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.”

“Not Part-time Employees”

June 28, 2022

CalFresh is supposed to be the first line of defense against hunger, but that’s often not the case for college students. For Dustin and Anthony, two among thousands of college students facing food insecurity, the Federal EATS Act would make a huge difference. Dustin is an LGBT Studies major and first-generation college student at City College of SF. Like many other students, Dustin turns to the Food Bank to stock his fridge and pantry. CalFresh isn’t an accessible option for him because of the work requirements and red tape in the application process. “I do not have the support of parents sending me through college, so I utilize the Food Bank when I don’t have funds,” Dustin told us at Rosa Parks Pop-up Pantry in March.  

School Comes First 

Anthony is a graduate student at UCSF, currently in his second year of the dentistry program. He’s been a recipient of CalFresh on and off since 2018. When we spoke on the phone, he laid out his simple problem with the work requirement for students. “When you’re in a rigorous academic program, you don’t really have much time to study if you’re working to make ends meet. It puts a lot of stress on students who are now focusing more on working instead of studying. We are full-time students, not part-time employees.”  

Not Enough Time in the Day 

For students who come from low-income backgrounds, a college degree holds the promise of less financial struggle in the future. Getting that degree, however, is not easy. And dedicating 20 hours of precious study time a week to a job, just so that you can buy groceries, doesn’t make it any easier. It’s a vicious cycle that forces students to choose between their studies and their survival. That’s why students like Anthony are such strong supporters of passing the Federal EATS Act. “I know countless friends and family members who are college students and could greatly benefit from CalFresh. With the EATS Act, if we remove these barriers then people will have much easier access to food.” 

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. 

Paying a High Price: Inflation Impacts

June 2, 2022

On a hot Wednesday afternoon in May, Victoria arrived at Rosa Parks Pop-up Pantry to pick up groceries like a gallon of milk, white mushrooms, and green onions for the older gentleman she provides home care for. She carried the bags out to the sidewalk and then paused to chat for a few minutes, shielding her face from the sun and setting down her heavy groceries. We learned she’s lived in San Francisco for Victoria holds up her milk and grocery bagthe past 40 years, and understandably, she’s seen the city change a lot in her time here. “When I came here [in the 80s], you could buy a thousand wonders for $50. You could fill the refrigerator for at least a month [for $50]. Now, everything is so expensive. There are times when there’s not enough to buy food. It’s terrible.”  

Working as a gardener and caretaker for seniors, San Francisco has been her home – the place where she says, with a twinkle in her eye, she has lived her “most beautiful life.” But while Victoria has seen SF through its fair share of economic ups and downs over the decades, including high inflation in the 80s, the current climate is unlike anything she’s seen before. These days, she’s trying to focus on the fact that “I’m okay, and the gentleman I take care of is okay – that’s what gives me peace.” 

With grocery prices up 10% in the SF metro area, and gas prices soaring alongside them (up 43% compared to this time last year), the Food Bank is a lifeline for our community in this particularly challenging time.  

Shrinking Savings 

Like Victoria, many folks are worried. Every week we speak with community members like Arnoldo, who echo this feeling of constantly falling behind. Arnoldo has been coming to Cesar Chavez Pop-up Pantry ever since his small package delivery business in the Mission was forced to close during the pandemic. Without the income from his business, Arnoldo is left looking for work as a painter and scraping together what he can. He rents a room from a friend, but even sharing a space is expensive.  

“Right now I don’t have a job, and all my bills are so high. The little savings I had, went straight to rent,” he said, shaking his head.  

Impossible Choices 

Sharon lives just a short walk from Rosa Parks Pop-up Pantry, and the groceries she picks up have been a huge help – she even told her friend Clifton about it, and now they come to the pantry together. But that doesn’t mean it’s erased the rest of her worries, especially operating on a fixed budget due to her disability income.  

“We’re forced to make choices, you know? I literally don’t go grocery shopping. I can’t afford to. I’m caught, stuck between the choice of paying my housing and utility costs and purchasing food. So, I literally gave up on purchasing food, and without the Food Bank…” she trailed off, but the implication is obvious.  

“Really Rough Right Now” 

For Anna, sticker shock is just another worry on top of caregiving and supporting her parents, who are both disabled. Her dad needs 24/7 care, but hiring a full-time caregiver is financially out of reach. “My parents only get Social Security, and it isn’t enough, so I have to help them with rent,” she said. RightAnna holds her groceries in front of the park now, Anna is working anywhere from six to seven days a week as a nurse at Highland Hospital, and teaching UCSF nursing students as well. She stops by Cesar Chavez Pop-up Pantry to pick up food for her parents on her one day off.  

She leaned against the fence for a little support, watching kids play in the park next to the pantry while telling us about her situation. “It’s really rough right now. Everything is going up in price. It’s affecting me too, because I have to pay my own rent, my own food, the car and insurance – everything is going up in price now. I went to the store and the prices are crazy.”  

Take Action  

If you’re wondering why we’re still seeing so many folks at our pantries, two years into the pandemic – this is your answer. The pandemic has exacerbated issues that were already present – a housing/homelessness crisis, a cost of living that outpaces wages, the highest income inequality in the nation – and introduced new ones, like lingering isolation and mental health impacts from shelter-in-place. 

That’s why we must keep pushing for comprehensive social safety nets that ensure the safety, dignity, and health and well-being of all in our community.  

Reality Check 

Over the course of our conversation, Anna grew reflective. She explained that growing up in Ukraine, she held an idealized image of life in the US – one that dissolved almost immediately when she moved to San Francisco in ‘95.  

“I think before [my family] moved here, we thought a little differently about this country. Once we got here….it’s not as easy to live here as people think it is. When they show the US back home, it [seems] so glamorous, like money comes from the trees. When people move here, it’s a very different story.” 

We owe it to our neighbors and ourselves to contend with that reality. Volunteer. Advocate. Donate.

Volunteering is a Family Matter

April 20, 2022

Walking through their new neighborhood in early January, 19-year-old Jiakuang and his mother Cui Wei noticed a group of volunteers busily preparing bags of food in the parking lot of Cornerstone Missionary Baptist Church in Bayview. Salsa, rap, and pop music blared from a speaker, and the sun beamed down on volunteers as they packed bags, broke down boxes, and handed out groceries. The pace was quick, and the bags were heavy, but the mood was decidedly upbeat. 

“We live near here, and we saw them delivering the food. And we saw the [volunteers] were very tired because many people need to come here to get their food. So, we came to volunteer and help them,” said Jiakuang.  

They soon came to realize that this busy bustle of activity is routine for Cornerstone on Thursday mornings; Food Bankers and volunteers start to gather at 11am, chatting while waiting for the trucks. Once the trucks arrive, everyone springs into action: staffers expertly unload pallets from the trucks and volunteers coordinate assembly lines amongst themselves, quickly sorting rice before filling bags to the brim with fresh produce like broccoli, sweet potatoes, and oranges, and proteins like chicken breast. 

Meeting Their Neighbors 

This Pop-up Pantry, which is hosted by Cornerstone in partnership with the Food Bank, recently began inviting participants who had time to volunteer. Every Thursday, Jiakuang, Cui Wei, and often his father Mother and son duo volunteer at a food pantry.Wei Zong join other participant-volunteers in providing healthy groceries to their neighbors while also receiving food assistance themselves. For Jiakuang and his family, Thursday mornings at Cornerstone have been a time not only to receive and distribute food, but to mingle, talk, and laugh with other volunteers and food bankers.  

“We come here to make friends with others, and we tell our neighbors to come here and volunteer as well.” 

Thanks to other volunteers, Jiakuang was introduced to a non-credit course at the City College of San Francisco, which he is now enrolled in. He and his family have also been learning more about their new neighborhood by chatting with other neighbors, both volunteers and food bankers. “I’m new here, so I didn’t know too much about the US. I came to the pantry, and they told me about the City College. And when we talk with each other, I can practice my English, which is the most important [to me].” 

Rising Costs and Supply Chain Challenges  

Jiakuang and his parents first applied to come to the US in 2008. Just as they were making plans to finally secure visas in 2020, COVID-19 hit and caused the U.S. Consulate in Guangzhou, China to close, forcing Jiakuang and his parents to delay their plans to immigrate to the US for two more years. In January 2022 they made the long-awaited trek from Guangzhou to San Francisco. While Jiakuang and his family continue looking for new jobs, the pantry has helped offset high food prices caused by inflation and supply chain issues.  

“We get food here, so we don’t have to get too much from the market. This [food pantry] reduces the burden because we are new here, and food is expensive.”  

Grocery prices in the Bay have increased by nearly 4% since December 2021, and the USDA predicts that prices will continue to rise throughout 2022. The chicken that Jiakuang looks forward to has been especially impacted by inflation – the price consumers are paying for poultry is predicted to rise another 4-7% in 2022. “My favorite meal is [chicken] drumsticks – my mom can make them really delicious with soy sauce and Coke.”  

You Can’t Learn When You’re Hungry 

For Jiakuang, an aspiring IT engineer whose current focus is preparing for the credit course in the fall, receiving food from Cornerstone gives him more time to dedicate to his studies. And he isn’t alone; as he notes, “many students are in the same situation as me.” 

Evidence backs this up: a recent study found that college students were 6 times more likely to experience food insecurity during the pandemic than their fully employed counterparts.  

It Takes a Community 

We know that healthy food is essential to student success, both in and outside of school. But we can’t underestimate the value of a healthy community. The participants, volunteers, and pop-up staff at Cornerstone all play a critical role in communicating, listening to, and meeting the needs of the neighborhood; it’s this kind of collaboration that is so vital towards building a hunger-free community.  

For Jiakuang, volunteering alongside his new neighbors means being part of the solution. 

“I think it’s meaningful. I wish more people would come here to volunteer because many people need to get food, and they can also contribute to the Food Bank.”  

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.” 

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.” 

 

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.”