Phillis & Lee: ‘Boring’ Until You Know Them

January 14, 2021

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

Food pantry coordinator greets participant

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.

A Holiday Like No Other

November 19, 2020

For many, Thanksgiving is synonymous with three important things: family, gratitude, and food. Unfortunately, COVID-19 is forcing many of us to rethink what those things mean this year.

For one family, the global pandemic is a time to establish new Thanksgiving traditions and cook familiar dishes, even if they can’t gather everyone around the same table.

“I kind of have a large family and my mother – she is 85 now – was the cook,” said Irie, a Food Bank participant. “We would go over to her house for dinner. So that won’t be happening this year.”

Irie lives with his wife in San Francisco’s Bayview District. A few years ago, he and his wife were in a motorcycle accident – she broke her spine. After the accident, neither of them were able to work their construction jobs, so they rely on disability and they are regularly coming to the Pop-up Food Pantry at Cornerstone Church. Since Irie was a little kid, Thanksgiving has always involved turkey and dressing, plenty of cakes and pies, cans of cranberry sauce, and greens. This year is no different. He has a special baster that will inject the marinade right into the turkey he is planning to fry. For dessert, he is making a couple of sour cream pound cakes plus, “my mother and my wife want me to make a German chocolate cake, and I want to make some banana pudding blend.”

It’s an ambitious menu for a small Thanksgiving, but Irie inherited his mom’s love of cooking, and whatever they don’t eat they are planning to share.

Keeping Traditions Going

Last year, with more leftover food at the end of their Thanksgiving dinner than they knew what to do with, Irie and his family said, “Let’s just go and just make a bunch of plates and just take it out to the hungry while the food is still warm.”

They ended up giving away 10 plates of food to unhoused folks in their neighborhood.

“It just felt so good. We thought, ‘let’s try to feed 20 people this year’. So that’s what we’re gonna do,” said Irie. Even though they’ll have fewer family members around the Thanksgiving table this year, “we’re going to cook the food up, make 20 plates, and go feed 20 people.”

One of those plates will go to his mom so he’ll at least be able to see her from a distance. By the sound of it, Irie’s mom and anyone else getting a Thanksgiving meal from him this year are in for a treat.

A Food Bank Thanksgiving

Food and community are at the heart of what we do here at the Food Bank, making this is an extra special time of year for us. Despite family gatherings being scaled back or canceled altogether this year, we are still planning to distribute extra food this month to help our community make Thanksgiving as special as possible.

In fact, we will give away enough food for 1.4 million Thanksgiving meals, up from 880,000 last year. That includes more than 232,000 pounds of chicken and 1 million pounds of produce.

Finding Gratitude in 2020

Even if this will be a holiday like no other, we want to ensure our community can still enjoy a celebratory family meal next week, no matter what form it takes.

“I’m just really thankful to have this Food Bank because I’m sure it helps a lot of people, including me,” said Irie. “At the same time, it helps me to help others, and that’s what I really want.”

Sandy’s Story | Grocery Delivery Makes the Difference

July 30, 2020

Before the pandemic, Sandy performed as a fiddler at festivals. And before that, as a young woman, she was an activist. She’s a mother and a grandmother with a zest for life.

She also knows what it’s like to experience hunger.

When she was a child living in Northern Ireland, there were times she and her brother would have to split what little food they had.

“I remember a time we split one scrambled egg,” she recalls. “Hunger has always been something. Not ‘I missed lunch,’ but true hunger.”

And now after 48 years in San Francisco, living through so much of this city’s rich and vibrant history, she is experiencing the challenges of living on a fixed income amidst the rising cost of living in the Richmond District.

“I’m living on my savings and I also get retirement. The rent here is $840 a month. I thank God it is only that. And my check is about 800 and…,” she pauses to think. “It’s close, I mean they are right next to each other.”

COVID-19: A Challenge for Seniors

Even before the pandemicone in seven adults between the ages of 50 and 80 nationwide were food insecure. For many low-income seniors, the Food Bank was a lifeline, helping ensure they weren’t choosing between affording food and paying rent.

COVID-19 suddenly threw a new impossible choice into the mix: choosing between risking your health to pick up much-needed food or go without it. To guarantee they wouldn’t have to make that choice, we started grocery delivery to 12,000 low-income seniors in our community every week.

To aid in these efforts, the USDA also granted a waiver that allowed Amazon to deliver senior boxes from the Supplemental Food Program (SFP), which provides a monthly box of mostly shelf-stable food to seniors living at or below 130% of the Federal Poverty Income Guidelines.

While we look forward to bringing seniors back to the community centers, churches, and other weekly pantries locations, the recent spike in COVID-19 cases makes it clear: seniors like Sandy are still vulnerable.

Grocery Delivery Makes All the Difference

When Sandy’s husband was still alive, the couple relied on the monthly SFP food boxes. But her health challenges made picking up the SFP box difficult, and after her husband was killed, she stopped coming.

Even after she stopped picking up her SFP box, she kept in touch with Shirley Chen, senior program manager at the Food Bank. And in March, Shirley was able to connect her with our CalFresh team who signed her up for benefits, enroll in our Pantry at Home program, and even help her get her SFP box delivered straight to her door.

Unfortunately, the USDA ended the waiver allowing us to deliver SFP boxes for seniors shelter at home in June, making her Pantry at Home deliveries and CalFresh benefits even more crucial.

Thanks to the Food Bank, and the help of its caring staff members and volunteers, Sandy said she hasn’t been so well fed in a long time. “Do you know how long it has been since I could buy a rolled pork roast? My family came over and shared it with me. It fed 5 of us.”

In a time when we just don’t know what tomorrow will bring, the generosity of the Food Bank staff and her neighbors who make these deliveries means a lot. “I’m terribly grateful.”

Doaldo’s Story | Living in Very Hard Days

May 19, 2020

With two young sons to support, the pandemic has created a lot of stress for Doaldo. On top of navigating remote learning with one son and wondering if his other son – four-years-old – will be able to start school this fall; he worries about how he will continue to put food on the table.

“I haven’t worked in a month,” said Doaldo, who worked in restaurants before the pandemic. “We don’t have money for food or anything.”

Like thousands of service industry workers, Doaldo is struggling with the impact of regional shelter-in-place orders that have brought a once-thriving industry to a screeching halt in an effort to protect public health.

According to a survey by the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, 80 percent of local restaurant owners report laying off more than half their employees. Nationwide, restaurant and bar employees made up 60 percent of jobs lost in March.

Discovering a Helping Hand

For Doaldo, who learned about the Bayview Opera House Pop-up Pantry from a friend, relying on the Food Bank is new. But with little time for their family to prepare for the sudden job loss, and no other help, it has been a big relief.

“I got potatoes, eggs, and cabbage,” said Doaldo. “Those are the most important things we use to cook, and the kids love the bananas and other fruit.”

Nodding to his four-year-old son, who held his dad’s hand through the whole line, Doaldo smiles and adds, “last time they had juice and he liked that.”

Weathering the Challenge

A family with two full-time minimum wage jobs earns $58,240 a year – in notoriously expensive San Francisco, it takes $110,984 (according to the California Budget & Policy Center) to cover their basic needs. A sudden job loss can be catastrophic for a family already struggling to get by.

The Food Bank is a stop-gap to ensure parents like Doaldo, who are unexpectedly facing hard times, can continue putting food on the table for their children.

“We are living in very hard days; we’ve haven’t worked in a very long time,” explained Doaldo. “We don’t have any money and we have to pay for everything – bills, rent, food – it’s very difficult.”

Pop-up Pantries: a Lifeline to Those Newly Out of Work

May 6, 2020

To meet the exploding need for food during the pandemic, the Food Bank opened 20 Pop-up pantries across San Francisco and Marin, each serving roughly ten times more people each week than our regular pantries. In the south-east corner of San Francisco, the Bayview Opera House was one of the first Pop-ups we opened after shelter in place went into effect.  

Set up in the parking lot between the Opera House and Joseph Lee Recreation Center, the pantry is staffed by volunteers outfitted with masks and gloves always maintaining a safe distance. They say there are many “this is why we are out here” moments – whether it’s participants’ relief that they’ll be able to put food on the table for the week or folks new to the Food Bank who are surprised to open their bag and find that about 70% of what the volunteers bagged for them is fresh produce. 

Finding A Way During the Shutdown  

The Bayview Opera House is now serving more than 1,000 households every Monday. The line often stretches down Newcomb Ave, around on 3rd Street, and back up the hill on Oakdale, but it moves quickly – social distancing can be deceiving.  

Once at the front of the line, participants are greeted by a friendly volunteer with a clipboard who asks them how many people are in their household, before they are handed a bag of groceries.  

For Maria, who lost her job in the crisis as a childcare worker, standing in line is worth it, “I know there are a lot of families who are thinking: rent or food?” She has been trying to figure out what to cut from her budget so she can support her family as the shelter in place continues. “This really helps because I have two teenagers at home who eat a lot. Before I was spending $150 per week for just one meal a day. Now, they are eating three meals.” 

James, a tour bus driver, said: “I came to work, and it was just shut down.” Without the tours he has had trouble making money, “my savings are gone so the Food Bank helps.” He loves that he can still get a variety of proteins. “Last week I got eggs. I killed those eggs! Once, there was pork loin. I killed that too!”

For Jasmine’s familythe pop-up pantry is a lifeline. Jasmine lost her hotel job and lives with her mom, who has a health condition that makes her vulnerable to COVID-19, and with her brother, whose hours were cut as his airline job. “Honestly, I don’t even know how we are getting by. By the grace of God, we are living day by day,” she said. “It’s a little stressful figuring out the craziness of how you are going to pay rent and buy food.” But the pop-up pantry helps, “because two out of three of us are not working, it helps 

us save money and not waste the last of our savings.”  

The Pop-ups are a welcome sight, with passing cars often giving us a friendly honk. The Food Bank and our volunteers make sure the community knows we’re here for them in this crisis, and we are all in this together. 

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Ana’s Story | For The Children

February 21, 2019

The early morning sun was just starting to shine through the windows of the multipurpose room at Daniel Webster Elementary School in San Francisco’s Potrero Hill neighborhood, but that couldn’t hide the smile on Ana’s face. The mother of two was picking up groceries at the Food Bank’s weekly Healthy Children Pantry at her daughter’s school when she came upon something she didn’t quite expect.

“Take a look at this honey – there’s fish today!” she said to her youngest daughter, 4-year-old Genesis. “Yes, fish! Bring it on!”

Ana has been coming to the pantry at Daniel Webster since her 7-year-old older Xochitl was in kindergarten – not out of choice, but out of necessity. “Especially living in a place like San Francisco with high rent, sometimes it’s like ‘if we pay rent we don’t eat’ … and unfortunately, that shouldn’t be that way. But that’s how things are right now.”

WORKING LONG HOURS

Not being able to get ahead isn’t for a lack of trying.  Ana’s husband puts in long hours as a construction worker. She’s working hard too, volunteering at the school in the mornings before heading off to her full-time nonprofit job, then returning to school to get her girls. She spends many evenings volunteering with the school’s PTA and ELAC – English Learners Advisory Committee.  “I do it all because I don’t care about just my children, but all children in the school and the district,” Ana says.

SAVING FOR KIDS’ EDUCATION

She hopes for a day when rents aren’t so high in the city, allowing all families to thrive.  Until then, she’s glad for the little things, like finding fresh fish at our Healthy Children Pantry and fresh fruits that make her young daughters smile when they bite into them.  To her, it’s about making sure her kids live a better life than hers.

“This pantry helps us save money, especially with the housing crisis. I mean look at this milk,” she says, pointing to the gallon she’ll take home today. “It would probably cost $6, and the fish would probably cost about $20.  We know this all adds up every month to big savings that I hope I can use for a healthier future for my kids.”