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Economy, Business, Labor

How Mother Brown’s Brought The Dining Room To The People

Mother Brown's
Azul Dahlstrom-Eckman
Gwendolyn Westbrook In Her Office At Mother Brown's Dining Room

In the middle of Mother Brown’s Dining Room, Tashara White stands by a wooden table in her apron, mask, and gloves. She’s surrounded by boxes of seafood.

“So right now the crab was just delivered, and as you see it's frozen. I’m separating it and putting three in each bag to give out to the families,” says White.

Mother Brown's
Azul Dahlstrom-Eckman
Tashara White prepares bags of food for home deliveries.

White supervises the Free Groceries Program for Mother Brown's Dining Room. Once a month, she loads up a delivery van and drops bags of food at seniors’ doorsteps in and around San Francisco’s Bayview neighborhood. Besides crab, there’s other food, mostly canned, like tuna fish, grits, vegetables or breakfast cereals.

White has gotten to know many of the seniors on her delivery route. Today, she signs up some of their neighbors, including 62-year-old Reginald DeRosentz, who was recommended for the program by his neighbor. White introduces herself and explains how often the van delivers food.

His neighbor Debbie Quinn is one of the regulars on the delivery route. She has health issues that can make it difficult for her to get groceries.

“Sometimes I can't get out to go to the store and they come just in time,” Quinn says.

"Sometimes I can't get out to go to the store and they come just in time"
Debbie Quinn

This is just one of the 50 food deliveries White will make today. She heads back to the other side of Third Street to visit Arthur Corbin's house.

Corbin is a senior who is battling cancer. The grocery delivery helps his whole family.

“This right here helped me out a lot, I’m not working and jive,” He says. “By me getting this free food and jive, It helped my family and my mother and my sister and me, and it helps out a lot and I sure appreciate that and I hope it continues.”

The heart of it all is the kitchen, where the chefs are hard at work.
Mother Brown's
Azul Dahlstrom-Eckman
Tashara White delivers groceries to Arthur Corbin

Right now, the Free Groceries Program is only for seniors, but when it first started last August, It served the entire Bayview community. To understand how it all began, you've got to talk to the woman in charge – Gwendolyn Westbrook. She grew up in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood during its heyday in the 1960s, but fondly remembers visiting her grandmother in the Bayview on weekends.

“The people are so friendly and nice. You get along with people,” she says. “This is a loving neighborhood. We love each other out here, you know, and Mother Brown's really stands for that.”

The heart of it all is the kitchen, where the chefs are hard at work.

“We have high quality cooks that really put their heart and soul into it,” says Westbrook. She brings out a to-go tray full of hot, steaming food. It’s tonight’s dinner – Salisbury steak, mashed potatoes, salad, and a roll.

Westbrook worked alongside the original Mother Brown, Barbara J. Brown, for a year before Brown’s death in 2005. Since then, Westbrook has turned Mother Brown’s into a place that serves more than just food.

There were so many people we were feeding. I think 1,400 people a day, all day, every day”
Gwendolyn Westbrook

It's like a house for people that don't have one. In addition to getting a hot meal, there's a resource room, showers, washing machines, a TV room, even something called a serenity room – a quiet space where people can read or study for classes. Because of zoning issues, Mother Brown's isn't allowed to have beds, but people can spend the night in chairs.

“The clients are also our family. So it's not just about the staff being family, we're all family,” says Naketa Woodson, the Interim Managing Director of Mother Brown’s

Azul Dahlstrom-Eckman
The encampment outside of Mother Brown’s houses people in tents.

On a normal day, they serve around 800 people breakfast, lunch, and dinner. But when the pandemic hit last March, those numbers went up significantly.

“There were so many people we were feeding. I think, like 1,400 people a day, all day, every day,” recalls Westbrook.

Westbrook saw how people in her community, especially seniors and those with disabilities, were going hungry. So she came up with a plan – bring the dining room to them.

Last July, Mother Brown’s received a $1.6 million grant from a local family foundation called Crankstart to pay for it all. But they had only 5 months to use it, so Westbrook moved fast.

“I hired a shopper to go to places where they could get food at a discount rate,” Westbrook says. “So each family got five bags of groceries with all these different items in there."

The grocery vans drove through Bayview, street by street, giving out food to anyone who asked. But they needed a way to announce the vans had arrived.

Curtis Family - Mother Brown's Theme Song

“I grew up with this guy, he has five kids and they sing. They’re called the Curtis Family C-Notes. So he wrote a jingle for us.” said Westbrook.

When the delivery vans went out, they would play the Mother Brown’s anthem.

"The seniors in wheelchairs coming out saying, ‘I didn't know what I was going to do tonight for dinner'"
Gwendolyn Westbrook

It’s a return to Mother Brown’s roots, when Barbara J. Brown would cook meals with other women, drive to local neighborhoods, and serve anyone in need off of the trunk of her Cadillac.

During the pandemic, Westbrook turned that concept into something bigger. At the peak of deliveries last September, Mother Brown’s gave out nearly 3,000 bags of groceries a week.

Westbrook remembers seeing firsthand the need in her community. “The seniors in wheelchairs coming out saying, ‘I didn't know what I was going to do tonight for dinner,’ and watching them roll off back to their units with bags full of groceries really meant a lot to me,” recalls Westbrook.

"Why do we have to do this in San Francisco, with all the money in this city?"
Gwendolyn Westbrook

When the Crankstart funds ran out, the food delivery program had to cut back operations, and they now only serve 52 seniors a month. It’s a big frustration for Westbrook.

“Why do we have to do this in San Francisco, with all the money in this city? Why do we have to wait for somebody to give us some money to feed our community?” asks Westbrook.

Mother Brown's
Azul Dahlstrom-Eckman
Reverend Bob Wade has a place of worship in his home.

Since local government funding only covers daily operations, not food delivery, Westbrook has to hunt for grants or spend her own money to keep it going. Luckily, Crankstart just awarded Mother Brown’s another $1.5 million. This means the expanded Free Groceries Program is coming back to Bayview, along with the music.

Westbrook is gearing up for Mother Brown’s to distribute 1,000 bags a week, full of meat, seafood, and essential supplies.

Back on the delivery route, White heads to Reverend Bob Wade’s house. He’s a local senior who has a small church at his house. He uses the food Mother Brown’s gives him to feed himself and others.

After he receives his groceries, the reverend says a prayer:

“Thank you for this food we have received lord God, to bless the stomachs of people, and I pray lord God you continue to bless Mother Brown’s organization and every organization that is out here trying to help people.”

Support for this series comes from Renaissance Journalism's Equity and Health Reporting Initiative, with funding from The California Endowment. Thanks also to the Association for Continuing Education (ACE).