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San Francisco soup kitchens strive for healthy lunches

Soup kitchens in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District feed thousands of homeless and low-income people every day. These free meal sites serve as a vital source of food -- for some, it’s their only meal of the day.

But a recent study suggests that meal might not be very satisfying. A group of doctors and researchers from San Francisco General Hospital looked at six free meal sites across the city, where lunch staples include turkey tetrazzini, fried chicken and hamburgers. They found that a lot of what’s offered lacks basic nutrients like vitamin A, vitamin E, and calcium. Soup kitchens know this is a problem, and some are trying to address it.

Where to get a free lunch

At the corner of Taylor and Ellis Streets in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District, the line for GLIDE Memorial Church is a block long. GLIDE is home to one of the city’s oldest and best-known soup kitchens, feeding more than two thousand people a day. Today the church is expecting close to 600 people in what they call their dining room, just for lunch.

One of those people is Hannah Mariah. She’s an energetic 65-year-old, wearing a blue jumpsuit and a fuzzy purple hat. She’s been coming to Glide’s dining room for over ten years. I find her sitting at one of the dozen or so round tables, with her Chihuahua terrier.

Mariah lives nearby in the West Hotel. She eats at GLIDE often, as well as at other free meal sites around the neighborhood -- she likes to check a few menus each day. She says the food GLIDE serves is good, but she thinks they could do better.

“I have a limited source of food and I need to eat the best food possible,” says Mariah. “I don't need empty carbohydrates. I don't need fried food. They have a lot of fried food. They need to change the noodles to whole wheat, spinach, vegetable noodles. Grill the patties, instead of deep frying. Grill the fish.”

On her lunch tray, she has a chicken-patty sandwich, stewed carrots, macaroni and cheese, a ripe, red plum and a small cup of organic, strawberry ice-cream.

“Instead of just one vegetable I would like to see two vegetables, less starch,” she says. “The fruit, which they always give, is really good. And I understand they're working with what they have but the meat is not my favorite here. Chicken, chicken, chicken, chicken. I'm going, cluck, cluck, cluck.”

Dr. Hilary Seligman, one of the researchers who conducted the recent soup kitchen study, says free meal sites wrestle with many of the same issues as other American restaurants. “Too little fiber in the [meals], that means fresh fruits and vegetables,” she says. “Same with the typical American diet. The have too much fat in them. Same in the typical American diet.”

Dr. Seligman says unhealthy foods cause problems no matter where you’re eating. They’re linked to major health consequences like diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease. But, low-income and homeless people are at more risk, just because of their environment.

“What’s tofu?”

Serving healthy food is one of the top priorities for Bruce McKinney, the program manager of GLIDE’s free meals program. McKinney says GLIDE is always working towards serving healthy foods. They partner with the San Francisco Food Bank to offer fresh produce every day. They even hire an independent nutritionist to come in twice a year and analyze the menu. But sometimes they have to make choices. Healthier food costs more.

“The food bank started offering us brown rice at 41 cents something like that,” says McKinney. “So not the 19 cents that we were paying for white rice.”

Just three blocks away from GLIDE is the St. Anthony Foundation, another organization that serves free meals. St. Anthony’s dining room serves about 2,500 lunches a day. Program Manager Charles Sommer says food is used up in its store room in a matter of days.

“Nothing that you can see will be here longer than at the most seven days, at most,” says Sommer. “We have these 100 lb bags of rice. One meal for us is about 300 pounds of rice. So that's maybe at least a week's worth of rice there.”

Sommer says cost is one barrier to serving healthy food. Another is more basic: what people are willing to eat.

“I remember years ago when I started, we had eggplant on the menu and I got a comment from a guest that said, ‘I'm not gonna eat an egg that comes off a plant’,” says Sommer. “He literally believed that it was some sort of bizarre egg that grows on a plant.”

“You got your salad, your fruit, your bread, entree,” says William Bailey, a frequent visitor to St. Anthony’s dining room. “So yeah it's balanced. I'd just like to see fried chicken. Once in awhile it wouldn't hurt to have a good old fried chicken right?”

Bailey’s been coming here for 12 years. He admits he eats for taste, not health.

“Tofu is - what is tofu?,” says Bailey. “I don't even know what it is. Nothing substitutes meat.”

Healthier food = higher costs

The demand for meat is a big one. It’s where most of the food budget goes at both St. Anthony’s and GLIDE. Although both cut deals with distributors in the city, they say meat is still very expensive. And spending more money on one type of food leaves less for another.

“It's an ongoing constant struggle,” says GLIDE’s Bruce McKinney. “Constantly looking at the number, just going, oh my god, we just don't have enough money .”

With more money, he says he would add more variety to the meals and completely avoid things like hot dogs.

Making change

St. Anthony’s Charles Sommer says that in the past few years, the dining room has started serving more whole foods, stopped using margarine, and made other changes like purposefully undersalting the meals. But, they still leave salt and pepper on the tables.

“I often see folks just dumping salt and sometimes that's hard to watch and from a nutritional standpoint you wanna say stop, but then I think about going out to a restaurant here in the city and you see the exact same thing,” says Sommer. “Folks are making choices every day, whether they're aware of it or not.”

You can see choices being made at the tables. At St. Anthony’s, people trade fruit for an extra pat of butter. And at GLIDE, many of the trays that go back to the dishwasher have uneaten carrots, salad or fruit.

McKinney has grown to see the kitchen staff, volunteers and dining room visitors as his family. He knows many of the people who eat at GLIDE by name, and he says he feels a responsibility to them.

“This is their home,” says McKinney. “I believe that big time. I go home. And I have my days off. I get away. There's that stark reality. That while I was home not thinking about work, the Tenderloin was continuing and the pain was continuing and the hustle was continuing and the worrying about where you're gonna eat was continuing and making sure you can get up to GLIDE so you can either get shelter reservation or simply get a meal, that that never ended.”

And while opinions on the food are always changing, people can always expect to find a hot meal in the Tenderloin at lunchtime.