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San Francisco Food Pantry fosters connection in hard times
The state of California produces more than half of the nation’s fruits, vegetables and nuts. Still, U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics from the last few years show that more than 14 percent of Californians are food insecure. Food security is a term that describes a person or family’s access to adequate and nutritious food.
In the Bay Area, food assistance programs have seen record numbers of applicants, while their budgets and donations have steadily decreased. Despite these challenges, Bay Area food banks continue to feed people through a network of more than 1,500 food pantries, children's programs, shelters, soup kitchens, residential programs, and other emergency food providers.
Together, these programs serve over 600,000 people a month. Many of them would not exist without the help of thousands of volunteers. The Food Pantry at Saint Gregory's of Nyssa Church in San Francisco's Potrero Hill neighborhood is one of these programs that's completely run by volunteers. It's also an example of a program bringing people together by sharing food.
Outside the Food Pantry, a handful of languages can be heard: Cantonese, Shanghainese, Russian, Spanish, English. People wait in line to pick up the free groceries that are given out every Friday to about 500 people. The recipients come from all over the city and are not restricted to specific zip codes as at some other pantries.
Sara Miles founded the Food Pantry 11 years ago, inspired by the vision of community she found at St Gregory’s. She says she found herself at church almost by accident, but felt at home immediately.
“I came to church … and I was fed and welcomed without particularly deserving it, or knowing what I was doing there,” she remembers.
That first experience made Miles want to become a part of the church. And now she really is. She's Saint Gregory's Director of Ministry.
The diversity in the line outside the Food Pantry is matched by an equal diversity inside the church. The volunteers who run the pantry are from many different backgrounds. They start arriving at 8am to organize and prepare groceries. The bounty is impressive, with piles of red bell peppers, oranges, bags of broccoli florets, cabbages, tomatoes, cantaloupes, dried fruit, brown rice, canned beans, bread, and frozen salmon filets.
The volunteers take several hours to sort and prepare the groceries for distribution. Then they break for a communal lunch before the first wave of recipients comes in at noon. The whole atmosphere of the place is joyous and friendly, with people smiling and chatting as they work. Miles, a former line cook, cherishes this camaraderie.
“I love the way that kitchens bring together all kinds of people, which is what you see here at the food pantry. It’s just astonishing who comes here: old Filipina evangelicals and young gay kids and Black church ladies and Latina moms and Chinese retirees. Everybody is working here and it has that kind of spirit that you get in a kitchen: where everybody is going far too fast, and making jokes and teasing each other, and eating,” says Miles.
A lot of the pantry’s volunteers first came to get food, and ended up staying to help. Dahlia Raglan was an unemployed college student five years ago, when she found herself in need. A friend told her Saint Gregory's gave out free food.
Volunteer Nirmala Cadiz helps out in the church’s kitchen. She also started out in the line.
“Actually, I was in a bad place, and I needed some food. Like everybody else," says Cadiz.
Eventually she asked Miles if she could help out. She's been volunteering for about 8 years.
St. Gregory’s is one of over 200 food pantries in the city. Since the recession, more and more people are depending on these pantries but the government support that they in turn depend on is being cut at every level. Last year, the federal government cut $150,000 of funding for the San Francisco Food Bank, which supplies most of the city’s pantries. The city and county no longer qualify for funding, under revised poverty and unemployment criteria. Meanwhile, San Francisco is encountering record numbers of needy people. While those people are still being fed, everyone is feeling the pinch.
Michael Reed is the director of operations for the Food Pantry, which is also a volunteer position. He says that just two years ago the Food Pantry was able to provide groceries that would last for a whole week. Now, he says, they can only provide food for about 2 days.
“That’s a big difference. It’s not the Food Bank’s fault either, because their donations are way down," Reed explains. "And of course the lines are getting bigger. And bigger and bigger and bigger.”
One of the reasons those lines are growing is that now more of the “working poor” can’t afford food. Founder Sara Miles says many people who have come to the pantry in the past few years never thought they would have to ask for help. She says that people who access the pantry do have jobs, they just happen to be low-wage jobs. She has also seen an increase in the numbers of retired and elderly people who are living on fixed incomes and just cannot afford food.
In the line outside the church, Charles Battat and Vera Pearce, an elderly couple say they are in that very situation. The two used to be ballroom dancers in their younger days, but now Battat has severe arthritis, and Pearce suffers from memory loss. They receive social security, but it is not enough to cover all of their expenses, so they have been coming to the Food Pantry for the last two years.
Also in line is Sushila Mulchandra, a widow. Since she walks with difficulty, a volunteer helps her up the stairs ahead of more able-bodied clients.
“I have no income at all, I don’t get food stamps, nothing. It’s very sad. I’m quite happy coming here, once a week, at least whatever I can get to eat, that’s all,” Mulchandra says.
As patrons make their way into the church to fill their bags with groceries and fresh produce, I see a lot of smiles. Volunteers greet many of the patrons by name, and an atmosphere of familiarity and laughter permeates the air. Music is playing in the background, and the vibe feels more farmers market than bread line.
Founder Sara Miles explains the importance of this camaraderie at the Food Pantry.
“People have a huge hunger to give as well as to receive,” she says. “They want to be part of a community, and they want to reach out beyond themselves and create something together.”
Miles says that this kind of communion -- where the giver and the receiver both benefit from the act of giving -- is exactly what she had in mind when she founded the Food Pantry.