COVID-19 has brought tremendous attention to Food Banks. Newspapers nationwide included images of long lines of cars or people standing six feet apart waiting for food at food pantries in their top images of 2020. But something is lost in those images of people waiting for hours – the people.
Participants at our pantries are more than their circumstances. They are people with families and friends, with jobs and hobbies, with hopes and fears, with sorrows and joys. And many of them – like Phillis and Lee – are full of surprises.
We first met Phillis (89) and Lee (81) in a line of cars waiting for groceries at the San Geronimo Valley Community Center’s Pop-up Pantry. They started coming to San Geronimo by way of the Community Center’s weekly senior lunch held on the same day as the pantry.
“We were friends with someone else who comes here. For weeks she kept saying you’ve got to come to the lunch, it’s great, you’ve got to come. Well finally we came,” explained Phillis. “We had lunch with her, and next door was the food pantry.”
Since coming to the pantry, they no longer need to spend money on groceries – a huge advantage considering almost half their income from Social Security goes to rent. Without it, Lee says, “we could survive.” Phillis pipes in, “but it would be very difficult.”
Despite their financial situation, they both say the real benefit of coming to the pantry has been the community.
“We are just so grateful for the San Geronimo Valley Community Center,” said Phillis. “We’ve met so many wonderful people, you can’t imagine.”
The Neighborhood Pantry: A Community Gathering
Before the events of 2020 neighborhood food pantries weren’t just the primary way the Food Bank gets food to those who need it—they were bustling, thriving communities. Regardless of if you were a volunteer or participant or both the pantry was a chance each week to catch up with friends. The farmer’s market-style meant not only that people chose the food they wanted, but that they were encouraged to mingle with their friends and neighbors before and after picking up their food.
“When you start talking to people, they may look old or they may look funny to you, but once you start talking to them, you just can’t imagine how much background there is, and just the lives they’ve led,” said Phillis. “When people say they are retired, you never hear their story.”
Lee agrees, “that’s so true. You think ‘boring’ until you know them.”
Lee and Phillis certainly were not boring, but they did have stories to tell—stories that went far beyond the pantry.
After talking to Phillis and Lee about why and how they started coming to the food pantry they mentioned they’ve only been married for three years. The two finish each other’s sentences constantly and have the banter of an old married couple, so you’d never guess it had only been three years.
Phillis said she was living in a veterans home in Yountville and “I needed a walking partner, and I heard him say he likes to walk.” Before she could say more, he chimed in, “it just grew.”
These are the kinds of stories you hear when you spend time at a pantry. At the Food Bank, our hope is food pantries will continue to foster this sense of community, and the food people receive will help to support the lives they want to lead—because everyone deserves to do more than just survive.
“I was waiting for the holidays to be with my entire family,” says Anabely, while standing in line with her two young daughters to pick up a grocery bag at the Cornerstone Church Pop-up pantry. “But now because of the virus, I won’t be able to do that.”
Like many families, Anabely, her husband, and her two daughters always reunite with their extended family during the holidays. But now because of COVID-19, they’ll have to celebrate on their own.
“Every year, we get together for the holidays and celebrate together with food,” she says. “I love making tamales and I also cook turkey. I just love cooking.”
Celebrating with Food
Food is a tradition that 2020 hasn’t taken from us. We can’t see each other in person, but we can enjoy the food we always cook around the holidays.
Like many, Mei Yu stays connected with her family via WeChat. Of course, like the rest of us, she’s sad she can’t see her loved ones in real life but isn’t letting that stop her from making the food she enjoys every year and keep it festive.
“We love having roast chicken during the holidays,” she says. “We usually season the chicken with salt, chicken powder, and soy sauce, and we cook it in the oven for 20 minutes.” “I also love making vegetable dishes, salads, and cakes to celebrate with my family. We also put eggs in the salads.”
Mei Yu never finds herself alone in the kitchen. Her husband, son, and daughter join her to make these dishes—all of which are family recipes.
Although Mei Yu considers these dishes to be simple, her family enjoy them regardless.
“I can’t celebrate with my extended family this time, but I can still enjoy these dishes and celebrate with my own family.”
Supporting Families this Holiday Season
While families are finding ways to keep their traditions alive, many still struggle to afford food. That is why the Food Bank is working hard to meet the need and even include some extras like cooking oil during the holiday season to help families continue these traditions in a special way.
“Getting food here helps us from having to purchase food I can’t afford,” says Mei Yu. “Food has gotten really expensive recently.”
Anabely feels the same way. “We’re very thankful for the food. Our whole family is very thankful. God bless the Food Bank because what they’re is doing for people like my family that need food—it’s great and it’s really helpful for people that need it and love to cook.”
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.
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.”
Volunteer after volunteer has stepped up during the COVID-19 pandemic. Prior to the pandemic, it took 1,200 volunteers each week to run our operations. Now, with new COVID-19 programming, it takes 2,000. That is an unprecedented number of new volunteers.
One of the volunteers is Leo, who is 11 years old and starting middle school this year. Leo’s mom, Amber, works at the San Geronimo Valley Community Center, and at the beginning of the pandemic, he started tagging along with her every week to volunteer at the Center’s Thursday Pop-up Food Pantry.
“I’ve just been coming along because I know that they need volunteers,” he said, adding jokingly: “and because she makes me.”
Leo and his mom have a good laugh over that. But despite any extra encouragement from Amber, Leo always has a good time when he volunteers.
“It’s pretty fun. I mean, it can get kind of exhausting because it’s really hot outside sometimes. But yeah, it’s pretty fun.”
A Strange School Year
For Leo, the Pop-up food pantry is not the only thing new in his life, he is starting middle school this year. And if middle school was not hard enough, he is doing it amid the pandemic.
“I’m excited, but I’m also not excited,” explained Leo. “I wish that I could actually start in the classroom in Middle School, but I’m going to have to be at home.”
Like many of his peers, Leo is navigating remote learning while trying to stay in touch with friends – a challenge many teenagers are currently facing.
At least he is not the only teen who volunteers at the pantry; there are several other students who regularly joined him on Thursdays in the summer. Though they aren’t his school friends, Leo says he likes meeting new people while helping out.
A Family Affair
The Food Bank has always encouraged young volunteers to join us, and we often see families volunteering together to give back while spending time together. This includes families delivering to seniors, families in our warehouses, and families like Leo and his mom, who volunteer at Pop-ups.
For other youths who are up for the hard work, it takes to pack bags and load trunks for several hours, “It helps a lot of people for the food pantry to have extra volunteers,” said Leo. “And even if you don’t like it, you can bring extra food home.”
While COVID-19 put limits on gatherings and in-person church services, Cornerstone Missionary Baptist Church in San Francisco’s Bayview district has found new opportunities for service through its Pop-up Food Pantry during this crisis.
“Although our church can’t fellowship in person and the doors for the church are closed, we like to say that the church is still open and we’re still doing the work,” explained Minister Damonn White, who spends his Thursdays at the Pop-up Pantry Cornerstone now hosts in partnership with the Food Bank.
The Pop-up at Cornerstone opened in May, making it the second Pop-up Pantry the Food Bank opened in the Bayview District after the Bayview Opera House. Each week it serves bags of fresh produce, protein, and shelf-stable items to 600 households from all over San Francisco.
The pantry may be new, but food has always been part of the ministry at Cornerstone Church. Not only do they feed about 250 families each year through their holiday food baskets, but they are also always prepared “if somebody comes to us hungry,” said Minister White. “We have families sometimes say, ‘I’ve been displaced, we need food to eat.’ We always have some food on hand.”
Challenges of COVID-19
Cornerstone Missionary Baptist Church has experienced the grief of this tragedy firsthand. When we spoke with Minister White in July, eight of his parishioners had gotten the virus, and one person had died.
Minister White explained, “the sad part of this is that when transitioning of life happens, that we’re not really able to love on people the way we would like to. But we just have to take the safety precautions, you know. We’re learning on a day to day basis, with gloves, masks, social distancing, and it’s tough. It’s tough.”
Their experience is not unique. The disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on Black and Brown communities is particularly evident in Bayview, where 31% of residents identify as Black compared to just 6% of San Francisco’s population overall. As of July, there were 192.91 cases of COVID-19 per 10,000 residents in the neighborhood – the highest infection rate of any San Francisco neighborhood.
Immediate Food Needs
The risk of the virus itself is not the only challenge for the Bayview community. In July, the Human Services Agency (HSA) conducted a survey of low-income San Francisco residents who receive its services. It found that Bayview had one of the highest percentages of people reporting that they did not have enough food in the last two weeks.
HSA also found that while 34 percent of Black respondents reported food as their most immediate post-shelter in place need, only 26 percent reported visiting a food pantry.
The Food Bank is trying to address this by working with community partners like Cornerstone Baptist Church and the Bayview Opera House to ensure there are food pantries in the neighborhood. But we know simply opening a pantry is not enough. After hearing from local residents that lines were too long, we implemented an improved line management system where individuals registered for timeslots to reduce wait times. And we will continue working with community leaders to improve our outreach to the local community.
In the meantime, Cornerstone is happy to be of service to San Francisco residents far beyond its immediate community. “We want to make sure we meet the masses. We don’t want to be considered a Black church. We’d like to be considered a community church for all.”
And if you visit the pantry Thursdays, you’ll see they’ve achieved this. The Pop-up Pantry at Cornerstone serves a diverse cross-section of people. Thanks to the welcoming environment the Cornerstone community provides, we continue to see strong interest from neighborhood residents in wanting to join.
“For me, this is what it’s really all about. It’s nice to wear a suit and get up and say an elegant speech in front of a room full of people and inspire them to live a greater, a better life,” said Minister White. “But this right here is where the rubber hits the road. For me, I’m a people person. I’m a community person. I like to do whatever I can do to help people. So today and every Thursday, when I’m here, it’s so gratifying, you know, to walk away and know, okay, we actually helped some people today.”
With 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.”
When schools closed in March, parents and caregivers were immediately left figuring out how to balance work, childcare, and homeschooling their children. For the families who relied on the Food Bank every week, there was an added layer of stress – where would they get their groceries? Prior to shelter-in-place, many families could pick up the fresh groceries at their school pantry during drop-off or pick-up. Across San Francisco and Marin, school closures caused 46 of the Food Bank’s Healthy Children food pantries to stop their weekly distributions
One such pantry was at Dolores Huerta Elementary School in San Francisco’s Mission District. When the school closed teachers and staff quickly worked to identify and contact families to let them know where they could access food. Even with new available pop-up pantries opening nearby, with vulnerable relatives at home, some families could not attend nearby Pop-up pantries. The school’s Family Liaison, Nataly Terrazas; Elementary Advisor, Luis García; School Social Worker, Sarah Volk, and school parent and pantry coordinator, Casey Federico quickly sprang into action matching families who couldn’t leave their house with volunteers who could pick up and deliver food to them. They now have 30 volunteers who trade off delivering to 13 families.
(This conversation was edited for length and clarity.)
Food Bank: How did you start partnering with us and what have you been doing since the start of the pandemic?
Casey Federico: At Dolores Huerta, which is both of my daughters’ elementary school, there was an established food pantry every Monday morning. Another parent had coordinated it before me, but their son graduated, so I took on the job of being the pantry coordinator this fall. Even before shelter-in-place, we were seeing a huge expansion in need for the pantry. We grew from a 50–person pantry last year to a 70- or 80-person pantry in November.
When the shelter-in-place happened, I was in communication with Edith, our neighborhood representative from the Food Bank, and knew everything was shifting. At the same time, I was getting all these texts and messages from families at the school saying, ‘we are about to be out of food’ There were lots of different challenging situations. And so, from discussions with the school team – Sarah, Luis, and Nataly – we found out who couldn’t leave their home for whatever reason and identified 12 families who needed food delivered. We started with a group of volunteers –families who did have transportation and could go to a food pantry and pick up a box and then deliver it to those people’s homes.
Our School Social Worker, Sarah Volk, is such an inspiration. She was just so careful and thoughtful about confidentiality. Sarah asked families who they’d be okay being paired with, because to have someone know you are receiving food from the Food Bank and then know where you live, that is a big deal. She was just super thoughtful about that and got everybody’s permission all along the line.
FB: What are you hearing from people in the community now?
CF: I’m still hearing a lot of people saying, you know, we got this [food], but it isn’t really enough. That is the hard reality. So many families that are part of our community are hospitality workers, etc.
Another amazing thing that happened is one of our teachers, her fiancé owns a restaurant and every time somebody from the community buys a meal in his restaurant, Toma, he’s donating a meal to a family in need. He’s also delivering meals. So, families are getting additional support from that too.
But what I just heard from Sarah last week, is just the numbers are increasing so much. So, we are talking about how to meet new needs. It’s really challenging.
FB: Do you talk to the families you deliver to? How are they doing?
CF: One thing that’s been really good, is a lot of relationships have been built between the families who are delivering and the families who are receiving. I know everybody’s been sending texts like, I’m going to drop it off. They text, I got it, thank you.
There’s also been some specific communication around needing health items like toothpaste and soap and tampons, and that kind of stuff. A few volunteers who have the capacity have also been sharing those types of items with families. Many of the families who are delivering are also out of work or running low on food themselves.
FB: We see this too, it’s incredible how many of our volunteers say, ‘oh yeah, I’m out of work right now and so I have free time and I’m going to do this.’
CF: I know, it just takes my breath away. One of the women who is helping deliver said ‘oh yeah, we both lost our jobs last week, but this is just so important, it’s the one trip I have purpose around. I have to do this.’
FB: Is there anything else that you wanted to share about the experience?
CF: I think the one thing that the Food Bank really does is bring together a community of people. Almost everybody who volunteered at the weekly food pantry at Dolores Huerta is also receiving a box of food. And so, I think our, our community of folks who really view themselves as part of the system were ready to jump in. The group of parents who help us to set up, fold up boxes, and do all that kind of stuff are really jumping up again to help out, which is cool.
That sort of friendly, joyful mood that was at our Monday morning pantry translates over and made people feel comfortable to be both asking and giving. I’m so proud to be part of this community!
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 family, the 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.
In the weeks since we first learned of the region-wide shelter in place order, the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank has rapidly adjusted the way we operate to meet the ever-increasing need in our community. Last week, we served 18K more households than we did four weeks ago, and this number is only growing.
None of this would be possible without the support of countless Food Bank partners, donors, and community volunteers.
We recently had the opportunity to see one of these dedicated partners, United Playaz, in action. Every week, United Playaz, a youth-led violence prevention organization, helps staff the pop-up food pantry at Bessie Carmichael Elementary school. Members of the group not only help pack up and distribute food at the pantry, but they proactively stepped up to deliver groceries to 100+ seniors in their community. These are all seniors 65 and over who used to pick up groceries at our weekly pantries.
We spoke with United Playaz Executive Director, Rudy Corpuz Jr about the group’s support of the Food Bank.
Rudy Corpuz Jr.: We are here because this is our community, we were doing this before the crisis started. We want to make sure we play our part and help out in the community for the most vulnerable population and just provide some support and help to make sure everybody is eating.
FB: Has it been hard to recruit your members during these times?
RC: Absolutely not. You know we want to give back. Our motto is: It takes the hood to save the hood. It’s our way of giving back. We’ve got different community-based organizations that have come together in solidarity under one umbrella, with no pride, no ego, just to make sure we take care of the community and the people.
And all walks of life, you know what I mean. We’ve got ex-convicts, we’ve got college students, we’ve got developers, we’ve got tech people, people who went to school, who didn’t go to school – everybody who wants to help out and put their life on the line for others.
FB: Are you concerned about your health being out here during COVID-19?
RC: Absolutely, of course, I am. I have kids. I want to make sure I’m safe, and my kids are safe, and my community is safe. But I know there is a bigger need. Somebody’s got to do it. And so, what better way…I don’t want to die, or even get sick…but what better way to put your life on the line for others in this way.
FB; Can you tell me a little about how you’ve been helping get food delivered to those who can’t come to the pantry?
RC: During this crisis, everybody knows that the most vulnerable population is the senior citizens. You have a lot of seniors in this neighborhood – South of Market District 6 – who live in their apartments and live in the hotels, the SROs, and they are scared to come out. So, what we do as service providers for the community is to find out what their need is and what they want. We go out there and ask them if they need groceries, which they do, and boom, we deliver it to them.
FB: How are you in touch with these individuals?
RC: In our community, there are already organizations that are working with seniors. We are youth-led and there are senior groups. So what I did, I brought us all together and said, “hey look here, we’re in this crisis together. You know, service providers that serve seniors, we serve kids, some people serve reentries, the Food Bank gives food, let’s all work together in solidarity to make sure we are hitting the most vulnerable population.”
So, the senior organizations will tell us who needs what. We provide the muscle and the leg power and energy, and we go out and do it.
It’s like a basketball team, everybody has to play their part on the basketball court. You have the center who is in the middle and gets the rebounds, you have the guards who bring the basketball up. And so, if everybody plays their part, we’re successful, we win.
During this crisis, these are the times that you have to stand for something that is greater than you. What a greater way to work with the food bank who provides those services. We don’t do it, they do it.
FB: But you are out here making it possible – being the arms and the legs.
RC: But I think that’s what I’m saying. You guys are like bringing up the ball. We get the ball, we put it in the hoop.
Food Bank partners and volunteers like United Playaz are making it possible for us to continue our mission. Sign up to volunteer here.