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.  

Ming’s Story: “We Make Enough for All”

December 1, 2023

Peering in through the windows of a Cantonese barbeque spot in the Richmond district, your gaze meets a line of roast duck, dripping fatty juices onto pans of stir-fried noodles, vegetables, and roast pork Rows of ducks hang above trays of stir fried noodles, meats, and more.below. Next door, another restaurant dishes up steaming, juicy xiao long bao. 

These two restaurants are where Food Bank pantry participant Ming has worked for the past 10 years – first as a cook, now as kitchen manager of both operations. Though her job has steady hours, and she’s able to eat shift meals at work, inflation is still taking a toll on her household budget: “Groceries are really expensive,” she shared. “But even though it’s hard, I still have to support my three daughters.” 

That’s why her local food pantry makes all the difference. 

Pantry Ingredients Save More than Money 

Ming first learned about the Roosevelt Pop-up Pantry from a friend in 2020, when the pandemic shutSu Ming taking her lunch break from work down restaurants all over the Bay Area and put her and thousands of others out of work. As a single parent raising a high schooler, putting another daughter through college, and helping support her eldest daughter at the time, Ming needed some support of her own. Ever since, these weekly groceries from the pantry near her work have remained a crucial time- and money-saver for this busy mom.

“What I get here is easily enough for a few days, sometimes a week it depends on what there is. I’m really grateful, but I have to be strategic,” Ming told us. Thousands of neighbors are performing this mental math each week, stretching their groceries out to cover as many meals as possible.  

Our survey of more than 9,000 Food Bank participants showed that single parent households like Ming’s are among those hit the hardest 69% could not afford a $400 emergency expense, and 88% were worried about running out of food. And with the holiday season and family gatherings in full swing, the pressure to afford special ingredients on top of the essentials can be daunting. 

Holidays Taste Like Mom’s Cooking 

Even though year over year inflation has slowed, the cost of a holiday meal is still 13% higher compared to 2021. It’s no wonder why more than 50,000 households rely on groceries from the Food Bank as the base for their celebratory meals.  

For Ming, the holidays are all about reconnecting with her three daughters — and for her family, much of that connection happens through food. She says her older daughters head home for the holidays with one thing in mind: a home-cooked meal. 

“‘What tastes best is Mom’s cooking!’” Ming laughed, mimicking her daughters. “I make whatever they feel like. I make a soup with carrots, tofu, bean curd sheets, shiitake mushrooms, porkit’s my daughters’ favorite.”  

Food Brings Joy Year-Round 

As the pantry is winding down for the day, Ming darts back into the restaurant and emerges with massive trays of stir-fried noodles and vegetables, braised pork, and fried rice. Food Bank staff and someFood Bank Community Coordinator Marcel and Su Ming are all smiles for lunch volunteers make their way over, dishing up portions buffet-style and gathering around the foldout table. Turns out, it’s not only Ming’s family that she’s bringing together over food. 

“I asked our chef to cook these dishes for the pantry staff – they like eating it,” she shrugged nonchalantly. “Our staff have to eat lunch too. We make enough for all of us, and then we can have lunch together.” 

As folks sit around laughing, chatting and eating in the sunshine, it’s clear this lunch tradition has morphed into something beyond a quick break from work. These meals are a weekly chance to slow down, connect, and be in community with others. And whether for a special occasion or a regular Tuesday afternoon, any day is a great day to share the joy of good food.  

 

 

Breaking the Cycle with Homeless Prenatal Program

June 29, 2023

Pregnancy and the postpartum period are life-changing challenges even at the best of times. But for pregnant people staring down the barrel of poverty and homelessness, paying for rent, food, medical care, and everything a growing baby needs to thrive is a near-insurmountable task. That’s where Homeless Prenatal Program (HPP) comes in. Located in the Mission District, HPP offers a staggering breadth of services for low-income families. We spoke with Linda Huerta, the distribution coordinator for HPP’s weekly food pantries.

Food Bank (FB): How did you get involved with Homeless Prenatal Program?

Linda Huerta: I learned about HPP first through our Community Health Worker program, which is a 16-month, paid, accredited job training program that prepares clients and other women from the community for careers in community health. I make sure our 400 families can get nutritious food – this week, we had broccoli, tomatoes, bananas, eggs, and more. I’m always thinking about how we can make the distribution more equitable.

Pacifiers are just one of the host of family items that participants can pick up at HPP

FB: Does HPP provide any other services to the community?

Linda: Absolutely – folks don’t just get food when they visit us on Fridays. It’s also diapers, pacifiers, and teething crackers; housing assistance and CalFresh application help; legal services and other family support. These things are available all week, but it’s so accessible to be able to offer more help or sign people up at the same time as the food pantry. And if we can’t help them, then when they come to get food, we can let them know if there’s another organization that can work on their problem.

FB: How does HPP break the cycle of family poverty and homelessness?

Linda: There are so many ways we work towards ending poverty, and a big part of that is food – it allows families to budget their money; maybe dollars that they were gonna spend on food can go to something else that supports them, especially with how expensive food is getting. It makes me feel good inside, honestly, to know that I can do this for my neighbors. Food means nutrition. Food means energy, food means love. And then we can build off that to offer even more services.

Linda smiles after our conversation in HPP’s back garden

Linda closed our conversation by telling us, “It really does take a community. We can’t all do it alone, we need partnership.” Our Food Bank is proud to be a part of the solution by joining hands with organizations like HPP to make a difference in our neighbors’ lives.

CalFresh Ripple Effects: Miguel’s Story

June 14, 2023

Miguel's artwork hangs in front of his window: 3 black and white cubes made from Venetian blinds.
Miguel’s recent artwork

At Rosa Parks Pop-up Pantry, Miguel lights up when he starts talking about his art. He sets down his grocery bags and whips out his phone to show us his latest creation, hanging in front of his second story window: a mobile made entirely of syringes (with the needles removed, of course), that blows and gently spins in the breeze, while explaining: “I used to work for the opera, until I retired five years ago. I also made costumes for theatre groups, foundations and drag queens. I have a program going after I retired, [making] mobiles and artwork with the recycled materials I [find] on the street, thrown away.”  

A Loss for the Community 

Miguel is a longtime member of the arts scene in San Francisco, a gay man who’s been HIV+ for nearlyMiguel is smiling, with his handlebar mustache, red scarf/necktie and maroon sweater. 40 years, an activist, and a pantry participant since 2020 in his neighborhood of the Western Addition. He’s also one of roughly 101,000 CalFresh (known as SNAP federally) recipients in San Francisco who saw their grocery budget decimated overnight. This is due to the federal government’s decision to cut emergency allotments, which boosted CalFresh benefits by an average of $160 for recipients in San Francisco during the pandemic. That’s a loss of nearly $12 million a month in food assistance for our neighbors. 

“I applied for the [CalFresh] benefits at the beginning of COVID. I was having a hard time with money. And it was very nice, especially when they started putting the extra funds in it,” Miguel told us. Miguel says he was receiving close to $200 during the pandemic, but after speaking with a CalFresh representative that same morning we met, he learned he’d be receiving just $23. That’s why the Food Bank Policy & Advocacy team is advocating to raise the minimum benefit to $50 in the state Senate this year – because for Miguel and many others, “it’s not worth going through all the [paperwork] trouble for $20.” 

Meals are Best Shared 

Miguel poses in front of his artFor Miguel, his CalFresh benefits were a supplemental support that helped him stretch his budget and extend a little kindness to other friends who were struggling during the throes of the pandemic. “I was able not only to get things for myself, but I was able to invite friends to get food with me so we can have dinner together. I did it with two friends, maybe every two weeks. Eating alone is not really the best thing. Having company and being able to provide something a little extra, that was very nice. It really made a difference for me and my friends.” 

In addition to dinners with friends, Miguel finds support through groups like the 50 Plus Network from the SF AIDS Foundation, which connects long-term HIV survivors through meetups and events. Miguel and his current housemate also stop by the Rosa Parks Senior Center most days for lunch, and utilize the Food Bank’s weekly pantries, where Miguel picks up groceries for them both: “The sweet potatoes are for my roommate, because he can’t come to the pantry – he’s disabled. So [the pantry] not only helps me, it helps someone else.” 

A Positive Ripple Effect

As federal lawmakers strip proven poverty-fighting programs and safety nets from our neighbors, andMiguel waves goodbye from his apartment window. leave food banks to pick up the slack, it’s essential that the Food Bank maintains access to the fresh produce, proteins, and grains that 53,000 neighbors rely on weekly to nourish themselves. “The benefit is greater than just food,” Miguel explained to us. “At my age, I don’t think there’s any stigma – I encourage other people to apply for these services. I have diabetes, so I have to be careful about what I’m eating. And besides the food, I can use the money [I save] on other things that are beneficial for my health or enjoyment. It’s a ripple effect; it magnifies your life in all these positive ways.” 

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. 

Three Cheers for Partner Pantry Reopenings!

April 20, 2023

Join us in celebrating our partners at Florence Fang Community Farm in the Bayview, who reopened their farmer’s market-style pantry back in March! Neighbors and community members gathered for the ribbon cutting and filled their carts and bags to the brim with pears, cabbage, grapefruits, sweet potatoes and more. 

Reopening for the Community

While some pantry partners were able to continue operating during the pandemic by pre-bagging groceries, many more – including Florence Fang – were forced to shutter their operations. Now, our Programs team is focused on helping those partners open back up for their neighborhoods. 

As partners reopen, “we’re reaching out to neighbors [currently enrolled in Food Bank-run pantries] to let them know they have a choice to return to their neighborhood pantry,” said Tina Gonzales, Director of Community Partnerships at the Food Bank. “When a pantry reopens, it’s exciting for people who used to go there – that’s their community.” Plus, pantries run by our partners will help us scale back our large Food Bank-run sites (which opened during the pandemic to meet the increased need, and are nearly all at capacity), making them smaller and more manageable.  

Farmer’s Market-Style Transitions

Many Food Bank-run pantries are also transitioning from COVID-mandated pre-bagging to farmer’s market-style. This pantry model centers choice by encouraging folks to take what they want and pass on what they don’t, while reducing food waste and plastic bag use. It’s a win-win for creating a more equitable and sustainable food pantry! 

Perhaps most importantly, farmer’s market-style creates opportunities for connection with community. “Sometimes if we’re working with a nonprofit, that’s how they check in with their participants. It’s through farmer’s market distribution,” said Tina. “They’ll start talking about the food and then learn, ‘I need to book you an appointment for free tax help, or eviction defense.’ It’s a good connecting point.” 

A Beacon in West Marin

March 29, 2023

The town of Pt. Reyes Station itself is, by all accounts, pretty tiny. But the reach of local community hub and Food Bank partner West Marin Community Services (WMCS) extends to nearly 16,000 neighbors in rural West Marin — as far as Dillon Beach to the north and Bolinas to the south with an array of services including a food pantry, financial support, a youth center, and a thrift store.  

We met Alma Sanchez, Food Pantry Manager at WMCS, on a Thursday afternoon as golden hour set in. Neighbors stopped by the food pantry periodically, many exchanging a few friendly words with Alma and other staff. 

Accessibility for Farmworkers in West Marin 

Outside WMCS’ main building, fresh produce provided by the Food Bank  like zucchini, broccoli, corn, oranges, cauliflower, eggplant and apples was on full display at their farmer’s market-style food pantry. Inside, extra community food donations filled a few fridges. 

Alma helped restock produce outside, explaining to us as she went: “There are remote areas where people live on ranches [in West Marin]. There’s no transportation and difficult access to stores. This is the only place that is open five days a week, four hours every day.” 

WMCS serves all members of the community. But their pantry schedule is especially critical for farmworkers and their families, who often can’t attend during the limited hours at other pantry sites. Additionally, many farmworkers “don’t qualify for CalFresh, or they’re afraid to apply because they don’t know how it works.” That’s where WMCS steps in and helps fill the gaps with fresh, healthy groceries.   

Resourceful and Resilient 

During the intense flooding back in December, “People were saying, ‘We have no power, we lost everything in the fridge,’” Alma shared. “Those days we were very busy, and we operated with no power. We had a generator, and we plugged in everything and continued [all our services]. People were so happy that we had food.” 

If it’s not apparent from that anecdote alone: resourcefulness is the name of the game here in West Marin. Aside from a disaster preparedness program, the funds from their beloved community thrift store doubles as a safety net for community members.  

The Gift of Thrift 

“Thanks to our thrift store, we have a community fund that allows us to support individuals and low-income families in West Marin with unexpected expenses,” shared Yareli Cervantes, Emergency Assistance Program Manager at WMCS. “Just by serving food, we’re able to really get to know people and identify their needs. It opens up the conversation for them to come seek out financial assistance.” 

Though much of their work revolves around rental assistance “rent out here is so high that it really eats the cost of living,” said Yareli WMCS also supports neighbors with medical bills, prescriptions costs, and intake support for energy and rental assistance programs through a partnership with Community Action Marin (another Food Bank partner!). 

Fun for the Kids, Too 

A short walk up the road from the main WMCS hub takes us directly to the Tomales Bay Youth Center, an after-school program for mainly 6th, 7th, and 8th graders, with some high schoolers too. Food Bank and community donations cover after-school snacks and meals, and the students enjoy activities ranging from art and tutoring to sports and even a youth DJ program. 

 

“The kids are really hungry, so we need a lot of food every day. We also started a cooking class that happens every Tuesday, so some of our ingredients also come from the food pantry,” shared Interim Youth Program Coordinator Piro Ishizaka. The Youth Center helps local parents who work late, says Piro: “Pt. Reyes is a small town, so there’s nowhere for [the kids] to go otherwise. That’s what we’re doing here every day providing a safe and fun place for the kids.” 

A Channel for Community Care 

At the Food Bank, our hope is to support and uplift important local organizations like WMCS that provide tailored services for the needs of their communities all with empathy and dignity. During our visit to Pt. Reyes Station, this deep care for the community shined through every conversation with neighbors, staff, and volunteers. One couple we met, Margarita and Jaime, are residents of Pt. Reyes and regular volunteers. Margarita shared, “I had the time, and so at the start of the pandemic I started volunteering with a cousin of mine. I liked it so much, I brought my husband along too!”  

It’s clear Margarita isn’t the only one who feels this way. WMCS Executive Director Socorro Romo summed it up: “There is the love of the community and there’s the support of the community; we are just the channel to get that through.” 

 

What’s in Store at the Shop Floor?

March 1, 2023

Step onto the shop floor at the Pennsylvania Warehouse and you’ll be greeted by racks filled with just about every item under the sun: fresh fruits and vegetables (of course), canned beans and proteins, fresh breads and pastries, eggs, frozen proteins like chicken breasts, and assorted dry, fresh, and frozen grocery items from supermarkets all over San Francisco.  

Through our “shop” program, we serve 243 partners in the community. Here’s how it works: on any given weekday, by appointment or drop-in, agencies ranging from congregate meal sites to afterschool programs can stop by the warehouse and shop for groceries from 8am-3pm.  

Donations and Fresh Rescue Lead the Way 

These Food Bank shop partners “pick up free produce, bread for 8 cents/pound, and other donated items for 18 cents/pound,” said Henry Randolph, Senior Shop Floor Manager at the Food Bank. Produce comes to the Food Bank through the Farm to Family program just like it does for food pantries. But the other food we offer comes from community donations, or through our Fresh Rescue program. We’ll go out to local supermarkets like Whole Foods, Lucky’s, Safeway, Amazon and Costco, and bring back a variety of different products for our shoppers.”  

Flexibility, Variety, Affordability 

One partner, the Homeless Church of San Francisco, has been coming for the past three decades. Since they don’t operate a traditional pantry, the flexibility and price point of the shop floor is a huge draw. 

“At the place where we live, we bring in [unhoused] guests and we serve lunch and dinner five days a week. And we go out to different camps across San Francisco on Thursday and Friday nights and serve a full meal. On Sunday morning, we cook pancakes and serve them at the Embarcadero. And we also give out food boxes to around 30 people who live in hotels,” said April Prosser, co-founder of the Homeless Church along with her husband Pastor Greg Prosser. “So, we have a variety of needs. The donations from the Food Bank allow us to have really good meals.” 

Community Support Remains Crucial 

The Food Bank helps hundreds of partners meet the unique needs of their programs and agencies. But Henry says that lately, “demand is very high, with a limited supply,” because of inflation and supply chain issues, driving home the need for continued support from our community as we strive to keep our shop floor racks full for our neighbors and partners.  

In Henry’s words: “We’re trying to do the best we can. But if the Food Bank is hungry, how can we feed other people?” 

Through Challenges, Relationships Remain 

Regardless of current challenges, one thing remains stable: the relationships formed between Food Bankers and long-term shop partners. “I can think of a handful of agencies, like the Homeless Church, that have been shoppers for close to 30 years. And I think that’s really special because we all have a common goal: to provide services to our community. There are a lot of compassionate people that are really dedicated,” Henry shared.  

The feeling is mutual: April says that “from the beginning, the Food Bank has been a lifesaver. And Henry is a real blessing.”

Buy-Nothing: The Gift of Community

January 24, 2023

With her rescue dog Charlie slung over her hip in a crossbody bag (she says, “my passion is, I love dogs”), Cilla Lee was hard to miss at the Stonestown Pop-up Pantry where we met. And as she talked, three things became apparent: Cilla is a woman with a lot of ideas, a lot of drive, and a lot of herself to give. A San Franciscan since the age of five, she says that the pandemic “made [her] step up” when it came to supporting her community.  

Buy-Nothing: Where It All Began 

She’s underselling it a bit: Cilla took a leave of absence from her airline job so that others with less seniority could keep their jobs during the pandemic, which led her to the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank as a participant. Early in the pandemic, with nowhere to go and not much to do, she stumbled upon the concept of “Buy-Nothing Groups,” virtual and occasionally in-person communities where immediate neighbors exchange all types of goods, services and information– all for free, all from their own abundance, all as part of a “gift economy.”  

“There wasn’t a Buy Nothing in my area, so I went ahead and started one up. I went through a crash training course and kind of figured it all out on my own. This whole thing about paying it forward was just because my mom was always helping people growing up. So, I just said, ‘This would be something my mom would do.’” 

From Pastries and Prep Meals… 

Cilla became the admin of the Outer Richmond Buy Nothing group on Facebook. While food isn’t often the primary focus of Buy Nothing groups, in the early pandemic, food donations started rolling in. At first, she started out by making baked goods and offering them up to add a little sweetness to her neighbor’s days.  

“I started making prep meals to show people like, hey, it really wasn’t that hard — come on by and grab a couple of prep meals and pretend it’s a home dining experience. I was also trying to help my neighbors grab groceries. And now I have some volunteers, and they’re just amazing.”  

Since those early days, it’s blossomed into something much bigger.  

…To Fresh Grocery Sharing!

On the day we met at Stonestown, having already picked up groceries for her and her boyfriend, Cilla was collecting items from her fellow participants that they didn’t want. During the pandemic, the Food Bank had to pre-bag groceries for participants due to health mandates. Cilla’s efforts ensured those unwanted items didn’t go to waste by sharing them with her neighbors through their local Buy-Nothing group. While this isn’t a practice that is organized by the Food Bank — nor do we have any ability to regulate what happens with the produce once it leaves our distribution — we’re happy to see those with abundance sharing with their neighbors.  

“I have people RSVP, so they line up, and then they just understand that you only take what you need,” Cilla shared. 

Over the next several months, many of our pantries will transition back to farmer’s market style, where participants will take only what they need. But during the pandemic, it’s both understandable and admirable how grassroots community solutions developed to creatively prevent food waste. 

Personal Touches Make the Difference 

As a small pantry operation, there’s a community building aspect inherent to the way it operates. Cilla says it’s not just her neighbors’ names and faces she’s come to know.  

“I’ll remember which family likes what. There’s a Moroccan family that likes certain items; there’s a Ukrainian family that likes rye bread. And I do a group chat for the regulars that come pick up and for the volunteers. I’ll say, ‘Hey, this is what we got this week. Here’s some [recipe] ideas.’” 

A Slice for You, A Slice for Me 

This colorful distribution van helps Cilla and volunteers make deliveries, too!

And neighborhood businesses even got in on the pantry distribution, with a local pizzeria offering fresh pies up to the Buy Nothing Group.  

“As soon as my driver is on the way to go pick it up, I post it. That way people can claim the pizza as soon as it comes to my door,” Cilla explained. “Depending on how many people claim it, I’ll split it half and half, or I’ll split it three ways, so everybody literally gets a piece of the pie.” 

Food is Community  

At the Food Bank, we’re grateful to learn from and be in partnership with people like Cilla, who use their knowledge of their neighbors to find hyper-localized, community-specific solutions and novel ways to fight hunger. Ultimately, like Cilla says, at the heart of it all is the gift of connecting with our neighbors– and food is a pathway to do just that.  

“It’s uplifting, because you know that you have this community and that you have people that care about you,” Cilla told us, smiling. “Your family may or may not be here; they may be in the same neighborhood, or they may be out of state, but it doesn’t matter. You’ve got a support group.” 

 

What Food Means to Us

December 14, 2022

For many of us, the holidays are a time to gather around a shared meal. Pantries are perused, cookbooks are cracked, and calls are made to relatives for their special recipes (if you missed it, check out our community cookbook with contributions from participants, volunteers, and staff!).

Here’s what we know at the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank: in sharing a meal, we share our humanity. We’ve spent the last 365 days gathering stories from the community and asking: “what does food mean to you?”

“Food means nourishment”

One sunny February morning, we visited our partner Code Tenderloin in San Francisco and heard from volunteer Arielle: “Food means nourishment – of the mind, body, and soul. Food makes you feel good, gives you confidence and courage that maybe you don’t have when you’re hungry. Maybe best of all is you can share it with people – it’s the way to a person’s heart.”

Code Tenderloin’s Executive Director, Donna Hilliard, added: “I think, with our culture, food is everything. When we come together, we eat. When we celebrate, we eat. When we’re sad, we eat. Sharing meals especially means a lot. For the folks at Code Tenderloin, all of us have been on the ground, so we serve our food with love. That’s why so many people are comfortable coming back – we want them to feel like our extended family.”

Arielle, left, is a student, mom, and volunteer at Code Tenderloin. Donna Hilliard, right, is Code Tenderloin’s Executive Director.

CalFresh recipient Yurin told us how a balanced meal means wellness for her family. “It’s something fundamental to health,” she shared. “Having good food, healthy food, is vital to every person every day.”

And at a bustling Pop-up Pantry in San Francisco’s SoMa, participant Russ chatted with us after picking up his groceries. “It means everything,” he said, showing us a watermelon he was excited to slice into. “I’m learning how to eat healthier now that I can get more and better food from this pantry. I turn 65 next August. You can live a lot better as you learn how to cook, what to eat, and what not to eat.”

Yurin is a Marin resident, mom, and CalFresh recipient.

Making Space for Joy

“Food brings us together, you know? If you got a group of people together, bring a meal. Ain’t nobody fussing when you’re eating.” Cliffton is a longtime San Francisco resident and an artist – recently, he painted ‘Spirit of the Fillmore’ in the Buchanan Street Mall. He’s also a participant at our Rosa Parks Pop-up Pantry. “Food is nourishment for the body,” he continued. “Your body won’t allow you to be negative in that moment, because it’s getting good food.”

That’s the not-so-obvious benefit of a full pantry: with no worries about where the next meal will come from, our neighbors can bring a little more sweetness into their lives.

Laura Cedillo, center, is a Program Manager at our partner Native American Health Center. Cliffton, right, is an artist, longtime San Francisco resident, and participant at our Rosa Parks Pop-up Pantry.

Laura Cedillo, Program Manager at our partner Native American Health Center [https://www.nativehealth.org/], told us that “food means someone’s looking out for you and taking care of you.” Laura and her team pack bags of healthy groceries for anyone who needs them in a second-story space that’s part health clinic in the Mission. She views food as memories as much as sustenance. “When I think of food, I think of family, and I think of being cared for. It’s like, hey, how do I love myself? One of my best friends is Mohican from the New York area, and I remember on her birthday she was like, ‘I’m going to make myself some butternut squash.’ And now every time I make butternut squash, I remember my friend. I remember people I love when I cook.”

 

More than Just Calories

We heard loud and clear from almost everyone we spoke to that food is much more than something that fills your stomach for a few hours.

“I believe food means connection to others,” said Maria, who is both a participant and a volunteer at St. Peter’s Catholic Church in the Mission. “You can meet someone at the food pantry and get to know them and also know they care about you. Because all the people volunteering here, they care about all of us – that’s why they’re here.”

Maria, left, is a resident of San Francisco’s Mission district, and is both a participant and a volunteer. Pastor Richard Roberts, right, heads our partner San Francisco Community Fellowship.

“To share food is to get to know people, right?” said Pastor Richard Roberts at San Francisco Community Fellowship  one of our partners in the Excelsior. “It’s not just feeding them physical food, it’s emotional support and understanding, and getting people to a space where they feel comfortable and accepted. That’s what food means to me.”

As he spoke, Pastor Roberts watched volunteers pack grocery bags while photos of churchgoers at weddings and service days smiled down on them. For him, creating a community and holding a food pantry are all part of the same spirit.