needs: food, diapers, and clothing,” said Jack.
For local residents who were already struggling, COVID-19 is making things that much harder. Mindy, who has come to this pantry since 2014, explained that with a husband and two teenage sons at home, she goes through food quickly. “They eat a lot as they are getting older.” The pantry always helped her save money and made sure the family got enough to eat.
Now, with the virus, members of Mindy’s family are unemployed, so the fact that her neighborhood pantry could remain open is a huge help. “Beyond just the unemployment, we don’t want to go out to expose ourselves, so coming here is close and easy.” Only half-joking she adds, “but if we could do it twice a week that would be the best.”
Meeting People Where They Are
Long before COVID-19 brought the vulnerability of seniors into our collective consciousness, this pantry started a grassroots effort to deliver food to disabled seniors in their neighborhood.
“About seven or eight years ago, I said ‘if we are going to do this food pantry, let’s get food to the people who need it most,’” said Tim Gras, who works for Edgewood Center and spearheaded the delivery project. He explains, “there was a need and we had a vehicle.”
They now deliver to about 70 people a week and have a long waiting list. “It’s a challenge in this neighborhood because many people qualify for disability and we can’t take this to the hundreds and hundreds of people who we’d like to,” said Tim. “You’ll see at the end of the day our truck will be teetering.”
While the team does have concerns about their health and safety, they are committed to serving their community despite the pandemic. Reflecting,
Tim acknowledges, “in these neighborhoods, just day to day living can be really challenging. Folks are trying to follow guidelines, but it is kind of a different reality in a lot of these public housing neighborhoods.”
For him, if there is an opportunity to help, he is ready to do it. “We are going to keep trying. It is a really critical and necessary service, so we keep trying”
Prior to the pandemic, the pantry was a chance to socialize and catch up with neighbors. Local organizations used to bring coffee and do small cooking demos for volunteers and participants. Now, it’s a different story. While everyone misses that, it isn’t going to keep them home.
Jack sees this commitment with all the volunteers. “They are more motivated than ever. They are still here, and they come so early. They want to help others,” said Jack.
When schools closed in March, parents and caregivers were immediately left figuring out how to balance work, childcare, and homeschooling their children. For the families who relied on the Food Bank every week, there was an added layer of stress – where would they get their groceries? Prior to shelter-in-place, many families could pick up the fresh groceries at their school pantry during drop-off or pick-up. Across San Francisco and Marin, school closures caused 46 of the Food Bank’s Healthy Children food pantries to stop their weekly distributions
One such pantry was at Dolores Huerta Elementary School in San Francisco’s Mission District. When the school closed teachers and staff quickly worked to identify and contact families to let them know where they could access food. Even with new available pop-up pantries opening nearby, with vulnerable relatives at home, some families could not attend nearby Pop-up pantries. The school’s Family Liaison, Nataly Terrazas; Elementary Advisor, Luis García; School Social Worker, Sarah Volk, and school parent and pantry coordinator, Casey Federico quickly sprang into action matching families who couldn’t leave their house with volunteers who could pick up and deliver food to them. They now have 30 volunteers who trade off delivering to 13 families.
(This conversation was edited for length and clarity.)
Food Bank: How did you start partnering with us and what have you been doing since the start of the pandemic?
Casey Federico: At Dolores Huerta, which is both of my daughters’ elementary school, there was an established food pantry every Monday morning. Another parent had coordinated it before me, but their son graduated, so I took on the job of being the pantry coordinator this fall. Even before shelter-in-place, we were seeing a huge expansion in need for the pantry. We grew from a 50–person pantry last year to a 70- or 80-person pantry in November.
When the shelter-in-place happened, I was in communication with Edith, our neighborhood representative from the Food Bank, and knew everything was shifting. At the same time, I was getting all these texts and messages from families at the school saying, ‘we are about to be out of food’ There were lots of different challenging situations. And so, from discussions with the school team – Sarah, Luis, and Nataly – we found out who couldn’t leave their home for whatever reason and identified 12 families who needed food delivered. We started with a group of volunteers –families who did have transportation and could go to a food pantry and pick up a box and then deliver it to those people’s homes.
Our School Social Worker, Sarah Volk, is such an inspiration. She was just so careful and thoughtful about confidentiality. Sarah asked families who they’d be okay being paired with, because to have someone know you are receiving food from the Food Bank and then know where you live, that is a big deal. She was just super thoughtful about that and got everybody’s permission all along the line.
FB: What are you hearing from people in the community now?
CF: I’m still hearing a lot of people saying, you know, we got this [food], but it isn’t really enough. That is the hard reality. So many families that are part of our community are hospitality workers, etc.
Another amazing thing that happened is one of our teachers, her fiancé owns a restaurant and every time somebody from the community buys a meal in his restaurant, Toma, he’s donating a meal to a family in need. He’s also delivering meals. So, families are getting additional support from that too.
But what I just heard from Sarah last week, is just the numbers are increasing so much. So, we are talking about how to meet new needs. It’s really challenging.
FB: Do you talk to the families you deliver to? How are they doing?
CF: One thing that’s been really good, is a lot of relationships have been built between the families who are delivering and the families who are receiving. I know everybody’s been sending texts like, I’m going to drop it off. They text, I got it, thank you.
There’s also been some specific communication around needing health items like toothpaste and soap and tampons, and that kind of stuff. A few volunteers who have the capacity have also been sharing those types of items with families. Many of the families who are delivering are also out of work or running low on food themselves.
FB: We see this too, it’s incredible how many of our volunteers say, ‘oh yeah, I’m out of work right now and so I have free time and I’m going to do this.’
CF: I know, it just takes my breath away. One of the women who is helping deliver said ‘oh yeah, we both lost our jobs last week, but this is just so important, it’s the one trip I have purpose around. I have to do this.’
FB: Is there anything else that you wanted to share about the experience?
CF: I think the one thing that the Food Bank really does is bring together a community of people. Almost everybody who volunteered at the weekly food pantry at Dolores Huerta is also receiving a box of food. And so, I think our, our community of folks who really view themselves as part of the system were ready to jump in. The group of parents who help us to set up, fold up boxes, and do all that kind of stuff are really jumping up again to help out, which is cool.
That sort of friendly, joyful mood that was at our Monday morning pantry translates over and made people feel comfortable to be both asking and giving. I’m so proud to be part of this community!
In the last couple of months, we’ve opened two pantries expanding our San Francisco Neighborhood Grocery Network.
Finding a new pantry partner is not always an easy task. Ask Ashley Wong, one of our Pantry coordinators, “A potential pantry partner needs to have a lead volunteer coordinator and a consistent volunteer team that can dedicate hours of their schedule every week to support the pantry–and that’s a lot to ask.” It’s not only a time investment and physical commitment (those bags of potatoes are heavy!), but also an emotional one because creating a supportive pantry with excellent welcoming service, although rewarding, can also be heartbreaking. Ashley added, “We also need a pantry that is inclusive to people of all abilities. To meet that critical need, we require locations that have sizable storage space and, importantly, easy, safe access for all the pantry participants and volunteers.”
The Father’s House Pantry
We typically find pantry partners through outreach to community organizations, some of which are introduced to us by one of our existing partners. That’s how Ashley connected with one of our latest partner, The Father’s House in the Outer Sunset/Lake Merced area. The organization’s team was looking for ways to further serve their community and was reaching out to its partners. We connected and three months later, last December, they opened the doors to a new pantry.
“This pantry has steadily grown due to the continuing outreach in the community and the Father’s House team’s commitment to providing great customer service to everyone who comes by. Their endless dedication and energy continue to awe me. I look forward to the many years of partnership ahead of us,” said Ashley.
The Father’s House pantry is open Thursdays from 5:00 pm – 6:00 pm and is located at 269 Herbst Road at the Pomeroy Recreation & Rehabilitation Center. All San Francisco residents in need of food assistance are welcome to enroll in this pantry. We ask only that they bring a photo ID with a current residential address, or photo ID and a piece of mail with a current residential address.
Serving the Richmond Neighborhood
In early January, we also opened a pantry in San Francisco’s Richmond neighborhood. With more than 19,500 Richmond District residents at high risk of food insecurity—nearly 25% of the entire population of the neighborhood—we’re trying hard to close this hunger gap by looking for potential pantry partners. This time a long-time ally stepped up and is now in charge of three pantries in the neighborhood. “With the help of our dedicated community partners, Richmond Neighborhood Center, and our host, George Peabody Elementary School, we’re excited that we can expand our services in the Richmond neighborhood,” said Gary Lau, Program coordinator.
When Sinat gave birth five years ago, her doctors found an inoperable benign brain tumor. Since then, she has not been able to work full-time. Between parenting her three young daughters, her chemo treatments, and her headaches, finding a job that would accommodate her needs has been next to impossible.
Food Pantry Helps
As a way to help make ends meet, Sinat temps part-time. But it’s not enough for her family, and she and her husband depend on the food they receive at the Tenderloin Community School pantry to make ends meet. “With everything going on, healthy food is really important,” says Sinat. “We stay away from junk food, and vegetables are so necessary for the kids, so they stay healthy and energetic.”
Grandparents Pitch In
Sinat’s mom also goes to a Food Bank pantry nearby. Her parents emigrated with Sinat as refugees from war-torn Cambodia. When Sinat is temping, her parents watch her daughters and cook Cambodian food. “They love the vegetables and rice,” she says. “And because of the help we get at the pantry, we are able to afford meat at the grocery store.”
In San Francisco to Stay
Every day, her parents’ health declines from injuries and PTSD from their experiences in Cambodia. Sinat struggles to take care of them while she manages her brain tumor, which causes constant headaches and double vision. Her family has tried to leave the city to lower their housing costs, but that raised other challenges.
“My parents are in San Francisco, and they help us save money on childcare,” says Sinat. “We also have roots. I grew up here and see so many families I know at the food pantry. There, it doesn’t matter your race or where you are from, we are all in the same boat and just need food for our kids.”
“I’m grateful to donors at the Food Bank,” says Sinat. “What you are giving is helping out a lot of families like mine who wouldn’t make it in this city. It’s helping my daughters to grow up to be happy and do what they want in the future and not have to struggle like I do. Thank you.”
If you would like to help out a family like Sinat’s, consider a donation to the Food Bank today.