Using His “Why”: Q&A with Jalal Alabsi

September 19, 2023

 

Jalal Alabsi is many things: he’s a formerly-practicing doctor, he’s an immigrant from Yemen, he’s a resident of San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood. All these identities and more come together to inform his comprehensive work to end food insecurity in his community. From securing funding for halal food vouchers to lowering stigma around accessing assistance, Jalal has collaborated with organizations like our partner Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation (TNDC) to help end hunger.

Jalal’s years of successful activism are exactly why our partners at the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Center (TNDC) suggested him when the Food Bank asked for nominees for the first-ever Elevating Voices: Power Summit. Hosted by Feeding America in Washington, D.C., the Summit brought together activists who have lived experience with food insecurity and connected them with key decision makers to discuss effective solutions to hunger.

We caught up with Jalal to hear more about the Summit and his work in the Tenderloin.

 

Food Bank (FB): Before we dig into the Elevating Voices: Power Summit, let’s hear a little more about your work in the Tenderloin.

Jalal: I’ve been working to end food insecurity in my neighborhood for over five years. I started out volunteering at different places, working as a translator for folks who speak Arabic and explaining how people can use food that they weren’t culturally familiar with – I gave people recipes for mushrooms, for example.

[But I realized] that just giving out food isn’t enough – there are bigger problems than that. So, I decided to take classes at City College [of San Francisco] to be a community health worker, where I did my research project on hunger in the Tenderloin.

Now, I’ve worked with City Hall to get $500,000 in funding for halal food vouchers so Muslims can eat their preferred foods. I’ve worked with a few organizations to start the Food Policy Council to discuss hunger in the Tenderloin. [On the ground], I work every day to decrease the stigma around accessing food assistance. And I still give food directly to my neighbors.

 

FB: What inspired you to do this work?

Jalal: I live with this every day. When I first came to the US, I had problems with hunger. I feel what people are feeling when they say they are hungry. You get sick when you don’t have enough food, you can’t live even on the street without food. And now, I’ve gotten the education to be able to do something about food insecurity.

 

FB: What are the biggest barriers to ending hunger?

Jalal: One of the biggest challenges is the stigma around getting food assistance. Many people live with this, and it means they may eat only twice a day so they can afford to live on their salaries. But I explain to people, “[food assistance] is yours, you deserve this, it’s your right”.

Another challenge is CalFresh (food stamps). People need CalFresh. But it’s such a long and confusing process to apply, especially for people that don’t speak English, that for some people it just isn’t worth it.

 

FB: Tell us about the Elevating Voices: Power Summit.

Jalal: The Summit happened on July 12 and 13, and it brought together a group of activists from across the country who have lived experience with hunger.

The first day, we met with Feeding America’s CEO, Claire Babineaux-Fontenot. She wanted to hear from us: who are we, what do we do, what is the next step to end hunger? The objective was to reach a shared understanding of what the power landscape looked like – they wanted to center actual experience with hunger in finding solutions.

Overall, I would call it a long conversation. We had small breakout sessions discussing our advocacy, everything from why we do the work we do, to how we advocate for our community.

 

FB: What were your takeaways from the Summit?

Jalal: We learned how to use our “why” to create change – instead of complaining about a problem, we can turn that complaint into a policy ask. If you use your story and real examples of how you lived with hunger, if you connect feelings and emotions to suggestions for change, then you’ll be able to convince more people that your issue is important and needs to be addressed.

I met with a lot of different people with their own experience. I can see a way where we bring these learnings to San Francisco, so more people can learn how to use their experience to make change. Hunger is a huge problem. It’s different in different places, but the effects are the same.

 

FB: Is there anything else you’d like to share?

Jalal: I’m grateful to the Food Bank for supporting me in going to the Summit – it was a great opportunity to make connections with people in other states so we can share information, knowledge, and strategies.

Hunger is solvable. We have the resources. We just need to figure out how to do it.

A Familiar Face

August 24, 2023

Ring twice. Leave it at the door if there’s a note. Knock once, but loudly, he’s hard of hearing. She’ll get the door; it just takes her a while to get up.

By now, Home-Delivered Groceries volunteer Gideon has these quirks down pat. A freelance journalist by trade, he had just started remote work when the pandemic hit. Three weeks into lockdown, his friend posted on Facebook about a volunteering opportunity with the Food Bank, delivering groceries to homebound neighbors. Gideon was in: “There are things you miss doing, being work from home the whole time. This kind of fills in some of those gaps,” he told us.

Volunteering: A Social Exercise

Gideon loads grocery bags into his car for delivery.

After trying different routes, Gideon eventually chose to “Adopt a Building” or make regular deliveries to the same apartment complex each week. For three years, Gideon’s Saturday mornings have looked very similar: roll up to the Food Bank warehouse, pack his sedan with 20 grocery bags, knock on his neighbors’ doors, and deliver fresh produce, proteins, and grains from the Food Bank wagon in tow.

It’s at this apartment complex where he first met Victoria, who we met in the previous story, along with 19 other neighbors he’s come to know in the years since. For Gideon, volunteering is equal parts exercise – “a trainer once told me the best workouts are the ones that are repeatable!” – and socializing. At one apartment, he goes in to chat with a 94-year-old woman and her daughter offers him a taste-test of the noodles they’re cooking. At another, he shares that they gifted him caramel popcorn after the Warriors were in the finals last year. Even in these passing interactions, it’s clear how food and care go hand in hand.

Showing Up, Every Week

Gideon waves hello to one of the participants along his route.

“It creates a sense of membership,” Gideon said of delivering groceries each week. “You know you’re part of a community, and seeing familiar faces, there’s a type of connection. It’s made [this time] a lot less grim and lonely, without a doubt.”

As we head to make the last delivery of the day – Victoria’s apartment – Gideon shares he’s excited to sit in on the interview and learn more about her life. With 20 deliveries to make, it’s not every day he gets to sit down for a conversation with one of his neighbors. “I look forward to this,” he told us. “I have a stressful job where I don’t interact with people, and volunteering is kind of the opposite. We don’t really have that much time to talk to any [neighbors] individually, but we want to be there for them. We want to show up.”

Gideon (left) and Victoria (right) in Victoria’s building lobby

Breaking the Cycle with Homeless Prenatal Program

June 29, 2023

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Linda smiles after our conversation in HPP’s back garden

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

CalFresh Ripple Effects: Miguel’s Story

June 14, 2023

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

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

A Loss for the Community 

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

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

Meals are Best Shared 

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

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

A Positive Ripple Effect

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

Growing Food Sovereignty in the Bayview

May 24, 2023

Earth Day at Florence Fang Community Farm (FFCF) was a feast for the senses: blue skies and verdant greens offset by blooming wildflowers, the smell of soil, and the conversation of food pantry participants and farm volunteers mixing with bird calls and Chinese folk songs. 

Nestled in the heart of the Bayview, FFCF is a “community center, outdoors,” in the words of Director Ted Fang. In addition to cultivating the land, FFCF runs a farmer’s market-style food pantry that opens at 9 a.m. each Saturday to serve the community with fresh fruits, leafy green vegetables, and proteins, provided by the Food Bank. The farm also provides the harvests of the season to pantry participants! 

“A Community Center”  

As one of the most productive urban farms in the Bay Area, we’re not surprised to see swaths of volunteers showing up throughout the morning in response to FFCF’s call for an Earth Day volunteer workday. Many of the longtime volunteers arrived earlier in the day, some stopping to pick up groceries at FFCF’s food pantry, and others heading directly over to the farm to begin tending to the land.  Woman in face mask standing in front of garden plots

Some regular volunteers like Ms. Chang, who we met after picking up her groceries, have a multifaceted relationship with the farm. As a retiree, she first came to the farm in search of socialization and something to do with her free time. Since then, she’s brought her sister, daughter, and grandchildren into the fold: “I enjoy volunteering at the farm because it is a community center, but for growing food! I get my exercise through this endeavor, bring home delicious harvests, and have a lot of fun along the way. You’ll have to come visit us when we put on talent shows. We love to sing and dance.” 

Another of FFCF’s longtime volunteers, Mrs. Li, offers to take us on a tour of the farm. As we draw closer to the community plots, scattered groups of elders are hard at work watering, thinning out crops to provide adequate space for growth, and weeding the beds. True to Ms. Chang’s word, several women working on the same plot join in singing Chinese folk songs, their harmonies joyfully carrying across the farm. One volunteer is nonchalantly placing some of FFCF’s bees on the flowering pea shoots with his bare hands, so they can pollinate the crop. 

Unifying Roots  

FFCF was originally founded as a gathering space for Chinese immigrants moving into the Bayview neighborhood – a historically Black neighborhood in San Francisco. Over the years, it morphed into a space to serve the broader Bayview community. In 2020, it was renamed from the “Asian Community Garden” to “Florence Fang Community Farm” to reflect that intention, while honoring Ted’s mother and her history of civic contribution.  

Additionally, FFCF houses a Black Organic Farmers program, started by Bayview born and raised Farmer in Charge Faheem Carter. Through this model of self-directed organizing and programming of different Bayview communities, volunteers at FFCF cultivate crops native to their culture and heritage. As Ted says, “It’s important for everyone to be comfortable with the food they want to eat and have control over their food. Food sovereignty gives people control of their food, and that’s what we’re doing.” 

Food sovereignty is a radical shift for this neighborhood, as the Bayview has historically been subject to food apartheid due to racism, redlining, city neglect and disinvestment. That’s why the farm is such a critical resource for neighbors – and why the Food Bank is honored to support FFCF’s mission of bringing in even more healthy, fresh foods to the neighborhood via their food pantry.  

The Farm, Beyond Food 

The impacts of the farm go well beyond fresh vegetables to take home at the end of a workday. For many at FFCF, including many of the Chinese elders present at the Earth Day workday, volunteering has led to fruitful friendships. Some volunteers were even inspired to buy smartphones for the first time and download WeChat [a Chinese messaging app] to stay in touch after leaving the farm.  

Farming is networking: you put green onions in one plot, napa cabbage in the other, and the byproducts make the soil richer for the other crops, building networks of nutrients. And this is also reflective of communities above the ground. At its heart, this is the definition of community building. You might come to volunteer or harvest vegetables and end up also reaping the rewards of a thriving network of relationships.  

Like Mrs. Li explained to us of the abundant plant tong ho [chrysanthemum greens], “you’ll see it everywhere in the plots, because it keeps volunteering itself,” or self-seeding. In this same way, the volunteers who continue showing up, tending to the land, and making connections are creating their own abundance. 

Three Cheers for Partner Pantry Reopenings!

April 20, 2023

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

Reopening for the Community

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

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

Farmer’s Market-Style Transitions

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

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

The Heart of The Fillmore: A Q&A with Adrian Williams

March 23, 2023

On a beautiful, late Wednesday morning, we visited the Rosa Parks Senior Center, where members of The Village Project packed grocery bags to be delivered to community members, primarily senior citizens, in San Francisco’s Fillmore District, also known as the Western Addition.

As we approached several picnic tables assembled into a large rectangle, we could see Adrian Williams, Executive Director of The Village Project among her staff moving quickly through an efficient assembly line to fill green plastic bags with groceries — a typical morning for her. She has been a longtime partner of the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank, where community-based organizations that offer food as part of their other programming can come to purchase food for a few cents a pound.

The Village Project, founded seventeen years ago, began as a program to ensure the youth in the Fillmore/Western Addition communities had access to food and enrichment during the summer, when school was closed, and school lunches weren’t available. It has since evolved to include a yearly summer program for youth, afterschool program, free celebratory events for Kwanzaa and Mardi Gras, grocery deliveries to local families and seniors, and more. It’s all due to Ms. Adrian’s profound passion for youth and her unique ability to identify community needs, and tailor her approach to finding and utilizing resources.

“Ms. Adrian is an amazing part of the community who’s adapted her programming to meet the needs of the neighborhood,” said Food Bank Program Coordinator, Benson Truong. “We are lucky to have partners like her and hope to continue supporting The Village Project in their mission to feed the community.”

We caught up with Ms. Adrian during her break from the assembly line to learn more.

woman grabbing oranges to pack into plastic bags

Food Bank: Why did you start The Village Project?

Ms. Adrian: We started in 2006, during the height of violence in this community. I was working in Oakland [and] my grandbaby was growing up [in the Fillmore]. I was taking my grandbaby to school one day on California Avenue and passed by this park — [I saw people] throwing frisbees, dogs were bouncing, people on blankets. Then it dawned on me, I don’t see that in the Western Addition.

[Because I show up for my community by feeding people], I was concerned about how the babies* eat during the summer. I talked with my boss and told him that I wanted to volunteer [in the Fillmore] and feed the babies, and that’s how The Village Project started. [I would] come over on Wednesdays, knock on doors and tell the parents “Let me have your babies,” and I’d take them out on field trips to the Aviation Museum and feed them. For some, it was their first time riding BART.

Eventually, the babies would ask for more. I decided to take a leave of absence from my sales job at a Xerox dealership. My boss held my workstation for two years, [but I got hooked], so I just told him, “I can’t come back.” And that was basically the start of The Village Project.

FB: The Village Project’s website boast the Mardi Gras, San Francisco Style and Seven Days of Kwanzaa events; are there other events that The Village Project hosts?

Ms. Adrian Williams: We also have a community barbeque to kick off the summer. I’m also into the blues, honey, so we have a free blues concert.

My stuff is free, and somebody told me a long time ago that people don’t value free; I tend to disagree. I think it’s just the way you present it. People are prideful, and in the era I grew up in, pride was very important in my community.

FB: What does food mean to you?

Ms. Adrian: I grew up in the South, and we had wonderful lunches. We had real cooks in the kitchen, and we were poor. Growing up, lunch was a major meal for me. So that was one of my concerns, that the babies had food to eat. I guess that’s Southern because I’m always trying to feed people.

FB: Do you want the legacy of your work to continue into future generations?

Ms. Adrian: My daughter is the president of the Fillmore Corridor, so she’s already walking in my footsteps working with the community.

FB: It’s Women’s History Month. What does Women’s History mean for you and your community?

Ms. Adrian: I have a strong history of women [in my family]. I used to always wonder why the male person was often missing in the community, and I figured out why when we got older. In the old days, if you’re subsidizing, you could lose your income if you moved a man into your house. Well, my mother, Ruth Williams, who was the strongest person, worked three jobs, and was always astute. She literally changed legislation in the state of Louisiana to allow women on welfare to have a man stay in their household. It just amazes me how much humanity is deprived because of certain economic situations. That’s how my mother was, strong, extremely strong woman.

* When Ms. Adrian says “babies,” she is talking about young children/youth in general, not just infants and toddlers.

Volunteering: A Family Legacy

January 23, 2023

Family legacies come in all shapes and sizes: they might entail a craft or trade that spans generations of family members, a treasured recipe passed down from elders, or even an inherited love of a favorite sports team. For Andrew Lam, his family’s legacy “might just be the Food Bank.” In memory of his late mother Alice Lam, Andrew and his father Harry sponsored this year’s volunteer match that brought in more than 3500 volunteer shift sign ups – and $25,000 to benefit the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank. 

“My mother volunteered a lot, for different food banks and for her church. So, my father and I thought that [this match] would be appropriate and would honor her,” Andrew shared. 

Food is at the Heart of it All 

Andrew and Harry began donating to the Food Bank in 2020 through the Alice Lam Memorial Foundation, and they’ve remained dedicated supporters ever since.  

“We support arts, legal aid for undocumented farmworkers, all kinds of things. But food is such a basic need. What my father and I believe is: food is the most important thing. Nothing else can come unless people are fed.” 

Food is interwoven throughout Andrew’s memories of growing up, too. “It’s a huge part of our family. I have a binder with all my mother’s recipes. Food can bring people together and make people feel good, too. You know, it’s not just sustenance. It can really improve somebody’s day.” 

Teamwork Makes the Dream Work 

Already on board with the mission of the Food Bank, Andrew shared that seeing the scope of the warehouse operations in-person opened his eyes to how crucial volunteers are. Speaking on that first warehouse visit, he told us: “It was great to see how people come out to volunteer. Obviously, money goes somewhere, but it doesn’t work without the volunteers doing the actual legwork.” 

After that experience, the Volunteer Match seemed like the perfect fit. Because, as Andrew knows, sometimes time is the most valuable gift one can give: “Everybody has different ways to give back, and it’s not just about money.”  

Volunteers are what power our entire operation at the Food Bank year-round, but during the early months of the new year, participation often wanes. That’s why we’re extra grateful to announce we met the match this year – thank you to every person who signed up for a volunteer shift!  

Ending Hunger, Together 

We’re also grateful for the partnership and generosity of caring neighbors like Andrew and his father, who understand that volunteering is an easy way to have a huge impact on the well-being of our community. Andrew hopes that he and his father can continue to rally their neighbors around volunteering for the good of all.  

“It’s direct aid to our community that we live in, so it means so much more to us. And it’s part of what you owe to your community – because you want to think that if you were on the other side, other people would help you, right?” 

Emergency Allotments Make A Huge Difference

January 19, 2023

Our CalFresh team doing outreach in the community.

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.”

CalFresh Outreach Specialist Crystal Deng shows how she helps participants enroll in the program.

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.