Michael Wirkkala is the Chief Operating Officer at the Food Bank. He has been directing everything from our needs assessment to planning to being an ambassador in the community for the project. We sat down with him to learn more about what’s going on behind-the-scenes with the project.
Q: Why is the Food Bank expanding?
A: The short answer is that hunger is growing, and we want to serve more people. The longer answer is that we’ve occupied our current warehouse since 1997; we were bursting at the seams before COVID, and since the pandemic, it has become even more critical to expand our facilities. The building was originally intended to support the distribution of 30 million pounds of food per year, and pre-COVID, we were handling 48 million pounds. Since the pandemic began, that number has jumped up to 56 million. The expansion will enlarge the site by approximately 32,000 square feet and allow us to grow our annual food distribution to 75 million pounds, serving up to 200,000 people per week.
Q: How has the pandemic impacted the expansion?
A: We were already almost five years into planning and designing the expansion when COVID hit. Since then, we’ve doubled the number of families we serve at our pantries, and we dramatically grew our Pantry At Home program from 250 participants to almost 12,000 seniors and people with disabilities. The lack of space has been costly and requires additional coordination.
Given that the warehouse was already stretched beyond capacity, we erected a makeshift tent in the parking lot, then rented additional warehouse space, then another, then another, and then another. Managing inventory for eight separate warehouses has been incredibly complex. In addition to the cost related to space, transportation, and coordination, we’ve been less efficient than we could be if we were all in one warehouse.
Q: How much will the expansion cost, and where will the money come from?
A: The total price tag is $40 million. The support from donors has been incredible, and we’ve already raised 90% of the $40 million. People have been especially generous during the pandemic as COVID has left thousands of people out of work. The need to expand is even more urgent, as the economic effects of the pandemic are not going away anytime soon.
Q: Has the community been involved in the planning process?
A: After we had done some initial planning and drafted our initial designs, we solicited feedback from the community. Because of their input, we’ve improved our designs to provide additional pedestrian safety and much easier and efficient truck access to the site which will result in less traffic congestion. We now have unanimous support from key neighborhood groups such as the Dogpatch Neighborhood Association, the Potrero Boosters, and the Green Benefit District.
Q: Will the construction alter your food distribution services?
A: Our goal is to not disrupt the flow of food to the community. When we expanded our Marin warehouse, there was no disruption. This will be a complex renovation given our current footprint, and we will temporarily have to back trucks into Pennsylvania Avenue. We’ll have flag people on the streets for safety, and trucks will be staged off-site until we are ready. It will require a lot of strategic planning to ensure we can get food to the community without adding traffic congestion to our neighborhood.
Q: When will the construction be complete?
A: As you might imagine, the pandemic has slowed the process. Permitting from the City has been significantly delayed as those offices were closed for months. We hope to break ground in the spring of 2021 and complete construction in 2022. It’s going to be very exciting to open our new doors. The building will be beautiful, but more importantly, it will allow us to meet the needs of the community, making a difference in people’s lives.