BayArea.com is sponsoring Taste of the NFL, a charity event that has raised more than $24 million over 24 years for food banks across the country, including three in the Bay Area. We decided to meet some of the people who help get those funds where they need to go.
By the time the kid with a Yoda backpack (Luke-on-Dagobah style) walks in, things are already a little rowdy. He and his friends scurry and shove while the girls cluster in a corner on the floor. Their mothers are exchanging the week’s gossip, and everywhere people are recognizing each other and calling across the room. Younger couples sit close together, the women in tights and their boyfriends in high-end down jackets. A teenager leans on the wall and frowns at her phone. An old-timer lingers at the edge of the group, serene and aloof from the commotion of a hundred people crammed into this small-ish break room on a gray Saturday morning. It’s not raining just now, but outside this bleak little borderland between Potrero Hill and Dogpatch is still soggy and cold after a week of the stuff.
Senior Project Leader Robert Alvarez waits a few minutes past the 9 a.m. start time before climbing onto a seat and sending his voice out in a boom that cuts through the din and quiets the room.
“Thanks for coming out to volunteer with us today at the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank,” he begins with one of his friendly, if slightly lopsided smiles. “Hands up if you’ve been here before.” Half the hands in the room shoot up. “Hands up if this is your first time.” A scattering go up, including my own. “And hands up if you’re not going to put your hand up no matter what I say.” A handful of kids raise their hands and giggle, and Alvarez giggles himself.
“Today we’re going to be in two teams. One will be sorting apples and oranges and the other will sort out some other types of food into boxes for some senior citizens. We’re going to break into groups, so if you want to be with your friends, stick together. If you don’t want to be with anyone, get as far away as you can.” And with that he leads us out into the warehouse, shelves stacked high with boxes, the forklifts arranged around other machinery, muted boomboxes on the walls. Uniformed employees wait like handlers in a sheep pen.
Within minutes we’ve been split into groups and arranged along a production line that will construct, pack, tape and stack boxes of rice, canned fruit, beans, salmon, chili, long-life milk and cereal for senior citizens who would otherwise go hungry because of meager pensions. I take a position beside a pallet stacked with boxes of rice. My job is to open the boxes and keep a steady supply to the person in front of me, who’ll be placing a bag in each box as it goes by. That person happens to be about 3 feet tall, but she’s taking her job very seriously, carefully placing each bag into each box like a benevolent princess while her mom chats to a friend across the line.
I hand my empty boxes over the production line to a group of 10-year-old boys on box duty. They were the first to sign up when our supervisor, Vladimir (self-described “big ugly guy with the good taste in music”), asked for volunteers to “break things.” They attack every box with enthusiastic ferocity, but paper cuts take their toll and by halftime, their mothers have taken over.
What’s amazing about all of this is how Alvarez and his small team have, in the space of 15 minutes, transformed a ragtag group of overly enthusiastic volunteers — ranging from ages 8 through 78 — into a relatively cohesive unit, churning out boxes of food and produce at an almost-industrial rate.
“Over the years you refine the tactics of what’s going on,” says Alvarez toward the end of the morning’s shift, sitting in the now-empty break room. “Like today, I was expecting about 90 volunteers and I ended up with a little over 100.” With his mustache and his long dark hair in a loose braid down his back, Alvarez seems permanently at ease. He smiles a lot. He seems to posses infinite reserves of patience. His laugh comes easy. “Sometimes it’s a bit of a challenge because some days, like today, we have younger groups,” he goes on, “and their attention span is … not that great.” He laughs again. “But they are willing to help. You’ve just got to make it fun and interesting.”
“They like to put the stickers on the apples. It’s putting on a ‘sticker’ for them, but they’re putting on the ‘labels’ for us.”
Back on the production line, someone has given the miniature rice handler in front of me a step to stand on, and now that she doesn’t have to reach up on tiptoes to get at the rice bags her productivity has shot up. All of a sudden I don’t have so much time to chat to the young professional at the station beside me. His name is Anu and he’s been in San Francisco for three years, a veritable lifetime in some circles.
For his part, Alvarez has lived in this area all of his 33 years, and currently resides in Bernal Heights with his parents and younger siblings. “My mom has a day care at home, so even when I’m not here sometimes when I’m at home I see little kids running around the house. So I’m always involved with kids.”
He’s been working at the food bank for 10 years, and was a regular volunteer long before that. He’s seen a lot of people walk through the doors — the food bank lists around 30,000 volunteers — and he greets his regulars by name. “The most interesting part about my job is all the different volunteers that want to come and help out,” he says. At one point during our chat, an elderly lady comes in to ask Alvarez something. She spots my voice recorder and says she has one of her own.
“What for?” asks Alvarez.
“For singing. I’m in a band,” she smiles, and leaves us unsure of whether she was joking or not.
After a brief rest break, we’re back on the floor and slugging away once more. The kids have calmed down now, concentrating on getting through the last one-and-a-half hours while their parents chat over the cans, bags and boxes moving through their hands. We chat with members of a church group, some Scouts and a handful of parents who bring their kids along once a fortnight, once a month, or whenever they can.
“When I was growing up, this was never a school requirement,” says Alvarez, “and nowadays it is. It helps them understand that there are people out there that might not be doing so good as them, and that they can always help each other out.”
The most rewarding part of Alvarez’s job is knowing that the food he’s handling will be in somebody’s home within three days. “It’s an immediate impact that you’re making out there in the community,” he says.
The Food Bank’s biggest challenge at the moment is space. “Demand (for food bank services) has increased because people are having to work harder to make ends meet, and are realizing that they can use the help,” says Alvarez. “So instead of them choosing between paying a bill, paying rent or deciding if they should buy food, now they can go to one of our agencies or pantries and pick up some fresh fruits, vegetables, some dairy, some meat. And they’re able to pay their bills and relax a bit.”
Our shift winds up at midday and we troop out into a gray afternoon, eager to relax away the rest of our Saturday. Alvarez, who has been at work since 6:30 a.m., still has to train another crop of volunteers, run their shift and pack up before he goes home. He works Tuesday through Saturday, although he says right now “it seems like I’m here every day.”
Still, he maintains that the Food Bank wouldn’t be operational without volunteers. Those 30,000 registered volunteers equate to a workforce of 71 full-time employees, and the money saved on wages buys more food for people who need it. About 47 million pounds of food was delivered in 2015 by Alvarez, the Food Bank staff, community partners and volunteers, and he says they’re on track to deliver 48 million pounds in 2016.
For anyone else, handling that much food with a workforce of volunteers who must be trained two or three times per day would be something to brag about. For his part, Robert Alvarez just seems to enjoy welcoming new faces, bantering with the familiar ones and knowing that he’s making a difference in his community.
You can — and should! — sign up for a volunteer shift at the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank here.