Emergency Allotments Make A Huge Difference

January 19, 2023

Imagine being 80 years old, retired, and getting by in San Francisco with income from your pension and Social Security – just $1,789 needs to cover $1,000 for rent and utilities, plus other expenses. Now imagine you are also the guardian for your three-year-old granddaughter. How do you cover all the costs?

This is the reality for Mrs. S*, who applied for CalFresh with the help of the Food Bank’s CalFresh Outreach Specialist Crystal Deng. Mrs. S initially applied on her own, but the bureaucracy was confusing, and she missed some steps. Her application was denied.

Mrs. S’s experience is not unique. The CalFresh application process is convoluted and cumbersome – if you forget a piece of verifying information or miss a call from a county official, you can lose out on benefits. That’s where the Food Bank’s CalFresh Outreach Team comes in. Crystal helped Mrs. S, like hundreds of other participants, apply and get approved for benefits. Now Mrs. S can afford more fruit, vegetables and other healthy food for her and her granddaughter.

“CalFresh helps participants alleviate their financial stress,” shared Crystal. “Benefits also help them increase access to healthier food and have extra money to stretch their food budget so they can choose the food they like.”

But our CalFresh Outreach Team is worried. During the pandemic, emergency allotments put even more money in the pockets of those receiving benefits. The average recipient in California was receiving $262 per month as of January 2022, an increase from $141 in 2019. Unfortunately, those allotments will expire in February.

“The cost of living in San Francisco is very high and people are struggling with jobs, housing and food,” shared Crystal. “Right now, with the [pandemic-era] emergency allotment the average person is receiving $262. That makes a huge difference.”

Without the allotments some people qualify for as little as $23 a month. Pre-pandemic, Crystal often heard people tell her the application wasn’t worth it for such a low amount – $23 doesn’t buy much in the Bay Area.

The end of emergency allotments will be a major blow for our community – San Francisco households receiving CalFresh will lose an average of $160 per month. There are 72,000 households in San Francisco that receive CalFresh that will need be seeing the rug pulled out from under them next month. Our Policy and Advocacy team is advocating for greater benefit amounts that better reflect the high cost of living in our community, and stronger safety nets and support for food programs like ours. In the meantime, Crystal and others on our CalFresh Outreach Team will continue assisting our neighbors to ensure they receive the benefits they both deserve and need to support their families.

 

* Name changed for privacy, at request of participant.

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.

The F-Word (Not That One!)

December 9, 2022

With the holidays in full swing, there’s a lot of talk about family. But what does family truly mean?   

As our community shares below, it’s not just blood ties, and it’s not just the relatives you see twice a year. Family can really be found wherever you look: in senior housing, at a food pantry, down the street, and at your table. And unsurprisingly, food and family intersect more often than not.  

Building Relationships after Retirement

Cui Juzhu (left) and Hui Yu (right)

Cui Juzhu and Hui Yu are both retirees with a penchant for feeding others. Not only are they volunteers at the same SoMa food pantry where they pick up their groceries, but both women find a way to spread the love to neighbors who live in their senior housing building. “Some of my friends have disabilities, so they can’t come and walk to the pantry. So, I pick up my groceries, cook for my family, and then the rest I share with [my friends],” explained Hui Yu, who is a retired restaurant kitchen worker.  

Cooking for others is an act of love; it’s saying, “you are family to me.” And it’s this kind of care that stretches to nourish whole families, friend groups, neighbor networks, and communities.  

Found at a Pantry: “Second Family” 

In sociology, there’s something called a “third place,” that describes a social environment outside of work or home where folks can congregate, see familiar faces, and build community. For María, the Friday food pantry in the Mission where she’s volunteered and picked up groceries for the past 10 years is a little of all the above. 

“I learn their names and their families. Some of them bring me food or coffee when it’s cold, and that’s really heart-touching. It feels good to know that someone else is watching over you. That someone cares about you, even when they are not even close-related, or cousins. They are like my second family.” 

We often say that good food transforms lives. María shows us it’s no exaggeration — good food is a pathway to building community and building family.  

Friends, Neighbors, Pantry Partners

Janet and Bob are obviously close friends and neighbors: they finish each other’s sentences, tease each other, and laugh together. And as many folks can attest, friends are really chosen family. Both born and raised San Franciscans and retirees, Bob began giving Janet rides to their neighborhood food pantry in Stonestown where they pick up groceries together.   

When we spoke in late October, Bob told us how he “fixes things for the neighborhood. I do all types of repairs – I worked in Silicon Valley for 30 years, so I know all about it.” Fences, wall dividers, you name it: folks in the neighborhood know to come to Bob for a repair. Janet, a retired caregiver, chimed in playfully: “I call Bob the house doctor.”  

When folks don’t have to guess where their next meal will come from, it’s a lot easier to devote energy to investing in your community and friendships – something that Bob and Janet clearly do in equal measure.    

Sharing Space, Creating Memories 

For Sharon, who we met at her neighborhood pantry in the Fillmore, it’s no sweat if the people gathering for her holiday feast are biological kin or not – it’s the act of coming together in a shared space to prepare a meal that creates family.   

“Family is everything, you know? I’ve raised a pretty considerable amount of kids. I have four biological kids; I also have two foster children. And depending on my circumstances, I may accumulate a few more children at the table, it doesn’t matter. I’ve been a parent for a long time. After two kids, it doesn’t matter how many people sit at my table. It’s a joy, it’s a blessing. It’s a chance for us to connect when we all sit down together and eat, and I love that. The holidays are always great. It just feels good, when you and your family can sit down to a healthy meal and something that you enjoy. These memories are going to last a lifetime. It makes it all worthwhile.”  

Happy Holidays and New Year

With that, we at the Food Bank would like to wish you happy holidays and a joyful start to 2023! We hope you’re able to take some time this month to sit down to a delicious, home-cooked meal that’s prepared with love. And we hope you can celebrate with family – whoever that may be. 

See you in the New Year! 

Our Community Cookbook: Holiday Recipes and Stories

November 15, 2022

How many of our favorite holiday memories revolve around food? Spanning different cultures, regions and families, food is at the center of our tables and our traditions, especially during this time of year. So, inspired by the season, we set out to ask Food Bank staff, volunteers, and our community what some of their favorite holiday recipes and food-related memories are. Please enjoy this collection of stories and tasty treats – and let us know if you make any!

Hui Yu’s Soy Sauce Turkey and Potatoes

We met Hui Yu at her neighborhood pantry in the SOMA district, where she volunteers regularly and picks up groceries for her and her husband as well. Prior to retirement, Hui Yu worked in a restaurant kitchen, so she’s no stranger to feeding others. Now, she often cooks meals for friends in her senior living facility who can’t make it out to the pantry. Poultry was at the top of Hui Yu’s list as a holiday main: “With chicken, sometimes I’ll roast or fry it. Or, we’ll have the whole family over and then celebrate together with a turkey. On the outside, I’ll use Chinese soy sauce, put it all over the skin, massage it, and then inside, put some potatoes.” Sounds delicious!

Katherine’s Pfeffernüsse

Katherine, Donor Database Coordinator at the Food Bank, shared a Pfeffernüsse recipe (German spiced cookies) that brings back the memories of a winter trip with friends years ago. “One of the joys of food for me is that it can so easily evoke memories and sensations from good times with those I love, or on adventures in places I love. Pfeffernüsse will always remind me of the Christmas I spent in Berlin visiting friends. One bite and I’m suddenly coming in from the biting cold to have a small treat of the spiced cookie and a cup of hot tea after my daily ritual of wandering through the neighborhood Weihnachtsmarkt. The glazed version is common, but I also like them with a dusting of powdered sugar or just plain.” Keep scrolling for her full recipe!

Barbara’s Okra, Cornbread, and Sweets

Barbara, a senior living in the Fillmore who picks up groceries at her neighborhood pantry, sees the holidays as an opportunity. “My favorite recipes for the holidays are things you don’t make on a regular basis, traditional recipes that comes down from your family. My favorite recipe that was passed down to me is my mother’s okra.” At first thoughtfully pondering what else makes up her usual holiday table, Barbara began quickly listing other favorites: “I’m a dessert person, so I make lemon pies, coconut pineapple cake, peach cobblers and banana puddings. Oh, and cornbread dressing! Because there’s no recipe for that – it has the basics, the trinity: onion, pepper, celery. But it’s more of a feeling. So, the trick to that is to make a scratch cornbread.” We agree. Often, the best recipes aren’t written down or in a cookbook – they’re a feeling, or a memory.  

Steve’s Turkey Dinner

“I think holiday meals are always a way of coming together with family,” Steve told us at his neighborhood pantry. He’s a military retiree and a volunteer at his local pantry, where he also picks up groceries for him and his wife. For his family, the holidays are about the joining of different traditions. “I have a traditional turkey dinner, where I usually go up to my sister’s house for Thanksgiving. And then I host a turkey dinner for my wife’s family. My wife’s Chinese, so we tend to do Chinese vegetables, mashed potatoes and cranberries [on the side].”

Kim’s Naw Mai Fan

As Program Manager at the Food Bank, Kim is around good food quite a bit! But nothing quite compares to her family recipe for naw mai fan. “This is my mom’s recipe. She learned how to make this from my grandmother, an immigrant from the Toisan region of China in Guandong province. My grandmother came to San Francisco’s Chinatown right after World War II, where she raised my mother. We make naw mai fan every Thanksgiving and Christmas and it is my all-time favorite food.” Full recipe is included below, so please let us know if you give it a try!

María’s Ponche con Piquete

Sharing is caring! María is a mom, volunteer, and pantry participant in San Rafael. She told us that her family embraces potlucks during the holidays, but also for camping trips and other gatherings throughout the year. “Our tradition for Christmas is to get the whole family together, and everyone brings a little something. Someone brings the pozole, someone else the tamales, the champurrado, the ponche. We make ponche con piquete, like we call it back home – it’s made from fruit, and you add wine to your liking.” 

 

 

This is just a small sampling of the wide variety of food traditions in our community – a huge thank you to all who shared with us! To neighbors across San Francisco and Marin, we wish you a happy holiday season. We hope some of these recipes and stories inspire your next culinary adventure!

Detailed Recipes

Thank you to Katherine for sharing her Pfeffernüsse recipe. Here it is, in full: 

 

Thank you to Kim for sharing her family’s naw mai fan recipe. Here it is, in full:

 

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.”